- “Must we dance naked?”: Art, Beauty, and Law in Munich and Paris, 1911–1913
In mid-November 1911 a young French performer named Adorée Villany gave a series of dance performances in Munich’s Comic Theater, one of a number of small and financially struggling alternative theaters in that city. She appeared for the most part in quite scanty costume and at times completely naked. Audience response was enthusiastic. The theater was packed, she was rewarded with what one reviewer called “an outright storm of applause,” and she received numerous letters from admirers in the days and weeks following her appearances. The press was equally positive. Reviews in local and national newspapers were flattering, praising the grace and purity of her movement, her expressive power and acting ability, and the creativity of her costuming. There was nothing particularly new in her performance or its reception: Villany had given similar shows, to similar response, in various cities in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and France since 1905.1
What was new in 1911 was that at the end of the intermission in her third performance on 18 November, the theater’s secretary came onstage to announce that the police had appeared in Villany’s dressing room to arrest her on charges of public indecency and had hauled her off to police headquarters—naked, apparently, except for a cloak she had been allowed to throw over herself. They also arrested the theater director and Villany’s manager. All three were charged under Paragraph 183 of the German Criminal Code, which imposed a penalty of up to two years in prison for “the creation of a [End Page 95] public nuisance through indecent behavior.”2 They were also charged under Paragraph 33a of the Industrial Code for offering, without police approval, a public performance that had no redeeming aesthetic value. The repeal of the director’s license to operate a theater was also put in motion.
Over the next two or three months the Munich art world and the local and regional press were roiled by bitter controversy over the case, which ended with Villany’s acquittal and expulsion from Bavaria. The debate became a minor defining moment in the “cultural war” between conservatives and progressives that characterized this period, an opportunity for each side to articulate its vision of the relationship between art and politics. In this article I want to use this case to explore some of the dynamics of that “cultural war.” Fundamentally, I want to ask two sets of questions. First, why did Villany’s performance “work” for audiences, that is, why did they respond so positively? Or, to put it another way, what “work” did Villany’s performance do for her audiences? As a corollary, why did Munich’s arts community react so vehemently to her arrest? Second, why was Villany arrested, and why did many cultural conservatives, particularly in Munich, support her arrest and subsequent expulsion? What was the particular threat that Villany posed? By putting both Villany’s aesthetic and the responses to it into a broader context, I want to illuminate two different understandings of the relationship between truth, beauty, and liberty—understandings that were central to German political life at the end of the imperial period.
One year after leaving Bavaria, Villany was tried on an indecency charge again, this time in Paris, where she was convicted. The Munich arrest appears to have been treated by the European press essentially as a tempest in a rather provincial teapot, receiving comment outside Germany in only a few newspapers in major centers like Paris and London. The Paris case, in contrast, was reported in the press from London to Naples and from Madrid to Budapest. The response among journalistic, artistic, and intellectual circles in Paris was, however, quite different from that in Munich. In Munich Villany’s arrest was understood to be seriously political business; in Paris it was mere farce, a kind of human interest story. Here again, we can pose a straightforward question: why was the Villany affair in Paris not worthy of a minor media firestorm? Examining these differences more closely at the end of this...