Evacuating artwork from Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, winter 1945. Thomas Carr Howe papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

 

When George Clooney's The Monuments Men hits theaters this Friday, the film, starring Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and John Goodman, will not be the only tribute to the World War II-era art preservation division of the U.S. Army making its debut. "Monuments Men: On the Frontline to Save Europe's Art, 1942-1946" will be on view at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C., Feb. 7-Apr. 20.

The exhibition draws from the personal archives of seven members of the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section of the U.S. Army, which operated from 1943 to 1946. Letters, photos and other historical documents from the collections of George Leslie Stout, James J. Rorimer, Walker Hancock, Thomas Carr Howe, S. Lane Faison, Walter Horn and Otto Wittmann tell the story of the Monuments Men's efforts during the war, first to protect cultural monuments and document the damage done to them, and later to recover artwork stolen by the Nazis. A.i.A. spoke with Archives director Kate Haw about the show:

SARAH CASCONE Who was responsible for founding the Monuments division and for making the effort to protect artwork and cultural artifacts during the war?

KATE HAW George Stout, who was a conservator at Harvard, was one of the main drivers behind getting the Monuments Men established. Others were involved as well, but it was kind of George Stout's baby. It took quite a long time, but President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower ultimately got behind the idea—as long as it didn't interfere with achieving the objectives of the war, they would look out for important cultural sites.

We have on view a draft of the initial proposal for the Monuments Men, and it really gives you a sense of what they were trying to achieve. These were people who were working in museums and the art world—this was their field, so they really had a passion for saving that work. They understood that the protection of human life was primary, but they had the foresight to recognize that if the forces involved in the war destroyed the cultural heritage of Europe, there would be no foundation to rebuild upon. Also, by going in and respecting and protecting these cultural sites, they could build trust with the people whose countries were being invaded.

CASCONE Did the Monuments Men see much active combat?

HAW Some of them did. There were times when they were on the front lines, and they were certainly in danger. Two of the Monuments Men died during the course of the war. I believe it was Stout who found out that art was being hidden in a salt mine. He went behind enemy lines near a town called Siegen and discovered this giant cache of stolen art.

CASCONE How were they able track down stolen artwork?

HAW Sometime people who were not formally involved in the service helped. For instance, Rose Valland was a French art historian who worked at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. That museum was taken over by the Nazis, who used it as a staging ground for cataloging works they had stolen and shipping them to places where they could be protected during the rest of the war. Valland was forced to work with the Nazis, but she kept copious notes about where these works of art went. One of the Monuments Men, James Rorimer, was stationed in Paris, and she turned that information over to him. This allowed the Monuments Men to find stolen work that had been funneled through the Jeu de Paume.

CASCONE What are some of the other documents in the exhibition?

HAW We have the inventory of Hermann Göring's personal collection of plundered artwork. A number of top leaders in the Nazi regime were building their own collections from the millions of works of art that had been looted. Göring's inventory alone is hundreds and hundreds of works of arts, so from that you get the sheer scale of the enterprise of theft.