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The Curious tale of Dippy the Dinosaur and Eugen Sandow
2024 will see the opening in London of The Natural History Museum’s ‘Urban Nature Project’, an outdoor space in the new museum gardens focusing on biodiversity and sustainability. A key feature will be the return of a national icon, ‘Dippy the Dinosaur': A new weatherproof cast of the Museum's much-loved Diplodocus specimen will welcome visitors. It was 1898, in ‘The Age of Empire’, when the fossilized skeleton of Dippy was discovered, while a crew was digging the Pacific coast railway in Wyoming. It was purchased by Andrew Carnegie for his newly-founded Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. The bones were identified as a new species, duly named; Diplodocus Carnegii. In London, today, the awkward imperialist nature of this discovery seems to have been forgotten in this age of museum decolonisation and repatriation. Back in 1898, a cast copy of the new Diplodocus was a coup for the The Natural History Museum, which had recently broken off from the British Museum and was establishing its own identity in South Kensington. When new Director, Ray Lankester, took over the following year, he may have wondered how he could top Dippy? Inspiration would be at hand, as celebrity strongman Eugen Sandow had recently returned from the USA with an original theater act. Sandow now rarely lifted weights, horses, or anything on stage at all, his performance had been given a makeover by stage impresario Florenz Ziegfel Jr. focusing on flexing, posing and mimicking classical sculpture under theatrical lighting. 1898 was also the launch of ‘Sandow’s magazine of physical culture’, as he sought bourgeois legitimacy as an educator, health practitioner and English Gentleman.
Although Lankester was the museum director, he was also an esteemed Oxford trained scientist, he viewed Sandow as a specimen, to be collected and displayed, which indeed he was when a plaster body cast was commissioned by Lankester, who spotted an opportunity. Dippy would bring in unprecedented crowds, while Sandow would educate the masses, a double act for the new century. This is an era when the powerful elites had serious concerns about ‘degeneration’, this was scientific racism by another name, and Sandow would be the prototype for a ‘perfect type of European man’. This dark history hangs over the legacy of Sandow and the sculpture, indeed the sculpture remains a skeleton in the cupboard for the Natural History Museum, which is probably where it should be, but why does Dippy the dinosaur get a sustainable garden and a new cast?
For Sandow, the production of his cast was the peak of his career and also the start of his downfall. In part, he had fulfilled a necromantic fantasy, becoming what he had idolized since a boyhood visit to Rome. He was now a muscular statue in a museum. He had joined the historical iterations of copy and repeat, copy and repeat. This kind of rhyming is what the classical Greeks called in language: ‘chiasmus’, it is also a key to the balance and symmetry in sculpture; in popular culture we call these memes; train, eat, sleep, repeat.
The problem with the Sandow Sculpture was it had no chiasmus, or Contrapposto - the essence of a perfect standing pose, which has inspired artists for generations. What's more, it was stark naked. While Dippy the dinosaur would stay on display for over a hundred years before a celebrated UK tour began in 2015, Sandow was removed after only three months on display. The exact reasons over the sculpture's removal remain contested, but it was probably due in large part to the stark nudity of the sculpture. Over the road at the V&A museum, the plaster cast of Michaelangelo’s David sported an optional fig leaf to spare the blushes of Queen Victoria; she would die in the brief window when the Eugen Sandow sculpture was on display. Today the Sandow sculpture is broadly written off as bad art and a bad representation of Sandow, but this commentary has generally failed to look at the wider context. Not just Dippy and the nature of casting in museums, but art and design of that Victorian era. This sculpture was designed as an educational tool, it was never intended as art. No one knew the fine art poses of classical sculpture better than Eugen Sandow, but he shunned these in posing for the cast, perhaps fearful of being sent to the treadmill like poor Oscar Wilde, perhaps because of his often stated interest in sculpture of the day.
The role of art in questioning the sculpture and the legacy of Sandow remains pertinent in 2023, just two years before we mark 100 years since Sandow’s death, the sculpture deserves reconsideration. Fitness cultists today will still point to ancient Greece, where the essence of beauty was created in the chisels and geometry of Polykleitos’ sculpture. But this beauty was never real, it was always idealized. Sandow knew this art better than anyone. In his magazine he had proclaimed Rodin as ‘the greatest living sculptor’, an artist who encapsulated the Modernist uprising that rejected neoclassical canon from ancient Rome and Greece. Rodin’s sculptures were full of energy, mistakes, psychology and flow. To a fan of the Farnese Hercules or the Discobolus, Rodin will make unpleasant viewing, yet his mark on the avant-garde is undeniable. The Sandow sculpture was not intended as art, it was made through a mechanical process, what could be more modernist ? Looking at the Sandow sculpture through a lens of art history in the moment of its making, it has a new dynamism and its badness surely becomes its qualities—and a reflection of psychology and society.
Soon after the cast was removed, in 1902, Sandow was defeated in a strength contest by legendary female lifter Sandwina bankruptcy would follow the collapse of his business empire, then death and relative ignominy. The epitaph and final insult was, for Sandow (the ultimate model of classical art), to be rendered a mechanical cog in the ultimate piece of modern art: Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Bride Stripped bare by her bachelors’ 1911-1925.
As 2024 looms on the horizon and we await the new, shiny Dippy the Dinosaur to be marveled at by critics with short and selective memories, has anyone asked the descendants of the Sioux nation, prior residents to what became ‘Wyoming,’ how much they love Dippy the Dinosaur and his memorials? The point is just that perhaps we can also spare a thought for Eugen Sandow as he approaches his 100 year anniversary since death and 125 years since his cast was made. Like Dippy, he was a product of a historical period, like Dippy, all artifacts of this era need to be discussed in a decolonised context, which is best done out in the open. So shine up Dippy and let the children play, then maybe, let the Eugen Sandow skeleton (sculpture) out of the cupboard.
Graham Hudson is a London-based artist and part time fitness instructor. Recent lectures include: How Artists Teach, Glasgow School of Art, June 2023.