The art of war

The story of those who did everything in their power to protect European cultural heritage in WWII.

By MARILYN HENRY
January 26, 2010 20:38
4 minute read.

 
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As American troops fought the Nazis, US commanders were given an unprecedented military assignment: Defeat fascism without destroying European monuments and the continent's cultural heritage. Military needs would always trump cultural preservation, but monuments and artworks were to be protected, where possible, from war damage, ransacking and military requisition.



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This was a tall order filled by an unusual assortment of painters, sculptors, architects, historians and curators who begged, borrowed or scrounged the means to protect monuments in the Allied military's path, repair those that had been damaged by war and find caches of looted property. These were the "monuments men," members of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section, a minuscule part of the US military. Along with British counterparts, they were officers of low rank and "superior" education who were charged with the preservation of Europe's great treasures.






Although the monuments men were virtually unknown for a half-century after World War II, two new books tell the story of the mission and the men who fulfilled it. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, covers the wartime and immediate postwar work of the monuments men in Northern Europe. Ilaria Dagnini Brey has written The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II. Both books are ambitious, beautifully written and compelling history. (Edsel took some liberties by recreating dialogue, which was not too troubling.)






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Edsel has painted vivid pictures of the monument men's courage, skill and moxie as they began their mission in the middle of the war. He also gives one of the most detailed accounts in English of France's formidable Rose Valland, who worked in Paris's Jeu de Palme museum during the Nazi occupation and bravely kept track of the artworks that had been looted. The monuments men briefly helped repatriate artworks found in the US Occupation Zones immediately after the war.






The number of objects was staggering. In western Germany alone, the Allies had discovered more than 1,000 repositories and caches of cultural properties - millions of works of art and cultural objects, including Torah scrolls, church bells, ceremonial religious items, archives, manuscripts, books, wine, gold, diamonds - and an insect collection.






Neither Edsel nor Brey shies away from revealing the frustration, fatigue and loneliness of the monuments men. Working alone or in pairs, they faced herculean challenges, at times amid enemy fire, with inadequate or unreliable support from the military, which reasonably put its battle plans and the welfare of its men above the welfare of monuments. Yet, to the monuments men's credit, they persevered.






"From my point of view, this is not a bad job," George Stout, formerly of Harvard's Fogg Museum, wrote to a colleague in October 1944. "During the last three weeks I've been in harness with an Englishman who's gone terribly sour and says we're wasting our time. I don't know what he expected. Some strange romantic adventure, personal glory or great authority, perhaps. He doesn't convince me. We can't count the result but I'm satisfied, not with what I've done but with what the job stands for."






In Italy, political disarray and changing military conditions imperiled monuments and artworks. Monuments men attempted to salvage works they could not easily protect and became known as the "Venus fixers." (This moniker apparently began as something of a joke, but subsequently was worn with pride.) Brey tells of one of the men, Frederick Hartt, an Allied officer who, in addition to rescuing Florentine art, had helped save churches and palazzi in Sicily from the threats of weather, vandalism and theft. Hartt wrote they had saved them "from slipping from history into oblivion."




Edsel has done something similar for the monuments men. Long before the publication of his book, he was seeking - and winning - recognition for their wartime work. Men like Hartt, Stout and James Rorimer returned to important careers in American cultural and art historical circles. When Hartt died in 1991, The New York Times reported that he had been a widely published scholar of Renaissance art and listed the American universities at which he taught. But it overlooked his work in Italy.






FOR ALL the public discussion on Nazi-era looting in the last dozen years, and demands for information regarding the provenance of artworks, systematic research of plunder and acquisitions seems to be sorely lacking. There are few comprehensive and easily accessible sources that identify and trace the fates of objects that were confiscated or displaced during World War II.






Nancy H. Yeide, the head of curatorial records at the US National Gallery of Art, has made a profound contribution to the historical record by cataloging the art collection of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe and a self-styled Renaissance man. With images and provenance information on some 1,800 works Goering acquired, Yeide's book Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: The Hermann Goering Collection dramatically illustrates the extent to which Goering was indeed the Nazi master plunderer. Yeide's work on Goering was not an academic exercise. While researching Goering's artworks, she located a Francois Boucher painting that had been looted from the Paris art dealer Andre Seligmann in 1940. The painting, which had been donated to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in 1993, was returned to Seligmann's heirs in 2004.






With its archival and scholarly depth, Yeide's book is important to historians, museums and art professionals. Unfortunately, a book of this heft was quite expensive to publish, and its price tag puts it beyond individual reach. But it should be essential for collections in universities and libraries.






None of these books is about Jewish cultural losses, although these losses are briefly touched on in Edsel's book. However, these volumes are welcomed additions to the small batch of books on Holocaust-era looting. They are valuable in their own rights and for keeping attention focused on the magnitude and unresolved issues of Nazi looting.

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