Olga Desmond (born Olga Sellin 2 November 1890 in Allenstein in East Prussia (now Olsztyn, Poland); died 2 August 1964 in Berlin) was a German dancer and actress.
Olga Desmond studied drama and earned her living as a model for artists and painters in Berlin. In 1907 she joined a group of artists and appeared as Venus during the group’s nine-month tour at the London Pavilion where they put on “plastic representations.” In Berlin she co-founded the Association for Ideal Culture and gave shows called “living pictures” in which she posed after the manner of ancient classical works of art. These so-called “Evenings of Beauty” (Schönheitsabende) were prohibited on more than one occasion starting from 1908, because the actors usually posed nude or wearing only bodypaint.
The “heroine of living pictures,” Olga Desmond became one of the first to promote nudity on the stage in St. Petersburg, Russia, when in the summer of 1908 the German dancer arrived there with her repertoire of performance. Olga Desmond’s Evenings of Beauty quickly became the subject of a great debate in the Russian media. At least one of the representatives of official “justice” wanted to haul Desmond into court for “seduction.”
Olga Desmond herself persistently defended her right to appear naked. “Call it daring or bold, or however you want to describe my appearance on the stage, but this requires art, and it (art) is my only deity, before whom I bow and for which I am prepared to make all possible sacrifices,” she told the Russian press. “I decided to break the centuries-old heavy chains, created by people themselves. When I go out on stage completely naked, I am not ashamed, I am not embarrassed, because I come out before the public just as I am, loving all that is beautiful and graceful. There was never a case when my appearance before the public evoked any cynical observations or dirty ideas.”
Asked whether a stage costume would interfere with her, Olga Desmond answered: “To be completely graceful in a costume or even in a tricot is unthinkable. And I decided to throw off this needless yoke.” Objecting to the claims that she excites “base instincts” of the public, the dancer said: “I purposely set a high admission charge for my shows so that the street would not get in, for it has little understanding of pure art, but so that people with broader demands for it would come, people who will look on me as a servitor of art.”
The authorities in St. Petersburg paid little attention to the explanations offered by the dancer from Berlin, and her first appearance in the imperial Russian capital was also her last: further shows were forbidden by the mayor. Many artists in the capital took the side of the authorities. For example, Konstantin Makovsky sharply denounced what he called the “cult of the naked body,” saying that “beauty, like much else in life, must have its hidden secrets, that we don’t even have the right to expose.”
Olga Desmond was no less the subject of controversy in her own country. In 1909 her appearance in the Berlin Wintergarten was the cause of such a scandal that it became a subject of discussion even in the Prussian State Assembly. But “scandalous” also meant well-known, and as a result of her renown, there were cosmetic products that carried her name. She traveled through Germany on numerous tours until 1914, when she married a Hungarian large landowner, and went off with him to his estate.
From 1916 through 1919 she appeared in various films including Seifenblasen (Soap Bubbles), Maria’s Sonntagsgewand (Maria’s Sunday clothes) and Mut zur Sünde (Courage for sin). In the latter film she played opposite the later well-known German actor Hans Albers. In 1917 she separated from her husband and returned to the stage. Her first appearance took place on 15 April 1917 at the Theatre of the Royal University (Theater der Königlichen Hochschule) in Berlin. In the same year she appeared in a performance of Carmen in Cologne. She presented dance evenings and other things in Warsaw, Breslau (now Wrocław), and Kattowitz (now Katowice).
Thereafter, she made fewer public appearances and from 1922 devoted herself entirely to teaching. Among her best-known students was Hertha Feist, who later became a member of the dance group of Rudolf von Laban.
After the First World War she married her second husband, Georg Piek, a Jewish businessman with a studio for stage equipment, decorations, and special fabrics. After 1933 Piek left Germany. Olga Desmond continued to manage the business.
After World War II, Desmond lived in the eastern part of Berlin. When the wall was built, she was unable to leave. In her late years, forgotten by the public, she worked as a cleaning woman. To make a living, she also sold vintage postcards and other memorabilia from her time as a renowned dancer. Olga Desmond died on 2 August 1964 in East Berlin.
Olga Desmond Vintage Postcards
Hertha Feist (1896–1990) was a German expressionist dancer and choreographer. She established her own school in Berlin, combining gymnastics with nudism and dance. In the 1930s, her ambitions were seriously curtailed by the Nazis
Born in Berlin, Feist first studied with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze in Hellerau, Dresden, in 1914 before moving back to Berlin in 1917 to study under Olga Desmond. Thereafter she joined Rudolf von Laban, following him to various locations in the north of Germany and participating in his majestic Tanzbühne productions.
In 1923, she established her own school in Berlin and also taught at Carl Diem‘s sports academy, successfully combining gymnastics with nudism and dance.
She continued to dance in Laban’s productions, starring as Donna Elvira in his Don Juan (1926). Her school’s freestyle movements were pictured at the Berlin Stadium. In 1927 she appeared in the only film made by the American Stella Simon. The avant-garde film entitled Hande: The Life and Love of the Gentler Sex had its own score by Marc Blitzstein and it tells of an eternal triangle story using just the hands and forearms of the dancers.
In 1928, Feist toured with the Novembergruppe, presenting her Der Berufung in Germany, Poland, Switzerland and England. Her last major production was Gluck‘s Iphigénie en Aulide performed on the steps of thePergamon Museum in May 1933. Her ambitions were then curtailed by the Nazis who closed her school and forced her to move into smaller quarters although she continued to attract many students.
After the war, she taught at the Volkshochschule Hannover from 1952 to 1965. Her last dance was performed for the inauguration of the Golden Rosenkreuz Temple at Bad Münder in 1965 where she lived at the time. From 1983, she returned to live in Hannover where she died on 9 July 1990.
Belle epoque – Vintage Postards/Portraits