March 31, 2014 | 2:44pm EST
After entering the grand, marbled National Gallery of Art to escape the day’s drizzle and wind, cold and accompanied by a dripping umbrella, my eyes satisfyingly took in the seminal works of Giotto and Botticelli. Following a crowd of people, I came across one of the featured exhibits in the Founders Room of the West Building and was surprised at the humble, archival display. The display consists of a long, rectangular glass case containing war documents and memorabilia. Yet, as I took a closer look and observed several elderly gentlemen salute the case, I realized its contents spoke of reverence and artistic history.
Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art: The Inside Story inaugurates the first look at one of the world’s most comprehensive efforts in preserving monuments and priceless artwork during and after World War II. Men and women in the infantry as well as multinational art historians and museum curators were deployed to Allied-occupied countries to save these cultural artifacts from destruction and rescue them from hidden repositories created by the Nazis. Photographs, letters of correspondence, and telegrams donated by families of these “Monuments Men” attest to the stupendous efforts that these individuals took in defending historical sites and artifacts during wartime. Many of the officers had personal ties to Europe; some were Jewish refugees, others spoke the language. Together, with the shared desire to secure these cultural symbols and protect them from destruction, the Monuments Men ensured the return of an estimated 5 million artifacts to their countries of origin.
The newly opened National Gallery became a pivotal institution in the lobbying efforts to President Roosevelt and Allied Forces to create the presidentially appointed Roberts Commission on June 23, 1943, named after the chairman Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts. The commission lasted until 1946 and birthed the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (MFAA), which was led by National Gallery director David Finley. 400 men and women were sent to approximately 1,000 troves in Europe to uncover crucial artwork. Among the sites was Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, where over 6,000 pieces were recovered from the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce that was responsible for the “legalized” looting of the houses of persecuted Jews. The Altausee salt mine in the Austrian Alps was discovered in 1945 to possess 15th century European masterpieces such as Jan van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Lamb,” and the Tuscan villa of Montegufoni harbored most of the Florentine collections. Prior to the commission, no nationally organized army worked to protect monuments and relics in countries in which and with which it was at war.
It is hard to fathom the truly insurmountable conditions that these men and women faced in order to preserve the cultural treasures. So often is freedom associated with national borders and ideology. However, we often forget that freedom is not limited to this; art represents liberty in the expression and autonomy it illustrates. The exhibition is a true testament to how certain soldiers and war personnel during World War II became more than just warriors; they proved to be cultural heroes. After gazing one last time at the photographs of the men and women, soot-faced and all, proudly holding up the prized artwork, I wrung my umbrella and walked outside. The rain and wind no longer seemed so formidable.
Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art: The Inside Story will be on display until September 1, 2014.