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FACE OF THE DIVINE: the esoteric roots of physiognomic photography

Sculpture of Hercules, Athens

Greek Sculpture, Diadomenes

Sculpture by Arno Brecker Official Sculptor of the Third Reich

Hans F. K. Günther

This paper, given at the CCWE conference 11 October 2008, is something of a combination project for me – I have been examining photography and its relationships to esoterica for some years (for example spirit photography). In addition I have also examined, as a separate area of research, the use of photography as a definer of race in colonial contexts. Recently I have begun to draw aspects of the two areas a little closer together. This paper is concerned with an examination of the visualisation of an esoteric idea become exoteric as photograph; a visualisation of racial and physiognomic types culminating in the image of the so-called Nordic master race and its antithesis, photographic (and ultimately racial) constructs of what was termed miscegenated and Jewish-types. Although many of these images were made more latterly under the banner of science, part of the hypothesis behind their creation has strong esoteric roots in both divinatory physiognomy, i.e. the art of judging character and fortune from facial characteristics and Pan-German Ariosophy an early twentieth century movement that mixed occult and racist ideas.


Schopenhauer stated:

‘That the outer man is a picture of the inner, and the face an expression and revelation of the whole character, is a presumption likely enough in itself, and therefore a safe one to go on…Photography…offers the most complete satisfaction of our curiosity.’

This paper briefly explores the application of photography (a product of both art and science) to recording the shape and form of the human face in order to create catalogues of knowledge. This journey includes an esoteric connectivity to a mystical ideal or understanding of the self through to an early twentieth century search for a (mystical) purity of race and type in the comparative photography of German scientist and eugenicist Hans F. K. Günther.

From its inception in 1839 the medium of photography was quickly associated with the genesis of an extension of the self, as a fragment of the soul, extended and captured in the silver. Indeed the very process of allowing any image to be produced as likeness was linked to the concept of soul replication. As Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) pointed out in The Golden Bough many peoples believed the soul to lie in the shadow or reflection. The nineteenth-century travelling photographer often discovered as a result that photography was considered a dire threat to the lives of those photographed and the photographer’s reception was often hostile. For example:

When Dr. Catat and some companions were exploring the Bara country on the west coast of Madagascar, the people suddenly became hostile. The day before the travellers, not without difficulty, had photographed the royal family, and now found themselves accused of taking the souls of the natives for the purpose of selling them when they returned to France.

Nor were such ideas confined to the non-western ‘other’. Photography wielded a deep psychological power over those photographed and for those in possession of photographs. This power stems from the fact that rather than the image being a simulacrum – a sketch – the photograph is perceived to be the very image of the sitter, their reflected shade even to the point of bearing a dangerous occult power over the subject.

The apparent veracity that the photographic image provided absorbed nineteenth and twentieth century users and consumers of images and lent it an unprecedented (and often unquestioned) credibility. The camera’s ability to accurately reproduce the world on a two-dimensional surface seemed to stand as proof that the manner in which a subject was recorded was definitive and unquestionable. Despite its shrunken, (often) monotone and two-dimensional appearance, the photograph was held in a position of unparalleled importance as a piece of factual evidence. Even today in this digital age of electronically created and manipulated images, we are still inclined to give credence to an event or subject if there is a lens based record (whether photograph or moving image) that can be presented as evidence of such a situation.

When photography arrived as a culmination of chemistry and optics, it was long anticipated and much desired. From the Renaissance onwards the urge to provide greater and greater accuracy drove artists to use devices like the Camera Obscura.

Giovanni Battista Della Porta, the Renaissance polymath, wrote the first description of the Camera Obscura in his text Natural Magic published in 1558:

If you cannot draw a picture of a man…draw it by these means…Let the Sun beat upon the window, and there about the hole, let there be Pictures of men, that it may light upon them, but not upon the hole. Put a white paper against the hole, and you shall so long sit the men by the light, bringing them neer, or setting them further, until the Sun cast[ing]a perfect representation…shall describe the manner of the countenance.

From around the end of the fifteenth century artists began using optics to gain ever greater accuracy. Utilising more and more accurately made lenses and mirrors, simple devices like the Camera Obscura, allowed artists to produce more realistic depictions of perspective and likeness demanded in an age where empirical measurement was in the ascendancy.

For the newly wealthy and emergent middle classes, there was also a desire to have an image making process that did not rely on the expensive and select process of painting. Devices such as the Camera Obscura led to other machines that could provide simple likenesses such as the shadowgraph, the physionotrace and the Camera Lucida.

In the nineteenth century the ability of the camera to take (as opposed to make) a likeness quickly became enormously popular. Within a year of the invention being announced photographers had begun travelling the globe with their photographic paraphernalia recording all manner of subject areas but most of all, despite the length of exposure often requires, portraits.

The timing of the invention coincided with the ascendance of science. Emergent sciences such as anthropology lived alongside established concepts such as physiognomy where the outer likeness could be read as a measure of the inner man.

Until quite recent times, physiognomy and its descendent ‘sciences’ such as anthropometrics were generally assumed to be true sciences which could, by careful study of physicality, reveal something about the inner person.

The Swiss pastor Johann Casper Lavater is perhaps the most famous of apologists for physiognomy and he helped to revive it as a credible study after it had fallen somewhat into disrepute during the middle ages and Renaissance when it became associated with palmistry and other divinatory practices (Della Porta himself had been hauled before the inquisition after over enthusiastic Neapolitans hailed him as magus). Lavater published his influential essays on physiognomy in German in 1772. Lavater assured his readers that: “The physiognomy is often a sermon on the goodness of God.”

Lavater’s work described how, after careful training, the physiognomist could make such a reading. But Lavater was drawing on a broad tradition. He saw his ideas as confirmed by, and part of, a tradition that included works by Della Porta who had amongst his other publications had also published De Humana Physiognomia in 1586.

Della Porta’s work makes a comparative study between the external characteristics of humans and animals. As with many of the nascent sciences of the Renaissance, Della Porta’s worldview was intrinsically spiritual and magical, a kind of spiritual metaphysics.

Della Porta subsequent investigation by the Inquisition was partly due to the fact that the work was perceived to border too closely on divination.

Many studies followed Della Porta’s such as Richard Saunder’s physiognomy published in 1671 which relates shape and form to planetary influences and readings.

Sir Thomas Brown published his Religio Medici in 1642. Brown stated: “For there are mystically in our faces certain Characters which carry in them the motto of our Souls, wherein he that cannot read A.B.C. may read our natures.”

The study of the human face and body as indicator of links between the macrocosm and microcosm placed men at the centre of creation and his physicality, derived from God, was linked to the cosmos itself.

Brown and Della Porta certainly played a part in influencing Lavater and Lavater ensured the continuing popularity of such understanding through likeness. Nor should the extent of his influence be underestimated. When Lavater died in 1801 the Scots Magazine called him: “For many years one of the most famous men in Europe.”

For Lavater the likeness was a derivation of the mark of the creator, a mystical connection to a higher ideal that through moral degradation led to visual ‘types’.

In his work Lavater claimed that:

The human countenance, that mirror of Divinity, that noblest of the works of the Creator – shall not motive and action, shall not the correspondence between the interiour and the exteriour, the visible and the invisible, the cause and the effect, be there apparent?

Photography and science in the nineteenth century
The empiricist nineteenth century sciences that sought reason over superstition and evidence over faith, nevertheless explored processes of visual examination linked to and born out of Lavater’s understanding of physiognomic reading. Thus when photography was invented it was quickly assimilated as a tool for making such assessments. Certainly by the end of the nineteenth century photography was being applied prolifically throughout emergent scientific fields of study.

Thomas Henry Huxley suggested that by understanding and measuring every aspect of the physical exterior of the body something of the inner man and his history might be revealed. If knowledge could be gleaned from looking then it followed that such measurement and documentation would lead to understanding. As a device of moralising and comparison the photograph was unsurpassed – for as it was so closely linked to reality belief followed. Scientific Naturalism demanded objective study that was independent of the bias of the observer, photography, lenses and chemistry, the product of a machine, was regarded as objective, real. Photography was embraced by emergent social sciences as the epitome of the kind of scientific device that could reveal without interference. But their science was often grounded in ideas which seem rather incredible today.

British scientist Sir Francis Galton, perceived photography to be a scientific and veracious tool and using the medium he sought to study physiologies and understand aspects of their race, class and social position through complex photographic composites.

By making such combination photographs, overlaying images, Galton sought to understand the evolution of the human species and the negative aspects or unhealthy elements to the evolution. Galton coined the phrase ‘eugenics’ in 1883. Galton was most concerned about inaction and the decline through miscegenation of the dominant aspects of the human race (primarily Caucasoid) and specifically the British race. In a lecture given in 1902 Galton argues for the new science of eugenics:

The faculties of future generations will necessarily be distributed according to the laws of heredity….we cannot doubt the existence of a great power ready to hand and capable of being directed with vast benefit as soon as we shall have learnt to understand and to apply it. To no nation is a high human breed more necessary than to our own, for we plant our stock all over the world and lay the foundation of the dispositions and capacities of future millions of the human race.

Esoteric undercurrents and derivations – the mystical Aryan ideal in National Socialist photography

In Mein Kampf (1925) Adolf Hitler wrote: “All great cultures of the past perished only because the original creative race died out from blood poisoning.”

Hitler had become familiar with the concept of an endangered racial heritage through reading texts such as Human Heredity by the German eugenicists Baur, Fischer and Lenz (published 1921), and through his early influences during the wilderness years of his life in Vienna particularly the work of Ariosophist (Aryan occult wisdom) thinkers such as Guido von List and Jorg Lanz von Liebenfels.

The image of the other, the relevance of the difference between groups, became accentuated throughout the nineteenth century as scientific ideas became appropriated and adapted as evidence of a racial problem and as a clarion call to mystical racists who saw a time of coming struggle and survival for the dominant European races.

In central Europe this appropriation occurred as influential elements of emergent Pan-German nationalist groups developed concepts that combined contemporary trends of race science into the ‘Völkisch’ cannon of thought towards the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Primarily Ariosophists such as von List and von Liebenfels adapted ideas from a broad range of influences including Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy, and notions of Aryan racial history as espoused by figures such as Arthur de Gobineau (The Inequality of the Human Races, 1855). Effectively the Social-Darwinian concept of a coming biological struggle for survival of the fittest was accepted and amalgamated with the notion of the inevitable dawn of a mystical and supreme root-race, the Nordic-Aryan.

German race scientist Hans F. K. Günther made extensive use of photographic source materials to make comparisons and collections of ‘types’ in order to substantiate his text as in The Racial Elements of European History (1927).

The use of photography as a comparative means of assessment and identification became paramount during this period not only in scientific documentations but also in popular publications that contained photographs of racial types from around the world displayed in photographic charts.

But what these studies highlighted was not only the geography and range of race but also the admixture and miscegenation that, according to scientists like Günther, posed a threat to German and Nordic race society.

The influence of the Jewish spirit, and influence won through economic predominance, brings with it the very greatest danger for the life of the European peoples and of the North American peoples alike. For what is here at stake is the unhindered development of the bearers of the highest culture of mankind who, if the process of amalgamation with these emissaries of the East goes further, run the risk in mind and body of wandering off these paths which their own genius has marked out for them.

When the National Socialists came to power in Germany in 1933, Günther, who had been a member since 1932 became a leading figure in developing National Socialist racial scientific thought receiving the Goethe medal from Alfred Rosenberg in 1941 for his anthropological work. Rosenberg stated: “Your work has been of the utmost importance for the safeguarding and development of the National Socialist Weltanschauung.”

Rosenberg was convinced that the so-called Aryan peoples had, as a mystical Über-race, advanced into Europe from an Atlantis-like continent in the north and northwest of the European mainland again assimilating Theosophist and Ariosophist ideas. He stated:

“The geologists show us a continent between North America and Europe…[which Rosenberg refers to as Atlantis] on which a creative race raised a mighty wide-ranging culture….[this race] spread out from the North over the entire world…[its culture] borne by a blue-eyed, blond race which, in several massive waves, has determined the spiritual physiognomy of the world…”

I would like now to explore a little further how this racist mystical ideal (and its antithesis) became enshrined in physiognomic photographic images produced in Germany during the National Socialist era images which ultimately emerge from concepts that are both pseudo-scientific and esoteric.

Photography like other modern inventions and ideas was readily utilised in the promulgation of National Socialist thinking. Certainly in terms of the definition of the ideal racial type it was seen as indispensable. Journals such as Volk und Rasse used photographic covers to highlight the ‘ideal’ type.

Nor were such interventions confined to mainland Europe. Like Rosenberg, Heinrich Himmler was fascinated by the concept of a mythical Aryan race that had originated in some northern Ultima Thule.

Under the auspices of Himmler’s Ahnenerbe (Research and Teaching Community of Ancestral Heritage) study projects included an expedition to Tibet, to locate the racial relics of this migratory Aryan elite race.

Artists that remained in the Reich after the National Socialist accession to power in 1933 generally complied with the doctrinal values of the regime. Photography was no exception and photographic artists such as Leni Riefenstahl and Erich Retzlaff made images that promulgated in their work the mystical qualities of an idealised German type.

The pure racial German identity was that of a mystical Volk who like Tacitus’s Germanic barbarians were not simply in the land but were part of it, a Volkish peasant race. Simultaneously the dangers posed by so-called lesser races were also illustrated:

And the representation of the antithesis of the Nordic racial ideal was again based upon a mythological idea of the Jew as the great enemy, the racial descendent of Blavatsky’s Lemuria, the parasitical racial poisoner.

In 1937 an exhibition took place in Munich entitled the Der Ewige Jude or the Eternal Jew. A film of the same name was then commissioned by Goebbels in 1940 which ’demonstrated’ the problems of the Jewish question for Germany.

But in addition to such films and exhibitions photographic slide shows were made that used images such as this in order to demonstrate difference and to aid in identification of unwanted physical traits.

Ominously Hans Günther wrote that in order to avoid what the historian Spengler termed the ‘Fall of the West’ the German race had to decide: ”…whether we have the courage enough to make ready for future generations a world cleansing itself racially and eugenically.”

In the nineteenth-century, the photograph seemed to affirm that science could transcend the confines of raw nature and that through man’s ingenuity photography would be the medium that allowed nature to record itself unfettered by the imperfect mark making of the human hand. Thus captured an image could then be studied as a truthful account of the thing that had been before the lens of the camera.

The connection between the camera obscura space and the uncanny has been prevalent since the inception of the medium. The earliest experiments used terminology such as miraculous, marvellous and magical. The transmutational state where light, the fleeting trace of life, could be codified into image-icon still has echoes of the marvellous even in the twenty-first century. Photography has a history of associations through to the photographic period with its ghosts, soul stealing and evidential structures. The photographic space was credited with the ability to ‘see’ where the human eye could not. It is this power which was applied as both a scientific rationalising tool and a divinatory medium of assessment.

According to Marina Warner in her excellent book ‘Phantasmagoria’:
“When the biological sciences of the enlightenment converge[d] with the quest to grasp the knowledge of the secret life…[there was]…a new emphasis on the face as the repository of individuality…This…[led]…eventually to realistic photography becoming the most convincing available record of the soul, and ultimately the usurper of other material relics. The distinctiveness of the countenance was established as the seat of the individual…”

Thus for a short period at least the scientific ‘truth’ of the medium of photography was applied in a defining search for a mystical-racial and ultimately an esoterically derived, reading of the human face. Photography became a marker by which a specific ‘type’ might be codified in order to set it apart from the so-called inferior races that were perceived to threaten its hegemony.

Dr Christopher Webster
Prifysgol Aberystwyth University
School of Art/Ysgol Gelf


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