EXPOSED! SPOTLIGHT ON SUNLIGHT
Over the course of the last two months, the Wolfsonian has hosted two scholars focused on similar themes: sunlight, and its relationship to modernist architecture and notions of healthy living.
The first fellow, Monica Obniski, an assistant curator of American decorative arts at the Art Institute of Chicago, was here in the sunshine state last month investigating the intersection between twentieth-century notions about healthy bodies, sunbathing, and indoor/outdoor designed spaces.
Sarah Louise Schrank, an associate professor of history at California State University, Long Beach, is here conducting research on nudist suburban home design from the 1920s through the 1960s. Having previously visited our research library to explore the Robert J. Young physical culture collection, she has returned as a resident fellow to mine the collection for materials dealing with such themes as the cult of the body, alternative health practices, and modern urban living in 20th century America.
Of course, in Victorian times, attitudes and prudish dress codes discouraged exposing one’s body to the harmful rays of the sun. An advertising card included in our Kate Greenaway collection, for example, reminded viewers that sun exposure could actually be harmful to one’s skin—not such a silly concept considering what we know today about overexposure and the risks of skin cancer—even as it encouraged women to wear strangulating wasp-waist corsets and other unhealthful attire.
Other postcards and mechanical works from this era in our Ripstein Collection reflected Victorian notions that modest attire was even essential for bathers.
Attitudes towards sun exposure changed considerably over time, as is evident from the very different “bathing” attire depicted in advertisements promoting Florida as an ideal health destination in the late 1920s and thirties.
The library holds a fine and substantial collection of commercial propaganda selling Northerners on the year-round outdoor benefits of visiting (or living in) South Florida’s idyllic climate.
Not only did bathing suits shrink in the 1930s; in some areas of the country people did away with them altogether. The naturalist or nudist movement born in Germany as a reaction against Victorian prudery spread across Europe and achieved some level of popularity in the United States in the 1930s. The Florida-based American Association for Nude Recreation, originally founded in 1931 as the American Sunbathing Association remains the largest North American nudist advocacy group in the U.S. today. Its popularity in the 1930s is reflected in a rare Miami Beach publication of poetry in our collection entitled Mangroves which features black and white photographic images of nude figures set in the natural environment in deliberately non-erotic poses. Having lived in South Florida some twenty some odd years, the naturalist illustrations had me wondering what (if any) type of insect repellent the models had been wearing!
Sexually suggestive themes and titillating scenes were a regular part of pre-code Hollywood filmmaking in the late 1920s, and continued even after the passage of the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays censorship code) in 1930. In the heyday of the naturalist movement in the United States, there were a few forays into film production by proponents of nudism or naturalism and the library holds copies (in VHS format) of This Nude World (1932), the 1933 film Elysia (Valley of the Nudes), Unashamed (1937). Outright nudity, even in a non-erotic context, however, remained taboo in mainstream films. In 1934 Hollywood released the popular Tarzan and His Mate starring scantily clad Johnny Weissmuller (sometimes spotted swimming in the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, Florida) and Maureen O’Sullivan in the title roles.
The mainstream film daringly included a scene in which two jungle lovers indulged in a skinny dip—although the filmmakers opted to substitute the more graceful Olympic swimmer Josephine Eveline McKim as a body double in the underwater scenes for the buxom O’Sullivan. Vociferous complaints from the Catholic Church, other religious groups, and angry mothers provoked a maelstrom of controversy that forced the producers to censor and remove the scene, and after July 1, 1934 the Hays Code was more rigorously enforced.
Thanks largely to a generous donation by physical culture and sunbathing enthusiast Robert J. Young, The Wolfsonian-FIU library holds a large collection of materials relating to the beneficial effects of the sun. Highlights from his gift include excellent runs of Physical Culture, Sunshine and Health (The Nudist), and other popular magazines of the period.
The gift also included many other publications by physical culture guru and publishing magnate, Bernarr Macfadden. For more on Robert J. Young and his contribution to the Wolfsonian library, see my blog post dated 10/7/2009.