In The Monuments Men, opening February 7, George Clooney is his usual charming self in a dapper mustache and Army officer’s garb, cracking wise in Art Deco cafes and backslapping buddies Matt Damon, Bill Murray, and John Goodman as they race through Europe in the wake of D-Day. Billed as “the greatest treasure hunt in history,” the film can appear like Ocean’s Eleven with Nazis.
But the inspiration for Clooney’s character was real, as was the mission of the Monuments Men: the 345 men (and women) of a little-known military detachment during World War II formally known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA. Their mission: to save culturally significant art, buildings, and other monuments from destruction—as much of it as possible. Not an easy task in peacetime; nearly impossible in an all-out war across a dozen countries and in the teeth of a sophisticated looting operation run by no less a megalomaniac than Hermann Göring, who said, “I intend to plunder, and to do it thoroughly.” Not only were the Nazis confiscating art from Jewish homes and collections, they were purging art they deemed “degenerate” from Germany’s museums and galleries, and systematically seizing art from the countries they invaded. They planned to show the best of it at a massive “Führermuseum,” a triumphal gathering of the West’s greatest treasures in Linz, Austria, where Adolf Hitler spent much of his boyhood.
In the end, Hitler didn’t triumph, of course. The museum was never built. And the Monuments Men, despite being spread almost comically thin across the continent, found what they were looking for—in caves, castles, and mountain hideouts—and saved some of the world’s greatest artworks, what President Roosevelt called “symbols of the human spirit.” (They didn’t find everything, though, as recent stories of resurfaced art in Germany attest.)
As these heroes get their cinematic due, the MIA is offering its own tribute starting February 3: a self-guided tour of nine artworks in the galleries with incredible stories of surviving World War II. The in-depth stories of the first four artworks are below; part II will follow next week. And look for additional stories here in the coming weeks, including bios of the Monuments Men who worked at the MIA and an interview with a modern-day “monuments woman” still fighting to preserve art in the midst of conflict.
1) St. John the Baptist (Benedetto da Rovezzano, 1505) On view in gallery 340
This Renaissance-era bust was purchased by the Nazis in the Netherlands in 1941 for eventual display in the Führermuseum. It’s not surprising the Nazis coveted the piece: aside from its traditional Christian theme, its sculptor was among the most respected artists of his time. Eike Schmidt, the MIA’s James Ford Bell curator of decorative arts and sculpture, calls Benedetto da Rovezzano a somewhat forgotten genius today: “When Michelangelo had to leave Florence for Rome to paint the Sistine Chapel, there was one unfinished work he had to complete to get paid, and the one artist he trusted to finish it was Benedetto. So it’s not just my view that he was a great artist—it’s Michelangelo’s.”
Until the Führermuseum could be built, the sculpture was hidden—along with more than 8,000 other objects, including works by da Vinci, Vermeer, and Michelangelo—in the Alt Aussee salt mines of Austria, one of several Nazi storage sites.
Toward the end of the war, as his dream of the Third Reich began to fade, Hitler decided to destroy the mine and its contents. The mineworkers foiled the plan. Having inactivated the Nazi bombs, they set off their own carefully controlled explosions, sealing 137 tunnels in the mine and rendering the objects protected yet inaccessible until the Monuments Men arrived to liberate them.
2) Modern Bohemia (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1924) On view in gallery 371
In the first two weeks of July 1937, SS officers took over German museums by decree, removing directors and curators from their posts and confiscating modern art—including, by all accounts, this painting from the Museum Folkwang in Essen. The Nazis dubbed such art “degenerate” for its creative depictions of reality, among other sins. (Hitler, who famously failed as an art student, defined “Entartete Kunst,” or degenerate art, as works that “insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form, or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.”) At first, the Nazis burned the art. Then they realized they were burning money—the works were valuable to someone, if not themselves—and started selling them, privately at first and then at auction in Switzerland.
“About half the American museums stayed away from these auctions,” says Erika Holmquist-Wall, the assistant curator of paintings and provenance specialist at the MIA. “They didn’t want to touch the work with a 10-foot pole.” Others bought as much as they could, at auction or otherwise. The director of the Museum of Modern Art asked Philip Johnson, then a MOMA curator (and, as it happens, a Nazi sympathizer), to buy the best works by the modern artist Oskar Schlemmer from an exhibition the Nazis had recently shut down—just to, as the director put it, “spite the sons-of-bitches.”
This painting by Kirchner sold for $75 to a German art dealer at a “degenerate art” sale. The dealer, Karl Buchholz, left the country soon after and set up a gallery in New York, where much of the German Expressionist art in the collections of the MIA and other American museums was eventually purchased. The MIA received this work as a bequest in 1955.
Many of Kirchner’s paintings were not so lucky. In 1937, more than 600 were sold or destroyed, and 25 were displayed that year in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition, which opened to huge crowds in Munich and traveled throughout German and Austria. Kirchner fled to Switzerland and never got over the loss of his life’s work, killing himself in 1938.
A couple of years ago, the Folkwang put on an exhibition called The Most Beautiful Museum in the World, recreating what the museum was like before the war. The MIA loaned this piece to the show.
3) The Piazza San Marco, Venice (Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1881) On view in gallery 355
The Nazis’ dim view of modern art wasn’t limited to the distorted, psychologically infused works of German Expressionism—they were disgusted by Impressionism, too. To the Nazis, a painting like this one by Renoir felt cynical—contemptuously unfinished and unrealistic—despite its innocuous subject matter. “It wasn’t representational,” says Holmquist-Wall, “too abstract.”
Still, the Nazis realized the usefulness of these works—as bargaining chips for art that Hitler did like. They traded 18 Impressionist paintings, for example, for a single one by Titian, the Italian Renaissance master. This painting, made by Renoir during a trip to Venice in 1881, hung in a Munich museum until it was reportedly exchanged by Sam Salz, a prominent New York dealer in Impressionist works, for a painting by Hans Thoma, a German whose accurately rendered landscapes of the motherland were more palatable to Hitler, more compatible with the “blood and soil” ideology of Nazi nationalists. The Renoir came to the MIA from Salz in 1951.
4) Hopfgarten (Lyonel Feininger, 1920) Currently not on view
“We act as if we were painters, poets, or whatever, but what we are is simply and ecstatically impudent. In our impudence we take the world for a ride and train snobs to lick our boots!” These self-flagellating words adorned the wall near this painting during the Nazis’ Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937, meant to humiliate the artists and convey the bounds of acceptable expression. (Oddly, for the famously detail-oriented fascists, they got the title wrong, calling the painting “Tetlow,” another of Feininger’s works in the show.) Hitler had previewed the show in a speech the day before it opened, vowing “merciless war” against the “chatterboxes, dilettantes, and art swindlers” who, in his mind, comprised the modern art world. Unsurprisingly, the show was hugely popular, attracting a million visitors in the first six weeks, and likely not for the reasons the Nazis envisioned.
It was Feininger’s dark, blocky, expressionist style the Nazis objected to, not his subject matter. According to Feininger’s wife, Julia, “Hopfgarten is one of the many villages around Weimar in Thuringia, which Mr. Feininger delighted in visiting on his bicycle in the Bauhaus years. … He was in the habit of sketching after nature in those early times, and after one of these sketches the painting was done soon after he had come to Weimar in 1919.”
After the war, a U.S. military worker bought the painting, and the MIA acquired it from a New York gallery in 1954.
Watch for part II—five more stories of Monuments Men-related art—next week at MIA Stories.