By Daniel Sturm
Michigan State college softball players view the progress
sculptor Leonard Jungwirthis making on his heroic-sized statue"The
Spartan." The women are Doreen Koebel, of Detroit, with
bat; Nancy Knowlton, of Rockford, seated, and Mary Marshall,
of East Lansing.
is without question the most popular figure on Michigan State
Universitys campus: the Spartan, better known as Sparty,
a three-ton, 11-foot-high 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. Hadnt ancient Sparta been a state system,
which intentionally raised children as war machines? And werent
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?
The Spartan ideal gained favor in 1858, when Sen. Justin Smith
Morrill of Vermont, the author of the Land Grant Act that created
in MSU, promised to make Michigan schools like those of ancient
Sparta, whose graduates would know how to sustain American
institutions with American vigor. But Spartan warriors had
to wait, since the Michigan Agricultural College primarily trained
farmers. At the turn of the century, students rallied to slogans
such as Ye cant fool the Farmers, by heck, or
Therell be a hot time, on the old farm tonight.
When the school became Michigan State College in 1925, students
wanted a nickname other than Aggies or Farmers.
They held a formal contest, to which entries such as Fawns,
Pioneers, Statesmen, and even Bearcats
(in honor of the Stutz, an automobile coveted by students)
were submitted. Although Michigan Staters won the
prize, it was too long for headlines and lacked the right zing
for the sports page. So George Alderton of the State Journal and
Dale Stafford of the Capitol News dug through the rejected entries
and chose Perry J. Fremonts submission: Spartans.
Within a few days The State News embraced the new name, and within
a year The Gods of Sparta was the water carnival theme
at the university. The MSU Fight Song, written by
cheerleader F. I. Lankey in 1906, was revised from Their
specialty is farming, but those farmers play football, to
Their specialty is winning, and those Spartans play good
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.
According to the MSU Library of Arts archives, the Spartan was
a gift of the class of 1942. The statue was dedicated to the public
on June 9, 1945, just four weeks after the victory over Nazi Germany.
At the ceremony, the MSU Fight Song was sung and President John
Hannah gave a short speech: In the years ahead, this Spartan
Warrior in this beautiful and proper setting will become one of
the distinguished marks of this campus that all students and visitors
will associate with this college and this campus. It is a real
pleasure for me to congratulate Mr. Jungwirth for his fine work,
and to accept and dedicate formally this Spartan Warrior as a
proper exemplification of the youth and spirit of Michigan State
Jungwirths oldest daughter, Sandra Ayers, who lives in DeWitt,
said that her father hadnt been a big sports fan. She also
remembers that he didnt believe the statue was his greatest
work of art. He often told her, I hope I dont 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 fathers stay in Germany from 1929 to 1933 had an influence
on his artwork. Hed told her about running into SA troops
and about the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, whom hed seen on
two occasions. She told City Pulse about a Nazi knife hed
brought back from Germany. He told me it had dried blood
on it, but I dont know if it did. I guess it was rusty.
In 1929, Jungwirth attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.
Nine years earlier Adolf Hitler had founded the Nazi party in
Munichs Hofbräuhaus. As Jungwirth arrived, they had
just started to rally in the city, which they would later call
Capital of the Movement. They campaigned intensely,
adopting the slogan Munich Must Again Become the Hope of
Germany, to win the municipal elections in December. Two
thousand paramilitary troops marched through the city during one
campaign. The party also mounted 20 rallies in Munich beer halls,
with Hitler scurrying from rally to rally.
MSU President John Hannah (right) and sculptor Leonard Jungwirth.
streets had become a stage for violent political confrontation
when 29-year old Jungwirth visited the home of his family. Was
he excited to see this new German fascist leader, like many of
his generation? Whatever his reaction, he must have realized the
Munich Academy was not the same as it had been 20 years before,
when it had nurtured geniuses such as Vassily Kandinsky, Alfred
Kubin, Paul Klee and Franz Marc. After WWI, the Academy had quickly
lost respect, as nationalist bigotry turned a central European
metropolis into a center of fascist propaganda.
The Academy of Fine Arts was located in Schwabing, the old bohemian
quarter that Hitler favored, and where disgruntled artists joined
students, teachers, civil servants, and white-collar workers in
placing their faith in the failed painter from Austria. Although
the Academy building was badly damaged in a bomb attack during
WWII, a catalog of the 1932 Munich Art Exhibition lists two sculptures
under Leonard Jungwirths name, including Die Bäuerin
(wood) and Pieta (plaster).
A 1996 MSU exhibition about Sparty and the Figurative Tradition
in Sculpture acknowledges that Jungwirths Munich years
may have been significant in the development of his idea of The
Spartan. The exhibit pointed out that Jungwirth probably
visited Munichs famous museums, where major works of Greek
and Roman sculpture some of them athletes and warriors
were on display. However, it failed to mention the transformation
of Munich during that time into an open-air museum of National
Socialism or what influence that might have had on Jungwirth.
This important background is not mentioned in any MSU brochures
By the 1940s, the realistic style was largely out of favor outside
of Germany. But the idealized figure of The Spartan,
sleek and impersonal, was similar to sculptures of Jungwirths
German contemporaries, such as Josef Thorak and Arno Breker. The
latter created two 10-feet-8-inch-high statues for the 1936 Olympic
Games in Berlin Zehnkämpfer (Decathlete)
and Siegerin (Winner).
The National Socialist standards for art were based upon 19th
century popular taste for idealized figures, writes the art historian
George Moose in his 1987 essay, Beauty without Sensuality.
The beauty of the Greek youths lithe and supple, muscular
and harmonious lay in their nakedness. 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 Nazis also encouraged physical
training, and here the problem of nudity arose once more,
Moose wrote. The skin had to be hairless, smooth, and bronzed.
The body had become an abstract symbol of Aryan beauty, as it
was in Leni Riefenstahls film of the 1936 Olympic Games.
This idea of sensuality was transcended by an idealization
of ancient Greek form, and figures that could be worshipped, but
neither desired nor loved, concludes Moose.
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.
Moose writes that depicting beauty with sensuality presents a
danger to society because it symbolizes a revolt against respectability
as a principle of unity and order.
During the first half of the 20th century, many artists managed
to create figures that were unlike impersonal nudes like The
Spartan. Ernst Barlach, who like Jungwirth started out with
woodcarvings, created The 1927 Güstrow War Memorial, which
showed a life-sized human figure with the peacefully stylized
visage depicting beauty with sensuality by showing grieving figures
and pathetic souls. When Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933,
Barlach wrote: My little boat is sinking fast. The louder
the Heils roar, instead of cheering and raising my arms in Roman
attitudes, the more I pull my hat down over my eyes.
Jungwirths other artwork shows a more compassionate and
mature interpretation of human form. Between 1937 to 1940, he
completed a large granite sculpture at Belle Isle in Detroit,
Father Gabriel Richard. His local work includes four
carvings based on the Paul Bunyan legend and a Diana of
the Chase on the second floor of the Student Union. Six
ceramic reliefs are in Landon Hall, and work is also located in
Alumni Memorial Chapel and Van Hoosen Hall. Jungwirth created
the city seal reliefs for the exterior of Lansing City Hall, Stations
of the Cross for St. Thomas Aquinas Church in East Lansing and
The Three Bears for the Willow Street School in Lansing.
I wonder what message The Spartan sends out today.
In October 1989, the sculpture was rededicated after a yearlong
face-lift. A university marching band played The Fight Song,
and onlookers raised their fists, yelling, Fight!
Vince Vandenburg, a member of the committee to Save Our Sparty
(S.O.S.), which raised $100,000 in donations for the statues
renovation, said: Sparty is God, he represents MSU, athletics
and progress. Sparty is MSU.
Hannah, who served as president from 1941 until 1969, said Sparty
harkens back to the glorious past of ancient Greece and with its
renovation the statue can uphold the Spartan image of obedience,
endurance and discipline.
The myth of Spartan boys who loved their motherland, fought bravely
and died without fear simply presents a powerful saga for a university
sports team. In fact, Sparty is a descendant of the Spartan King
Leonidas, who together with all 300 warriors died in the Battle
of Thermopylae, 480 B.C. Forty years after his death, his remains
were returned to Sparta and annual games were held around his
Sports aside, this link to National Socialist artwork is a serious
matter that should be acknowledged in Spartys biography.
Students should learn critical thinking skills that enable them
to reflect on the act of sacrificing ones life for heroic
deeds. In one of his last dictations, on Feb. 6, 1945, Hitler
compared Germanys fate with that of Leonidas Spartans:
And if, in spite of everything, the Fates have decreed that
we should once more in the course of our history be crushed by
forces superior to our own, then let us go down with our heads
high and secure in the knowledge that the honor of the German
people remains without blemish. A desperate fight remains for
all time a shining example. Let us remember Leonidas and his 300
courtesy of Michigan State University Archives and Historical
is considering replacing Sparty with a $50,000 bronze version
and moving the original, which was just restored, indoors to preserve
it. This might be a good time for the university to take a moment
to reflect on the troubled historical context of its mascot. Censoring
the influence of the Third Reich on art is a dangerous act. They
deliberately played up to the image the rest of the world had
of them while being secretly amused at it, wrote J.F. Lazenby
in his study of the Spartan Army (1985). This may be what
Aristophanes meant when he described them as fond of poking fun
at strangers, and is not this the point of the famous story of
the barbarian king who on finding the Spartan black broth not
to his taste, was blandly informed that he had first to bathe
in the Eurotas to appreciate it?
(Daniel Sturm is a German journalist who is visiting Michigan
and living in campus housing at MSU.)