Next week The Monuments Men (directed by and starring George Clooney) is set to hit silver screens. The film is based on the true story of a band of American scholar-soldiers whose mission in WWII was to recover stolen artifacts from what is perhaps the most ambitious theft in history: Nazi art-looting.
One of Hitler’s many troubling ambitions was to erect a grand museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria, to house a massive pan-European collection of fine art looted throughout the war. In pursuit of this goal—the creation of the eponymous Führermuseum—the Nazi army developed an extensive art-plundering apparatus responsible for ferrying masterpieces across the continent to secret storage depots where the centuries-old cultural inventory was stowed away for safekeeping (or alternately, held hostage as wartime bargaining chips).
Under the Nazi-sympathetic Vichy government, France became a staging ground for this artistic exodus. Like Hitler, the Vichy Secretary General of Art, Louis Hautecour, expressed a fundamental disdain for modernist aesthetics, preferring the rationality of Latinate classicism to the abstraction of surrealism and expressionism. Hitler quite famously eschewed the latter styles, regarding them as “degenerate” art, asymptomatic of Aryan superiority.
In hopes of boosting what he saw as the flaccid morale of the French people, Hautecour embraced classicism—and its connotations of imperial inheritance, high culture, and artistic accomplishment—as the French national style. So too, did the Third Reich, in deference to the Führer’s artistic predilections.
The shifting pendulums of power and cooperation set the stage for an art world rife with opportunism as French curators and conservationists vied with Nazi collectors and soldiers for the artwork orphaned by the war’s tumult. Hitler commissioned extensive research into France’s artistic holdings and designated museum director, Otto Kümmel, to compile an inventory of artwork in France that would serve as a guiding index for Nazi “repatriation.” The Kümmel Report, took stock of all works that met the criteria of somehow representing German patrimony and culture including German works held abroad, Napoleonic war spoils, and (more loosely interpretable) art that in some way reflected Germanic character.
The primary targets for German “repatriation” were Jewish proprietors of private art collections. Thousands upon thousands of stolen artwork passed through the Jeu de Paume—a Parisian museum—on its way to Germany. Only one unassuming employee was permitted to continue working in the Nazi-commandeered museum. Rose Valland (whose character is the basis for Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone in the film adaptation), turned spy at the direction of the Vichy government’s Director of National Museums, and tracked the Nazis' art shipments under the guise of maintaining the building. At the war’s denouement her intel earned her a captaincy in the French army where she served as a crucial liaison to the American platoon known as the Monuments Men, whose teams traced the journey of the pillaged objects to the Reich’s secret art depots.
Top American curators served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (aka ‘Monuments Men’) including James Rorimer, future director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum (his Hollywood reincarnation, James Granger, is played by Matt Damon). Together with Valland, the Monuments Men embarked on one of the greatest treasure hunts in history, unearthing thousands of intact objects from Austrian salt mines and German castles. All told the Allied forces recovered approximately 61,000 art pieces that had been seized from France, alone.
Today, at the Colorado Center for Literature and Art in Denver, Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt will delve into a discussion on Nazi art looting and the history behind the soon-to-debut film The Monuments Men. Karlsgodt is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Denver and author of Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage Under Vichy. See more details on her presentation here and for more information on the Monuments Men, check out this featurette from the upcoming film: