This week I wanted to explore the place that physical activity has in the Mitrinović collection. It is hard, looking at photos of Dimitrije Mitrinović and knowing that he frequently suffered from ill health, to imagine him actually doing any exercise but he does seem to have had an interest in it. His close collaborator Valerie Cooper ran a dance and movement studio, and some members of Mitrinović’s circle seem to have taken instruction in dance and exercise from her.
The Mitrinović Archive holds a copy of a booklet advertising the Cooper-Gaffran School of Movement, in which the Directors outline their philosophy. They state their belief that “Owing to the physical and mental strain imposed upon them by the conditions of modern civilisation, most human beings have lost the feeling for rhythmic and harmonious movement […].” The aim of the School was to “prevent and cure postural defects and the many diseases arising from them, and give the ability to carry the body with ease and grace […].” “Correct movement” would stop the waste of “nervous energy”, help preserve “youthful vigour” and flexibility.
Cooper also promoted her philosophy beyond the school, publishing a series of articles in the New Britain magazine in the 1930s in which she coached readers. A series of marvelous photos were taken to illustrate the series, which ran under the title ‘The New Exercise’, in keeping with the spirit of change that was core to the New Britain Movement.
However much New Britain promoted and sought change, its founder Dimtrije Mitrinović was also always looking backwards as well as forwards, seeking out the wisdom of the past and of traditional practices from around the world. In keeping with his interest in Eastern philosophies, religions and spiritual practices, Mitrinović studied yoga – at least in an academic sense. This pamphlet, which turned up unexpectedly in the archive, was printed in 1930 to advertise a new journal focusing on the philosophy and practice of yoga.
We think of yoga as reaching the West only really in the 1960s, but Mitrinović’s Archive and Library show that certainly by the 1920s these Eastern practices and beliefs were being studied in London, Germany and even Belgrade.
The idea of healthy mind, healthy body has ancient roots, as our Latin quote suggests. In principle at least, it appealed to Mitrinović – although other evidence in the archive shows he certainly wasn’t willing to give up whisky and soda or smoking his pipe to get there!