He is without question the most popular figure on Michigan State University's campus: the Spartan, better known as " Sparty," a three-ton, 11-foothigh colossus. You can find his face on cups, sweatshirts and jackets, and meet him in person as a full-bodied mascot at MSU celebrations and football games. Since he was erected in 1945, university officials proudly call him the largest freestanding ceramic figure in the world. Today, green-and-white clad students guard Sparty through the night on the eve of the MSU-UM game, and devoted alumni praise him with religious fervor.
At first glance, the stone-faced MSU symbol impressed me as a Rambo-like warrior, with oversized muscles and a shocking emptiness of expression. Hadn't ancient Sparta been a state system, which intentionally raised children as war machines? And weren't the Spartans reputed as intellectually and artistically barren, since they limited reading and writing to an absolute minimum? Strangely, Sparty reminded me of the artwork of Nazi Germany, back when "Aryan" race body aesthetics were celebrated. Where did this guy come from?
In the middle of the World War II, sculptor Leonard D. Jungwirth, an MSU assistant professor, decided to create a statue of "The Spartan." Jungwirth was born in Detroit in 1903, the son of an Austrian wood-carver and modeler who had immigrated to America in 1882. His mother was born in Germany. And he studied in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler.
It remains unclear why Jungwirth sacrificed three years of his spare time to create Sparty without receiving any apparent compensation. Jungwirth's oldest daughter, Sandra Ayers, who lives in DeWitt, said that her father hadn't been a big sports fan. She also remembers that he didn't believe the statue was his greatest work of art. He often told her, "I hope I don't get to be known as the creator of Sparty when I die." But when he died in 1963, that is exactly what happened. Ayers believes her father's stay in Germany from 1929 to 1933 had an influence on his artwork. He'd told her about running into SA troops and about the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, whom he'd seen on two occasions. She told City Pulse about a Nazi knife he'd brought back from Germany. "He told me it had dried blood on it, but I don't know if it did. I guess it was rusty."
In 1929, Jungwirth attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. As Jungwirth arrived, [Nazis] had just started to rally in the city, which they would later call "Capital of the Movement." A 1996 MSU exhibition about Sparty and the Figurative Tradition in Sculpture acknowledges that "Jungwirth's Munich years may have been significant in the development of his idea of 'The Spartan.'"
The Nazis considered certain kinds of nakedness, including people with war injuries, physical handicaps, or in the process of lovemaking, "degenerate" and banned from exhibitions. The skin had to be hairless, smooth, and bronzed. The body had become an abstract symbol of Aryan beauty, as it was in Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1936 Olympic Games.
Jungwirth might have been at least unwittingly influenced by this style. Sparty stands, invincible, at the intersection of Kalamazoo Street and Red Cedar and Chestnut roads, a figure to be worshipped, but neither desired nor loved.