Thursday, September 05, 2013

a naked paradox

Book review:

Die Nackten und die Tobenden

Ernst Horst

Blessing Verlag 2013

This summer was perfect for being out and about with nothing but a sun hat, and the perfect book to enjoy with that would be one about the weird and wonderful cultural history of nudism in (western) Germany, from its beginnings until ca. 1970.

At the heart of this book is an appreciation of the many nudism magazines which blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s, partly thanks to buyers who weren’t necessarily nudists - although both the magazines and the nudists’ associations sometimes connected to them would strenuously deny any kind of erotic subtext to their publications filled with pictures of beautiful naked people (the cover of the book shows a typical cover photo from one of those magazines). This commercially successful double life ended when the unstoppable rise of openly erotic magazines like Playboy (which launched a German edition in the early 70s) deprived them of a large part of their audience.

This paradox is to me the most intriguing aspect of organised and card-carrying nudism to this day, but it was even more pronounced in the prohibitive climate of the 1950s. Nudists were fighting for the right to be different, to indulge in the minority interest of running around in their “Lichtkleid” (i.e. only dressed in light), confronting a catholic/conservative society that saw nothing but sin in nudity. At the same time, however, they were just as keen to be seen as normal people who had no links to anything unspeakable like sex, promiscuity, or homosexuality. Rather than fighting for a more open-minded society, they chose to campaign only for their lifestyle to be accepted as normal, while everybody else who fell outside the norms could go to hell. Ironically, there was no such battle in the GDR, as nudism was one of the liberties tolerated by the regime.

Ernst Horst previously published a book about Erika Fuchs, the highly influential translator of Disney comics, which I still have to read. Here he adopts the pose of an amateur anthropologist somewhat restricted by the scope of what magazines he can find on flea markets and what information he can search on the web. I wouldn’t mind that so much, except that he talks a little bit too much about writing the book, instead of actually covering the subject matter. Apart from that gripe, however, this is a cultural history well worth reading, regardless of whether you’re sporting tan lines or not.

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