Rethinking the fascist aesthetic: mass gymnastics, political spectacle and the stadium in 1930s France.
European History Quarterly, 43, (4), . (doi:10.1177/0265691413496496).
This article explores two features of cultural life in France during the era of the Popular Front, with a special focus on the Paris world’s fair of 1937 – mass gymnastics and large stadium projects designed to host both sporting and political spectacles. These developments are considered in the light of both trans-national exchange, and the widespread unease expressed in interwar France towards spectator sport on the one hand and ‘totalitarian’ political mobilisation on the other. It is argued that a ‘double attitude’ towards spectacle emerged, where disdain for commercial spectator sport sat alongside an often grudging admiration for large-scale political spectacle. The article examines the reception in France both of the Bohemian Sokol physical culture movement and the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936, showing how French commentators across the political spectrum negotiated their sense of the value of spectacles – normally by recovering them to identifiably ‘French’ democratic traditions and by blurring the distinction between spectatorship and participation. In doing so, the article takes issue with the reductionist nature of the notion of a ‘fascist aesthetic’, stressing that the wide purchase of both mass gymnastics and monumental neo-classical stadium design suggests that the political meaning of such things lies in their use and not their form.
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