Washington gallery, movie honour 'monuments men' who saved Europe's cultural treasures

Gallery, film honour soldiers who saved Europe's cultural treasures

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 February, 2014, 9:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 February, 2014, 3:05am


When art historians saw Paris fall to the Nazis in the second world war, they realised Europe's vast monuments, art, cathedrals and architecture were at risk and began mobilising to protect them.

In Washington, the National Gallery of Art became the epicentre for lobbying president Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Allied forces in 1941 to prevent the destruction of Europe's monuments. Their efforts would create a corps of American and British soldiers who worked to protect cultural sites and recover looted art after the war.

Now for the first time, photographs, maps, correspondence and records - including lists of art amassed by Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders - from the corps of soldiers known as "monuments men" are going on display at the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art and the National Archives.

At the same time, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett tell the story in The Monuments Men opening tomorrow, drawing new attention to the history. It's a story straight out of the nation's archives and art repositories from the records that real monuments men and women left behind.

One of them was George Leslie Stout, an art conservator at the Fogg Museum in Boston, who drafted a plan for a special military team to protect Europe's art from Allied bombings. He even enlisted in the navy with hopes of seeing his plan through. Leaders at the National Gallery of Art pressed the case with justices of the Supreme Court and the president, and their efforts led to the creation of the US Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section.

Just before D-Day, General Dwight Eisenhower issued an order for every field commander to guard irreplaceable sites as Allied troops invaded the European mainland to defeat Germany.

"Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centres which symbolise to the world all that we are fighting to preserve," Eisenhower said in 1944. "It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible."

Surrounded by the destruction of war, the monuments unit mapped important sites to save and later turned to recovering and returning stolen artwork - a change from the spoils-of-war practices of the past.

Personal papers from Stout and other "monuments men", including James Rorimer and Walker Hancock, were later acquired by the Archives of American Art and the National Gallery. Filmmakers consulted the archives in making the movie, including some of the records now displayed, said Kate Haw, director of the Smithsonian's archive.

"The movie will make a great story, and then people can come learn the history by coming to us," she said.

Rarely seen images now on view at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum show a garden sculpture at the Palace of Versailles draped in camouflage netting for protection, the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany where the Nazis amassed stolen art and the rescue of Michelangelo's 1504 sculpture Madonna and Child, which had been stolen from a church in Bruges, Belgium.