Modernity and the Body: Sascha Schneider’s Bodybuilders
On the 21st of September 1870, German painter and sculptor Sascha Schneider was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia. During his childhood his family lived in Zürich, Switzerland, but following the death of his father, Schneider moved to Dresden, Germany, where in 1889 he became a student at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. In 1903 he met best-selling author Karl May, and subsequently became the cover illustrator of a number of May’s books including Winnetou, Old Surehand, and Am Rio de la Plata. A year later Schneider was appointed professor at the Großherzoglich-Sächsische Kunstschule Weimar. During this period Schneider lived with painter Hellmuth Jahn. Jahn began blackmailing Schneider by threatening to expose his homosexuality, which was punishable under section 175 of the penal code. Schneider fled to Italy, where homosexuality was not criminalized at that time. In Italy, Schneider met painter Robert Spies, with whom he travelled through the Caucasus Mountains. He then went back to Germany, where he lived for six months in Leipzig before returning to Italy, where he resided in Florence. When World War I started, Schneider returned to Germany again, taking up residence in Hellerau (near Leipzig). After 1918, he co-founded an institute called Kraft-Kunst for body building. Some of the models for his art works trained here.
The foundation of the institute corresponded with the emergence of a new trend in Germany at the time. Strong echoes of Nietzschean philosophy and the spirit of the new century inspired a fresh approach towards the human body and a new interpretation of bodily beauty. New athletic rituals as well as body-cultural aesthetics advocated largely by the press, and consequently by numerous visual artists, were on one hand a means of dealing with the past – especially with the fin-de-siècle ‘nervousness’ – and on the other hand an expression of hope for the new century. In a 1907 article Der Wille zum Leben [The Will of Life], the cultural reformer Heinrich Pudor stated: “The most important precepts of our vitalist philosophy must be these: do everything that strengthens your will to life and avoid everything susceptible of weakening it. Read Emerson and Carlyle; avoid all pessimists; surround yourself with flowers and children; don’t look down at the pavement, but rather up to the stars; love the spring and enjoy the fresh morning dew; bathe yourself in springs, not in streams and lakes that have grown old; don’t dig around too much in the moldy past, but rather look toward the future.”
“Uniting bodily training and Kunsterziehung [Art Education], Schneider conceived of his institute’s methods less as training in athletics per se than as training in the new culture of performative beauty. To that end he sought, among other things, to harness the power of suggestion, as he explained in a brochure from 1920 (echoing the Schillerian motto of Der Kulturmensch): “We attach particular importance to an autosuggestive system, which corresponds largely to the notion of the ‘spirit that builds its own body.'” Schneider had long been interested in the power of suggestion, as his early painting entitled Hypnose suggests; there, the muscular figure of the hypnotist suggests an understanding of hypnosis as a power analogous to physical force. Although Schneider’s painting was reprinted in Die Schönheit in 1909, it had first appeared in 1902 as an illustration for Reinhold Gerling’s Hypnotische Unterrichtsbrieft (Letters on Hypnosis), in which the author, whose Gymnastik des Willens remained the most popular manual on autosuggestive spiritual exercises in Germany after 1900, explained his inclusion of Scheidner’s work as follows: “The painting by Sascha Schneider illustrates the power of hypnosis in a captivating artistic form.”” Schneider’s institute, then, sought to harness the power of hypnosis in the service of body culture through a combined program of physical gymnastics and gymnastics of the will.” (Michael J. Cowan, Cult of the Will: Nervousness and German Modernity)
Schneider’s artistic output takes a prominent position in the context of nudist culture of the turn of the last century. His principal motif is the male body. He explores this body as a theme in a wealth of variations, and it becomes the viewer’s object of desire. Schneider takes up motifs from classical antiquity, works with the ideal image of man and strives for the pure representation of human form. … Schneider’s body of work is seen as a document of an early “gay” art concept and is thus of particular historical interest. The artist himself is today considered one of the first obviously and self-confidently “gay” artists.