Current and historic images recording the activity of Physical Culture will be on show at the State Library of NSW later this month.
Physical culture, or 'physie', remains a sport that's difficult to define. It combines military precision, with elements of dance and gymnastics, and as noted in an upcoming free exhibition at the State Library of NSW, it has been around for 120 years.
The library’s new exhibition Physie: Photographs by Lyndal Irons, on show from June 27, offers a glimpse into the world of Physical Culture through a striking series of contemporary and vintage prints from the Library’s collection. Sydney-based photographer Lyndal Irons, who shot a series of contemporary images of the activity, says, “I wanted to shed light on the little-known world of Physie. I’d been to classes when I was young, but I couldn’t recall much about it apart from the marching. I found a world populated by thousands of Australian girls and women from all walks of life. It was very maternal, almost like a tribal extended family with many girls participating alongside their mothers, aunts and grandmothers.”
The physie movement dates back to 1892 when Denmark-born Hans Christian Bjelke-Petersen started the Bjelke-Petersen School of Physical Culture (BJP), a medical gymnasium in Tasmania to promote health, fitness and posture for both sexes. The sport extended into private schools and marketing material from around 1901, on show in the exhibition, promotes Physical Culture for children as ‘… one of the most effective of modern means of fitting the child mentally and morally for Life, for Success, for Happiness’.
In 1923 the company moved to Sydney and women’s Physical Culture classes sprung up in business houses like David Jones. Photographer Sam Hood’s images from the 1930s capture teams of women in action with stomachs pulled in and heads held high. Physie competitions began in the late 1920s and junior classes kicked off in the early 1940s.
Irons’ colourful images bring the modern version of Physie in focus. The competition is fierce, and dance steps are performed to a modern soundtrack which blends moves from styles such as jazz, ballet, hip-hop and aerobics. According to BJP Director and lifelong Physie devotee Jackie Rawlings: “It’s the best kept secret in Australia. If you want to dance your whole life Physie lets you do that, no matter what age you are. Our youngest student is two-years-old and our oldest is 88.”
Irons’ contemporary series was shot over three months across suburban NSW in the lead-up to the 2012 BJP National Championships, held at the Sydney Opera House. In 2013 she was awarded joint runner-up in the SOYA 365 Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards for her Physie series.
Physie: Photographs by Lyndal Irons is a free exhibition on show at the State Library of NSW, from June 27 to 4 October 4. See www.sl.nsw.gov.au
Image from 'Physie: Photograph by Lyndal Irons'.
Preparing for a contest. From 'Physie: Photographs by Lyndal Irons'.
Physical Culture in the 30s. Photo by Sam Hood.
Physical Culture enthusiasts in action in the 1930s. Photo by Sam Hood.