4/11/2016 Peter Durantine

Spring Research Fair: How 16th-Century Art Helped The Nazis Promote Their Ideology

 As a Franklin & Marshall sophomore studying in Germany, Yayu Gu visited Nuremburg and was struck by the city's historic dichotomy – a center of great art in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, a forum for a twisted political ideology in the 20th century.

"In the city center, there are all these great museums and art institutions and outside the city there was the old Nazi party rally grounds," said Gu, a senior majoring in art history and German who traveled on an F&M Art Department grant. "I was so surprised. How can those two things exist together in one city?"

When she returned to F&M, she studied the Reformation and Counter-Reformation eras with Associate Professor of Art History Linda Aleci. Frequent topics were Nuremberg and Albrecht Dürer, a German Renaissance painter whose Nuremberg home Gu visited.

  • Among the poster exhibits at this spring's Closer Look Research Fair in the Martin Library of the Sciences was "Preferential Hierarchies of Painted Turtle Navigation" by senior Kelseyleigh Reber. Here, she explains her work to F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield. Among the poster exhibits at this spring's Closer Look Research Fair in the Martin Library of the Sciences was "Preferential Hierarchies of Painted Turtle Navigation" by senior Kelseyleigh Reber. Here, she explains her work to F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield. Image Credit: Melissa Hess
  • Senior Daniel Schecter discusses his research that examined the head retractor muscle of the Atlantic Longfin squid. Senior Daniel Schecter discusses his research that examined the head retractor muscle of the Atlantic Longfin squid. Image Credit: Melissa Hess
  • Senior biological foundations of behavior Ayan Felix listens to questions about her neuroscience  research. Senior biological foundations of behavior Ayan Felix listens to questions about her neuroscience research. Image Credit: Melissa Hess
  • Senior Yayu Gu's research examined how a 15th century German artist was used by the Nazis to promote their ideology. Senior Yayu Gu's research examined how a 15th century German artist was used by the Nazis to promote their ideology. Image Credit: Deb Grove
  • BOS senior Ryan Johnston examines the way knowledge on information security is spread through hacker conferences. BOS senior Ryan Johnston examines the way knowledge on information security is spread through hacker conferences. Image Credit: Melissa Hess
  • History senior Emily Hawk's research took a closer look at dance performances, from choreography to stage sets. History senior Emily Hawk's research took a closer look at dance performances, from choreography to stage sets. Image Credit: Melissa Hess

From discussions with Aleci and Professor of History Maria Mitchell, Gu learned the Nazis had worshipped Dürer, who produced watercolors and woodcuts from the 1490s into the 1500s. Intrigued, Gu, who did much of her research in German, decided her senior theses would be, "The Appropriation of Dürer and His Art in Nazi Germany."

Dürer's works and other Nazi-approved artworks were imitated to promote Nazi programs and the Nazis' leader, Adolf Hitler. One of the most well known Nazi images is that of Hitler as white knight astride a black horse, an imitation of Dürer's engraving, "Knight, Death, and the Devil," famous in Germany at the time, Gu said.

"Hitler and his government established a cult of art in order to legitimatize their policies and verify the Nazi myth – true German folk, the Aryan people, who were gifted by God and could restore their glory by rediscovering the 'good' German art from the past," Gu said.

More than any other German artist, Dürer sparked the imagination of the Germans in the 1920s and 1930s, but Gu said the Germans at various periods in their history often appropriated Dürer's works.

"At the beginning of the Romantic period, the German people began calling Dürer the 'Fuhrer,'" Gu said. "During the Romantic period, they also presented Dürer's Knight as an heroic figure, to personify the heroic spirit of the German people. This idea continued during the Nazi period. It became a symbol of militarism and nationalism."

Gu also will present her research at the Intercollegiate Art History Symposium and the undergraduate Research Conference in German Studies.

When Gu graduates, she plans to return to Germany to attend graduate school. She will study the German master painters, including Dürer, who, she said, is still popular in his country. 

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