THE MONUMENTS MEN
About The Real Monuments Men and the Art
For centuries, conquering armies have treated the art of their vanquished as
spoils of war." But the world was not prepared for the pillage of the Nazis, who
stole millions of art treasures as they marched through Europe."
Adolf Hitler was a great art lover. A frustrated artist who had been rejected
by the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Hitler dreamed of transforming
his adopted hometown of Linz, Austria, into a cultural capital. At the center of
this new metropolis would be the Gemaldegalerie LInz, or Fuhrermuseum as it
became known, which would house and display some of the world's greatest works
of art: paintings, sculpture, tapestries... anything that Hitler deemed worthy
of his collection. Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, the number two man in the
Nazi Party who saw himself as a "Renaissance man," also had ambitions of
amassing a great art collection. "I intend to plunder, and to do it thoroughly,"
he once said.
The sheer volume of thievery is staggering: the Nazis looted more than five
million of Europe's greatest cultural treasures. The stolen items included tens
of thousands of works by a veritable Who's Who of artists: Michelangelo,
Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Jan Van Eyck, Vermeer, Vincent van Gogh, and many
more. Just one repository for the artwork - the salt mine at Altaussee, Austria
- contained 6,577 paintings, 230 drawings or watercolors, 137 sculptures, 122
tapestries, and 1200-1700 cases of rare books.
Long before news about the Nazi art thievery and the destruction of churches,
museums and monuments reached elected leaders in the United States, prominent
members of the American art community developed plans to save the cultural and
artistic heritage of western civilization. They took their case to President
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, understanding its importance, authorized the
creation of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic
and Historic Monuments in Europe. From that commission sprang the Monuments,
Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section, a hand-picked group of museum curators,
architects, scholars, educators, and artists who volunteered for military
service to protect historical monuments, recover looted art, and eventually
return those treasures to the countries from which they had been stolen.
At the time of Germany's surrender, there were only about a dozen Monuments
Men near the front lines in northern Europe, including:
"Lieutenant George Stout, a pioneer in the field of art restoration who first
conceived the idea of cultural preservation officers, who later became known as
"Monuments Men." A constant source of encouragement and a steady hand, Stout was
the acknowledged leader of the group.
Second Lieutenant James J. Rorimer, curator of the world famous Cloisters
Museum and, after the war, the sixth director of the Metropolitan Museum in New
Captain Walker Hancock, one of America's most renowned sculptors.
Captain Robert Posey, an architect who came from a family with a
distinguished history of military service dating back to the colonial wars,
loved serving under General Patton in U.S. Third Army.
Private Lincoln Kirstein, a cultural impresario who would, after the war,
cofound what today we know as the New York City Ballet.
Private Harry Ettlinger, a German-born Jew who, with his family, fled Nazi
Germany and immigrated to America. Five years later, at the age 18, he was
drafted into the United States Army, and eventually saw service as a Monuments
Man providing translation services.
The Monuments Men also found a valuable ally in Paris, in the person of Rose
Valland, an art historian, member of the French Resistance and, at the time of
the Nazi occupation, custodian of the Jeu de Paume Museum. The Germans used the
Museum as their central storage and sorting depot for more than 20,000 looted
works of art.
Valland surreptitiously kept records of each piece that passed through the
museum. For four years, she hid the fact that she understood German while
tracking the destinations of the stolen artworks. At great personal risk,
Valland passed information to the French Resistance. Valland is one of the most
decorated women in French history.
In March 1945, with Allied troops fast approaching, Hitler issued his
infamous "Demolitions on Reich Territory Decree" (nicknamed the "Nero Decree"),
which ordered the destruction of German infrastructure to prevent their use by
Allied forces - and was interpreted by some Nazi fanatics to extend to the
massive collection of stolen art.
While the Monuments Men were responsible for the rescue and preservation of
millions of European art treasures, two pieces in particular took on special
significance: the Bruges Madonna and the Ghent Altarpiece.
The Bruges Madonna
Michelangelo's fourth treatment of the Madonna and Child theme represents a
major departure from his earlier work. The Madonna does not cradle the Christ
Child in her arms or on her lap. Instead, the Child has slid down between her
knees, as if to take his first independent step. The worried gaze of his mother
seems to indicate an awareness of his fate.
Around 1506, the Mouscron brothers, wealthy Flemish cloth merchants, brought
the fifty-inch, free-standing marble statue to Belgium, where it was placed on
the altar of their family chapel in the church of Notre-Dame in Bruges. Since
then, the Bruges Madonna has been Belgium's most famous resident. The sculpture
was removed from Bruges by retreating Nazis in September 1944, and was found and
returned by the Monuments Men.
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