Plastic body, permanent body: Czech representations of corporeality in the early twentieth century

In the early twentieth century, the body was seen as both an ontogenetic and a phylogenetic entity. In the former case, its individual development, it was manifestly changeable, developing from embryo to maturity and thence to a state of decay. But in the latter case, concerning its development as a species, the question was an open one. Was its phylogenetic nature a stationary snapshot of the slow process of evolution, or was this too mutable? Historians have emphasised that the question of acquired inheritance remained open into the twentieth century; this paper explores how various constructions of the individual as a phylogenetic episode—a stage in the race’s evolution—related to representations of the body in the same period.A discussion of the work of the brothers Josef and Karel Čapek offers a contextualised answer to the question of bodily representation. Karel Čapek explored the nature of the ‘average man’ through two different organisms, the robot and the amphibian, epitomes respectively of corporeal permanence and plasticity. Josef Čapek , along with other members of the Group of Plastic Artists, explored visual representations of the body that challenged cubist Bergsonian norms. In so doing, he affirmed what his brother also held: that despite the constrictions imposed by the oppressive political conditions in which the Czechs found themselves, the individual body was a fragile but fluid entity, capable of effecting change upon the future evolution of humankind
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DOI 10.1016/j.shpsc.2009.09.001
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