Retouched and Remarkable: Female Athletes in La Culture Physique (1904) as Historical and Visual Documentation

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Rachel Ozerkevich Kenyon College

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In 1904, Edmond Desbonnet launched La Culture Physique, a magazine that presented itself as scientific and entertaining in its promotion of strength athletes. La Culture Physique prioritized photomechanical imagery to demonstrate the visual merits of the conditioned human body. A surprising number of women feature in nearly each month’s issue. The magazine represented these athletes using a number of editing techniques that made their bodies seem remarkably muscular and yet conventionally feminine. But the specific formal qualities of the publication—such as paper quality, printing technology, and size—helped mask the work that went into making its subjects appear real. La Culture Physique is one of very few extant sources wherein the muscularity of specific women is promoted alongside men’s during a period when gender disparity was deeply engrained in French society. La Culture Physique worked within and at times pushed against dominant French cultural values articulated around concepts of gender and belonging, using a set of tools that packaged its contents and form as works of art: as legible, desirable, and collectable. This paper demonstrates that these same tools also helped the publication maintain its veneer of authority. La Culture Physique has yet to be examined from an art historical perspective. This paper seeks to remedy this by arguing that La Culture Physique’s 1904 issues are a crucial source of historical and visual documentation for scholars interested in how women participated and were represented in early French physical culture.

Ozerkevich (, is with the Department of Art History, Kenyon College, Gambier, OH, USA.

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