Dictated Sequences and the Pursuit of Efficiency in the Physical Culture Movement 1896-1939: A Filmic Scrutiny

This practice-based Ph.D. thesis examines the visual strategies of the Physical Culture Movement in Europe and the USA from 1896 to 1939 as expressed in instructional manuals, magazines, informational films and newsreels, many of which have not been previously considered together as a body of informational material.

Through the teaching of repetitive movement in co-ordinated groups, substantive claims were made by participants for the improvement of health, strength and fitness of the human body in an industrialised society. That the individual was invited, even expected, to surrender to the mass control of the gymnastic display became for many a statement of ideal nationhood. Consequently generated programmes of instruction, sometimes using the possibilities of the new sound media, tried to bridge the gap between an individual’s inertia and intense governmental proselytising. The best of intentions were often expressed within a paucity of means, ill-judged combinations of image and text and peculiar films, with a concealed agenda of authoritarian manipulation of the individual.

The central aim of the thesis is to scrutinise the visual strategies of this literature of instruction, identify their social and cultural derivation and the consequent influence that they had on contemporary art and film. For the artists of the Modern Movement the spectacle of the Mass Display, the Gymnastic Performance and the pursuit of efficiency provided a futuristic vision of hope but also a spectacle of foolishness.

The project comprises five DVDs together with a written component. The documentary, This is the League that Jane Joined examines the founding and subsequent development of the Women's League of Health and Beauty (1930). The screen fiction, The Wilfred Blakeney Way, utilises the genre of the mock documentary to explore the inadvertent elements of comedy, political undertones, naivety and failure of communication present in the Physical Culture Movement.

Three film montages informed by the comparative study (Building the Supermale, Visualising Taylorist Ideals and Bodies in Formation) explore the inherent absurdity within the political and aesthetic infrastructures of the pursuit of the Perfect Body, mechanical efficiency and synchronisation of massed people. The fourth montage (Nightcraft) reflects the theories and visualisations by the artists and filmmakers of the Modern Movement, their attitudes to didactic manuals extolling repetitive human movements.

The written component uses text, images and diagrams to analyse the research and structure inherent in the production of the six linked films, as well as the historical and cultural context from which they are derived.

Dr Adele Carroll