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Eugen Sandow (1867-1925)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 37-41 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0029

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In A Modern Utopia (1905), H.G. Wells presents his readers with a facetious cross-section of Utopia's illustrious men: "Somewhere in this world is, for example, Mr. Chamberlain, and the King is here (no doubt incognito), and all the Royal Academy, Sandow, and Mr. Arnold White" (17). Although largely forgotten today, in 1905, Eugen Sandow, the first modern bodybuilder, had so thoroughly shaped the discourse on gentlemanly physique that he warranted inclusion in such a utopian list.

Born Friedrich Müller in Konigsburg, Prussia, in 1867, Sandow immigrated to Britain in 1889. In November of that year, he secured the title of strongest man on earth by defeating French strongman Charles Samson. The competition took place at the Royal Aquarium with the Marquis of Queensberry and Lord de Clifford presiding as judges. On 2 November, as on previous nights, Samson invited challengers from the audience to match his feats. Sandow's manager, Louis Durlacher, announced that Sandow could meet Samson's challenge. Accounts of the match attend as much to Sandow's appearance of gentility as they do to the weightlifting that ensued. The Graphic depicted him onstage in evening wear with the caption "he doesn't look it" ("Battle of the Giants"), suggesting that Sandow hardly presented the sartorial or physical vocabulary of a strongman. One newspaper noted that in "ordinary attire [Sandow] looks like an ordinary person—short, quiet, good tempered" ("Heroes of the Hour"). "Indeed so marked was the disparity between the pair [on stage]," remarked another newspaper, "that the audience obviously regarded the matter as a joke. When, however, [Sandow] had taken of [sic] his coat and waistcoat, and was seen to be attired in a pink jersey which left his arms and neck bare, it was apparent [that Sandow was] an athlete of immense strength, the development of the muscles of the arm being extraordinary" ("Samson's Challenge"). Samson bent an iron rod over his forearm, and Sandow did the same. Samson wrapped a chain around his torso and snapped it by expanding his chest, and Sandow did the same. Sandow lifted a man at arm's length, and Samson did the same. Finally, Sandow lifted 150 pounds straight over his head, but Samson failed to replicate the feat. The judges decided in Sandow's favour. Sandow had distinguished himself as a strongman, a strongman who looked like the apocryphal common man.

Despite losing the title after eighteen months, Sandow retained his popularity and fame, while others who held the title, like Louis McCann and Samson, were forgotten almost immediately. Famous enough to be named the Professor of Scientific and Physical Culture to King George V, Sandow advertised his exercise methods and muscled physique across multiple media. In London, he was cast (literally) as the representative "European man" in an exhibit at the Natural History Museum. His was one of the first moving bodies captured on Thomas Edison's kinetoscopic film. Through the 1890s, Sandow ran seven schools of physical culture, gave performances and lectures, wrote five treatises on strength and mental and physical health, and edited a bodybuilding magazine. Sandow was, in short, at the centre of late nineteenth-century discourse about the male body.


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Eugen Sandow by Napoleon Sarony (G. Mercer Adam and Eugen Sandow, Sandow on Physical Training: A Study in the Perfect Type of the Human Form New York: J. Selwin Tait, 1894, facing 218).

Sandow's success was not simply the result of great impetus on his part; his bodybuilding rhetoric allowed white, middle-class males to ground their sense of physical superiority through both art and science. Sandow blurred the distinction between culture and nature by exhorting middle-class men to artificially build "natural" muscle in gymnasia in an attempt to emulate ancient Greek statuary. Sandow's performance of muscled masculinity soothed fin-de-siècle concerns about gender variance by wresting the meaning of men's corporeal beauty from the aesthetes.

Sandow's magazine, Physical Culture (1898-1907), provided a convenient organ for deriding aesthetic men's gender expression. For example, in one editorial, Sandow heralded a physical revolution for British men:

From the gospel of the aesthetic soul, which gave us...



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