I had mentioned in my entry on Max Dupain that he had been influenced by the naturist movement in Germany. This influence was carefully unpacked by Isobel Crombie in Body Culture published by the National Gallery of Victoria.
The naturist movement has always provided a challenge to Judeo-Christian attitudes toward nudity. The German naturist movement looked back to Germany’s pagan past when social nudism was acceptable (and ritualised, as with Nordic culture, in the tradition of the sauna). It also borrows heavily from the classical tradition of the naked human form as a thing of beauty.
German naturism has a long history beginning in 1896 and becoming very popular in the 1920’s and 30’s, despite opposition from the Catholics and Lutherans. In 1933 the Nazis banned all naturist organizations. However, some Nazis were naturists and so the party eventually allowed some party based naturist organizations to continue. The war caused a major interruption and despite a conservative post-war government (under pressure from the US) West Germans slowly returned to naturism. East Germany was another story altogether. The socialist government (especially under Hoeneker) embraced naturism as a part of socialist culture and even allowed naturists to have floats in May Day parades. Several former Iron Curtain countries also have a relaxed attitude to public nudity, most notably Hungary and the Czech Republic.
These cultural differences are important. For some reason the Anglophone countries have been particularly resistant to the naturist movement. Whilst there are a great many naturist resorts and beaches in Europe, there are very few in Anglophone countries, where nudity is still associated with sex.
This has had an important impact on the photographing of children in the naturist context. In Anglophone countries photographs of naked children are considered borderline pornographic and there is considerable hysteria over pedophilia. The situation in Europe and Scandinavia is completely different.
Ever since the beginning of the naturist movement naturists have taken photographs of their activities. At the height of the German movement there were around 20 naturist magazines, such as Figaro, Lieben und Sonne, Lachendes Leben and Die Freude. These magazines did not shy away from depicting children enjoying naturism. In fact many were family oriented. In the 60’s there was a revival of naturism in Western Europe and again naturists produced magazines to document and celebrate their sub-culture.
In 2000 the Third Circuit Court of the US ruled that hundreds of seized copies of the European magazine Jung und Frei (Jeunes et Naturels) were not obscene and should be returned. It also ruled that the magazines were protected under the First Amendment as legitimate publications with ‘political value’.
Despite this ruling many naturist organizations in Anglophone countries have been all too easily intimidated by the moral panic over pedophilia and as a consequence images of naked children have all but disappeared from their magazines. This simply feeds the perception that naturism is an adult activity.
I have no doubt that the almost complete absence of images of naturist children in Anglophone countries has lead to the public perception that any image of a naked child is an aberration. It is therefore of no surprise that there was such an outcry over the Henson image. Such an image would not have caused any concern in Europe.
Of course, the existence of images of naturist children is a considerable problem for moral conservatives. Some magazines have been in more or less continuous production since the early 20th century and there are hundreds of editions from many countries. Some are considered collectors items and are traded over the internet and at auction houses around the world; many are archived in national libraries as valid historical material. A great many countries have ruled that these images are not child pornography and are a legitimate part of the naturist movement (this includes videos of naturist events). Again it depends on which country you live in and how accepted naturism is.
But what has this got to do with art? Simple. Numerous artists, illustrators and photographers have been influenced by the naturist movement. Here are just a few examples.
They see the body as a thing of beauty, not of shame or the cause of sexual arousal.