Blog post

Vitalism: art celebrating sport, bodies & nature

Health, youth and strength in Scandinavian and German art

by
Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Vitalism was a trend in Scandinavian and German art around the turn of the 20th century which focused on health, beauty and sporting activity. Artists portrayed mostly young people (mostly young men) exercising often outdoors, often naked.

The trend came about as a reaction to a variety of societal developments and cultural movements at the end of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The industrial revolution across Europe through the 19th century had brought many changes for people living in cities, but it cannot be said that the growing industrialisation was good for people's health.

Cities became more crowded and polluted, while people working in factories and other industrial facilities worked extremely long hours in cramped and dirty environments with little regard for health and safety.

These changes in society led to movements focusing on health, physical activity and the emergence of what we now think of as modern sport. Many sports we play today were invented or formalised in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Modern football emerged in the United Kingdom around the 1850s, with teams often based around schools, factories or other workplaces. The ancient Greek Olympic Games were revived at the end of the 19th century - the International Olympic Committee was founded in 1894, with the first Games being held in 1896, having built on various competitions that had taken place over the previous decades.

In the 1860s, the Sokol movement was founded in Prague - an organisation promoting gymnastics and exercise, based on the principle of 'a strong mind in a sound body'. It spread across many Slavic regions through the late 19th and early 20th century.

Sport and exercise were not just good for your body: it fed the mind and morality too. Sport was morally uplifting, producing good, strong, healthy Christian men - better to take part in sport than other less-moral activities.

At the same time, archaeologists were making more and more discoveries of ruins and artefacts in the sites of Ancient Greece. Following the archaeologists, artists and art historians travelled to Ancient Greek, fascinated by its ideals and seeing it as an idyllic pre-ndustrial time of health and vitality.

All these contexts led to vitalism: art dedicated to health, sport, youth and strength.

Vitalist art often used light colour palettes, with mostly male figures (often nude) are powerful symbols exercising in natural landscapes - on beaches, by the sea, the sun. Nature is shown as a revitalising force, reviving spirits and renewing healthy bodies.

Paintings and sculptures depict young men as athletes, swimming and riding horses.

The poster for the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm featured nude youths waving flags of the participating nations is another example of such vitalist art from this period.

These artworks, with detailed, colourful and idealistic depictions of male bodies, have strong homoerotic undertones. Swedish artist Eugène Jansson - whose paintings often feature vitalist motifs - was gay, and often painted his lovers in his artworks. His - and the art movement in general - focus on naked male bodies can be seen as a defiance of societal norms at the turn of the 20th century.

These artistic and societal obsessions with strong, healthy bodies created ideals to which many people could not live up to. Such ways of thinking combined with racist ideologies about the kinds of bodies that were acceptable, particularly in the 1930s as the ideals of vitalism were seized upon by fascist movements across Europe.

Thanks to Pierre Mesure for comments on the first draft of this blog.

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