The 75th Anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials

On 20 November 1945 the Nuremberg Trials began. Prominent members of the political, military, judicial and economic leadership of Nazi Germany, who planned, carried out, or otherwise participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes were tried on charges of:

war crimes

crimes against peace

crimes against humanity.

The classification of ‘War Criminals’ had not previously existed. The trials marked a new chapter in international law.

22 leading Nazis were tried. 12 were sentenced to death by hanging, 7 to terms of imprisonment, 3 were acquitted. Hermann Göring committed suicide the night before his execution.

The War Artists’ Advisory Committee commissioned an artist to create a pictorial representation of the trials. Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) was selected and this is the work she created.

NUREMBERG TRIAL, Knight, 1946, oil on canvas, 6’ x 5’ – 1.82 x 1.52m, Imperial War Museum

Knight had been an official war artist in both World Wars. For this commission she was appointed a war correspondent and made a BBC broadcast from Nuremberg. She gained special access to the broadcasting box just above the prisoners where she was able to make studies of the main protagonists. The lower three quarters of the work reproduces faithfully the courtroom scene and is, in effect, a group portrait of the prisoners.

A rare colour photo of the Nuremberg trials

Behind the defendants stands a line of white-helmeted American military police who guard the benches. On the left, in front of the defendants, sit two rows of lawyers, largely in black robes. The lawyers and the defendants study sheaves of paper and listen to translations of the proceedings on headphones.

Knight spent three months observing the trial.

But how do you convey such an historic and horrifically unique event? Knight was up to the task and not afraid of controversy. She had caused a stir when she first appeared on the art scene with ‘Self Portrait with Nude’. Nothing unusual in seeing nude women in art – the entire pantheon of western art history is full of them. But previous to this nudes had been painted by men for men.

SELF PORTRAIT WITH NUDE, Knight, 1913, oil on canvas, 5’ x 4’2’’ – 1.52 x 1.27m, National Portrait Gallery

Despite being created during the fight for women’s suffrage, the work received mixed reviews. The Daily Telegraph called the painting ‘vulgar’ and suggested that ‘it might quite appropriately have stayed in the artist’s studio.’ 25 years later The Times was still describing the painting as ‘regrettable’.

Knight was deeply disturbed by what she heard during the trials. Faced with both the devastation of Nuremberg, and the inconceivable crimes for which the men were being tried, Knight, a realist painter throughout her career, found her usual narrative compositional methods lacking.

Knight expresses her horror in her treatment of the upper part of the composition which depicts a landscape of desolation floating above the courtroom like a shared nightmare. The courtroom has only one visible wall. Knight frames the dock with what she called ‘a mirage’ of the ruined city.

NUREMBERG TRIAL, detail, Knight, 1946, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museum

Knight explained her choice of composition in a letter to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee:

‘In that ruined city death and destruction are ever present. They had to come into the picture; without them, it would not be the Nuremberg as it now is during the trial, when the death of millions and utter devastation are the sole topics of conversation wherever one goes – whatever one is doing.’

An unimaginable event captured.

 

 

8 Comments

  1. We just managed to get in to see the Artemisia Gentileschi before the second lock down and it was interesting thinking about the difference between the way a woman paints naked women and the way men do it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Completely! I used to teach a lesson on Artemisia, comparing her work to her father’s and also Caravaggio’s and the power of her female subjects was so much greater. I was going to do a blog on her and then lockdown happened. But I will do it!

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  3. It’s riveting isn’t it. And great bravery and resilience too. Knight was also the first female artist to be elected as a full member of the RA and also the the first woman to have a retrospective there. One hell of a Dame!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating story, thank you for sharing it. I really like the Nuremberg painting – I feel like it’s slightly Rembrandt-ish and the sort of powerful painting that really invites you in, to linger and ponder the awfulness of things we humans are capable of. Is it simply reportage or is there hope in it? Or maybe the hope is in the fact that they didn’t get away with it…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So many good points! I love the idea of it being Rembrandt-ish, probably in part to do with the colour palette but also the accuracy of the portraits. I do think it must have been such a difficult and painful commission. There has to be accuracy but also mood and symbolism. Yes, hope …

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