Making Czech Bodies International, At Least in 1932 ...

Jindrich Toman, University of Michigan

In 1926, Karel Capek published an essay in LidovÈ noviny on contemporary preoccupation with the body, particularly in the context of sport and hygiene, stressing that what his era was witnessing was no less than "one of the biggest cultural transformations ever--the liberation and purification of the body." He had no doubts that this was something genuine and in no sense artificial. While comments such as these indicate that there was a significant interest in body culture in Czech interwar modernism, not much has been done so far to map and interpret this area.

The present talk fills this lacuna in part by analyzing a selection of materials from between 1924 and 1932, showing that the basic tone of this one of the "biggest cultural transformations ever" was that of de-nationalization and a reluctance to provide the body with a national inflection. Two interrelated types of sources support this generalization--the attitude toward the male body in the so-called lifestyle magazines and the character of the Sokol gymnastic festival of 1932 and its representation in the media.

Czech lifestyle magazines of the interwar period, such as The Gentleman (1924-1930), are rich in statements amounting to an unreserved assertion of modernity. The body is not excluded. It is seen as a malleable entity subject to improvement and change, mainly through sport and gymnastics. This attitude is embedded into a broader frame based not only on efficiency and hygiene, but also esthetic considerations. Explicit national themes are absent. This trend towards a denationalized body is also visible in Sokol gymnastic movement. This may surprise because Sokol, the largest organized group of the interwar state, was a model child of nineteenth-century nationalism, and its pre-1914 festivals displayed the body in a national context. The 1932 Sokol festival in Prague, a major public event, indicates a shift, however--national symbolism recedes. This generalization is supported by another of Capek's essays from LidovÈ noviny. Writing on this 1932 event, he highlights "precision," "discipline," and "will," without subordinating them to any specific national ideology. Esthetic qualities, and the fact that they could be captured by film and photography, mattered more. Similarities to Kracauer's Ornament der Masse are striking.

Although a relatively short period between mid-1920s and 1932 is treated, our materials are of general interest. Among other things, we see an episode of vigorous assertion of modernism by way of modernization and internationalization. We can understand this as an indication that international modernism simply began to rank higher than nationalism once national independence had been obtained. However, this episode did not last long. In a clear anticipation of the approaching conflict with Nazi Germany, the 1938 Sokol festival essentially returned to the old tracks by presenting the body as an object ready to defend the nation.