"Monuments Men" film, exhibit celebrate heroes

By Chuck Springston
American soldiers hand-carried paintings down the steps of the Neuschwanstein Castle under the supervision of Capt. James Rorimer. Image: National Archives and Records / Public Domain, via the Monuments Men Foundation.
American soldiers hand-carried paintings down the steps of the Neuschwanstein Castle under the supervision of Capt. James Rorimer. Image: National Archives and Records / Public Domain, via the Monuments Men Foundation.

The Smithsonian and George Clooney tell the story of “Nazi thieves and the greatest treasure hunt in history.”

Dec. 5, 1944, Europe. “There have been damaged buildings and muddy roads and a few shells whistling around but the fundamental necessities have always been available, food, shelter, a place to get warm, a place to sleep. And I have felt better perhaps because of the satisfaction of getting something done that I can see really done and accomplished."

     Those World War II words were written in a typed letter sent by an American officer who wanted his family to know he would be thinking of them on Christmas. He was not an infantry leader, a tank commander or an artillery captain on a mission to destroy the German army. He was a 47-year-old expert in art conservation on a mission to save Europe’s art from the German army.
     George Stout’s letter to his wife is on display in a Smithsonian Institution exhibit, “Monuments Men: On the Frontline to Save Europe’s Art, 1942-1946,” at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in Washington. The exhibit, which opened Feb. 7, runs through April 20.
     Stout’s experiences also are reflected in the character Frank Stokes, portrayed by George Clooney, in the movie “Monuments Men,” which is also directed by Clooney and based on the book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” written by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter (2009, Center Street).
     I saw the Smithsonian exhibit one afternoon recently and watched the movie later in the evening. Both combine wartime drama with a good detective story.
     The Monuments Men unit was officially named the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives group  (MFAA) of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied Armies. It consisted of an estimated 345 artists, art historians, architects, archivists, curators, museum directors, educators, librarians and others, women as well as men, from 13 countries.
     Their assignment: prevent the destruction of monuments, paintings, sculptures, churches and other icons of Europe’s cultural heritage. As the war came to an end, the Monuments Men went on a hunt for art pieces that had been stolen and hidden by the Nazis. They found and returned more than 5 million items.
     After the Germans marched into Paris in June 1940, the world’s arts community feared that invaluable collections of art would be destroyed throughout Europe from bombing by both sides as the war spread. European museums began moving their works to safe places.
     Museum directors, curators and conservators met in New York on Dec. 20, 1941, to address their fears about European museums and agreed on the need for an art protection plan.
     Stout (1897-1978), head of the conservation department at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum, drafted in December 1942 a proposal for an art conservationists corps that would travel with military units in Europe to identify sites that Allied bombers should avoid and document damage that had already occurred. His proposal was backed by Harvard faculty members, Boston museum officials and other arts organizations that made Washington aware of their concerns.
     President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved on June 23, 1943, the creation of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, which was chaired by Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts and became known at the Roberts Commission. The commission helped set up the MFAA as a U.S. Army unit.
     By then, Stout, a World War I Army veteran and member of the Navy Reserves, was on active duty and would rise to the rank of lieutenant commander. He became one of the original members of the MFAA and one of the first in that group to land at Normandy, France, in the weeks after the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
     Some of Stout’s papers are among the items showcased at the Smithsonian exhibit. The exhibition includes a variety of correspondence, government documents and photographs that document the work of the Monuments Men as they scoured Europe for treasures stolen by the Nazis. It is a journey that takes them to places such as Neuschwanstein Castle, high in the Bavarian Alps (the castle later used as the model for Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” castle) and an Austrian salt mine, where Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child”  had been stashed after being swiped from a museum in Belgium.
     In one mine they came across a crowded mass of German civilians hiding in needless fear of the advancing American Army—a dramatic scene curiously omitted from the movie.
     The movie focuses on the stories of seven Monuments Men and one of the women, listed below, with links to short biographies on the website of the Dallas-based Monuments Men Foundation, formed to raise awareness of the group’s contributions, conduct additional research on the members’ lives and help find stolen artworks that still haven’t been returned to their owners.

    •The Stout/Stokes character portrayed by Clooney.

    • Rose Valland (1898-1980), an art historian from the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. Unbeknown to the Nazis, she spoke German and spied on them while they were looting the museum. She learned where they were shipping stolen Paris art and provided that information to Monuments Man James Rorimer in December 1944. Valland also became a French army captain assigned to an art-recovery program. In the movie, she is the inspiration for Claire Simone, portrayed by Cate Blanchett.

     • U.S. Army Capt. James Rorimer (1905-1966), a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, inspired the character James Granger, played by Matt Damon.

    • U.S. Army Capt. Robert Posey (1904-1977), an architect, inspired the character Richard Campbell, played by Bill Murray.

    • U.S. Army Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996), started the School of American Ballet before the war and during the war was an assistant to Posey, inspired the character Preston Savitz, played by Bob Balaban. 

    • U.S. Army Capt. Walker Hancock (1901-1998), a sculptor, inspired the character Walter Garfield, played by John Goodman.

    • British Army Maj. Ronald Balfour (1904-1945), a historian at King’s College in Cambridge who specialized in the medieval period, inspired the character Donald Jeffries, played by Hugh Bonneville.

    The other major character in the movie, portrayed by Jean Dujardin, is named Jean Claude Clermont and is described as director of design at Chalet School of Fine Arts. Clermont appears to be a composite of French officers who assisted the Monuments Men.
    Two Monuments Men were killed, which the movie reflects, although not in a way that adheres completely to the historical record. If you haven’t seen the movie and would rather not know the true details of the deaths yet, I won’t spoil it for you. But you can get the information here and here.

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