Friday, 13 September 2013

The Body of a God - Part 2

My second look at the way the muscular male body has been used as an icon for the perfect body image and homoerotic fantasy starts in the Renaissance.

During the early centuries of Christianity naked images that were common place in Ancient Greece and Rome came to be seen as “corrupting”. Nudity took people’s minds off spiritual thoughts and on to carnal ones. The idea of a perfect healthy body was secondary to having a healthy mind. Medieval Christian art deliberately avoided full nudity, nudity being seen as indicative of “heathen savages” outside Christian Europe.

The beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century saw the rediscovery of Greek art and culture, and the male nude became fashionable again. Taking their cue from Greek statues artists began to produce works in the ancient style. The most famous of these is Michelangelo’s “David”. And this obsession with the body also saw the beginnings of modern science. It is often stated that modern scientific methods were pioneered by people like Sir Francis Bacon or Sir Isaac Newton. But in the century before them pioneers such as Leonardo da Vinci were studying closely the workings of the human body in the name of art (against Christian doctrine at the time) long before doctors were allowed to do it in the name of science.

The Renaissance continued the Greek idea that the more muscular the body the more heroic or god-like the man. Figures such as Zeus or Hercules were always depicted as bigger and more butch than anyone else. Gradually the Church began to accept male nudity in art, mainly because the men depicted were non-Christian (e.g. Jewish, from the Old Testament, such as David or Sampson) or mythical figures. And that’s why, in recent decades, being big and muscular was seen as indicating you were a “real man”.

The Baroque period saw an explosion of male nudes in art, by now all writhing and posing in sensual postures. Artists such as Caravaggio were also encouraged by wealthy patrons, many of whom were semi-closeted gays or bisexuals, to produce such art.

As for musclemen in real life, there was little to see until the 18th century. People only saw such bodies when the travelling fairs came to town with their strongmen. But these men were popular because of their feats of strength rather than the size of their muscles, and more often than not they were just beefy and stocky rather than muscular.

In the 19th century there developed a new culture of fitness which resulted in many gyms being established. In these gyms young men developed well-toned and supple bodies which performed as gymnasts and acrobats, but it was not quite bodybuilding.

Out of the fairground circuit and acrobat’s gym came a man who revolutionised muscle development and became the Father of Bodybuilding, a German-born strongman, Eugen Sandow (1867-1925). Sandow moved away from lifting weights to improve his strength and towards weight training to improve muscle mass and definition. In this he was well-known in his early days, and even appeared naked (in silhouette behind a screen) at private “showings”.

The perfect “body of a god” was once again seen as an ideal achievement. Sandow emerged onto the muscleman scene just as weightlifting was being recognised as a sport (it was a sport in the first modern Olympics in 1896 – Team GB’s first Olympic champion was a weightlifter).

“The Great Sandow”, as he was billed, wowed audiences in America in 1893. Building on his popularity and the craze for bodybuilding (the word entered the language at about the same time) Sandow began publishing a magazine and advertised the first bodybuilding contest to be held in the Royal Albert Hall in London on 14th September 1901 (the anniversary is tomorrow). The judges included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the winner was William L. Murray – winner of the Nottinghamshire county heat! From that point bodybuilding became a competitive sport.

David L. Chapman, a bodybuilding historian, wrote a biography of Sandow in 1984. In it he pointed out that, even though he was married and a father, Sandow had a strong personal and working relationship with a young protégé called Martinus Sieveking. Chapman wondered if the relationship was more than platonic. Sandow was an inveterate womaniser, playing on women’s attraction to his physique. Yet he left his wife and went to live with Martinus. Chapman suggests Sandow was bisexual at the very least. Chapman’s authority and respect within the bodybuilding world is enough to persuade me.

Sandow’s influence is still seen today. His “qualities to look for” – muscle development, balance, symmetry, condition and tone – are still the main objectives. Many competitions have been created since his time, the most prestigious being Mr. Olympia (named after a brand of beer, incidentally, not the site of the ancient Olympics). William L. Murray was presented with a statuette of Sandow as his prize in 1901, and a copy of that statuette has been awarded to Mr. Olympia winners since 1977.

And that’s the story up to the birth of bodybuilding. It looks like I need to carry the story into another article. This works well, actually, because I can bring the story up to date on 26th September, when this year’s Mr. Olympia finals takes place.

No comments:

Post a Comment