Círculo de Bellas Artes, Madrid
12 Dec 2006 -- 7 Jan 2007
It’s no secret that the Germans were heavily into body building, seeking to attain extremes of sculptural perfection exulted in Triumph of the Will, Leni Reifenstahl’s Olympic paean to Aryan values. The homoerotic undercurrents are hard to miss in period photos of blonde beasts with big biceps and wasp waists. How typically, how inevitably German, you think, but now it turns out they were up to pretty much the same thing in
We do, now, thanks to several thousand photographs filed away and forgotten in the Cinema and Photographic Archives of St Petersburg. They date back to the 1880s, when local photographer Karl Bulla was commissioned to create beefcake albums by and for the phiscultura societies that flourished in
’s second city. His customers
tended to be upper-class males showing off anatomic bulges, but auxiliary
organizations “for the physical and spiritual development of daughters of the
aristocracy” also sprung up as part of a craze that swept through late-Tsarist high
Later on, we see factory workers heaving medicine balls around during their lunch break, the better to transform themselves into the “new” model Soviet man, in photos taken by Karl’s son, Viktor -- but that was before he was shipped off to the Gulag in 1938. Afterwards, the physical culture movement was subsumed by paramilitary pantomime (Busby Berkeley with bayonets, cartwheels in gas masks). Throughout the Cold War era, grass-roots support for body building and fitness remained a state priority since it contributed to Soviet sweeps of Olympic gold and “it was considered a social disgrace for healthy people not to engage in sport.”
When photographer Valery Katsuba came across this trove, it was a revelation. He set out to see if he could establish a time-bending dialogue between these pictures and his own. With our radically different notions of what constitutes an ideal physique, can the iconographic conventions of two bygone ages be valid in the 21st century? The short answer is: bet on it.
That’s because Katsuba is a fabulously gifted photographer and his pictures – which are absolutely devoid of irony or false empathy--- simply blow away the 20-odd smaller archival finds on display. Only a few of his subjects are body builders, and they are posed subversively as a mounds of muscle mass, no features visible, against a backdrop of porcelain, crystal chandeliers and wall frescos in a princely Rococo palace. The rest are athletes, dancers, circus acrobats who establish continuity with the sepia-toned strongmen through the way their bodies are made “to reveal what is secret and beautiful in their nature” says Katsuba, who is incredibly successful at capturing exactly those qualities in his images.
You read it here first: this guy is a natural, a prodigy, the farm boy who strides shoelessly up to the plate and bats them into the bleachers. Hard to believe he never picked up a SLR camera before the year 2000, but there you are.