Today's guest blogger is Annette Schlagenhauff, Associate Curator for Research at the IMA. She is in charge of researching the provenance, or history of ownership, of European paintings in the IMA’s collection.
On February 7, all eyes will turn to a movie called The Monuments Men, a much anticipated film directed by George Clooney and featuring a star-studded cast. It tells the story of several brave World War II soldiers who were tasked, against all odds, with preserving monuments in the paths of advancing Allied armies in the final months of the war. Once the war had ended, their mission was to find and safeguard treasures of European art stolen by the Nazis. Until now, their story was largely unknown to the general public, although art museums and provenance researchers had long been amazed by the valiant efforts of the men and women in the Monuments, Fine Art & Archives section of the military. They put their lives on the line in an effort to guarantee that Europe’s finest cultural treasures were preserved for future generations.
As it goes with many Hollywood movies, the broad outlines of the story are true, but names and circumstances have been changed to fit a two-hour narrative structure. So if you are expecting a documentary, you might be disappointed and should watch The Rape of Europa instead, a film released in 2008 which is based on the ground-breaking book of the same title by the historian Lynn Nicholas. But The Monuments Men is to be commended for its ability to focus our attention on the hardships and tragedies as well as the successes of these cultural soldiers, most of whom were older than the average GI and elected to leave careers as artists, architects, archivists, conservators and other museum professionals in order to bring their particular expertise to bear in the Allied war effort.
One of the real-life Monuments Men was Thomas Carr Howe Jr., a native of Indiana. Born in 1904 in Kokomo, Howe was raised in Indianapolis before he left for the east coast to attend university. (If the name sounds familiar to Indianapolis residents or Butler University alumni and students, it’s because his father taught at Butler and then served as its president from 1907 to 1920.) The younger Howe chose to pursue an art museum career and, in 1931, he was appointed assistant director at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, becoming that museum’s director in 1939. During WWII, Howe joined the U.S. Navy and served there for two years before being recommended to serve as a Monuments Man.
When Howe returned to San Francisco in February 1946, the head of Bobbs-Merrill, the Indianapolis-based publishing company, asked him to commit his experiences as a Monument Man to writing. Howe agreed to do so, and later that same year his recollections were published with the title Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art. Here we can learn that Howe was present at the Alt Aussee mine when Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, both looted by the Nazis, were packed up and brought out of the depths of the mine under considerable time pressure due to the advancing Russian armies. He was also present several weeks later when a group of Monuments Men evacuated the art stored at Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. Movie goers will recognize these place names, and Howe’s published recollections were no doubt carefully studied by the team that created and produced the movie.
Saltmines and Castles tells yet another interesting story – and one that can be linked to a specific painting currently in the IMA’s collection. Howe’s first solo assignment in Europe – and the Monuments Men often travelled alone rather than as a team — was to retrieve a cache of 81 cases full of art from Grassau, a small town in southeast Bavaria, where Nazi loot had been discovered. In one of these cases was the IMA’s masterpiece by Paul Gaugin, Still Life with Profile of Laval. This painting had been looted, along with many others, from a prominent Jewish collection (the Herzog Collection) by Hungary’s Nazis in 1944. To safeguard their haul from the Russians, it was moved to the small town in Bavaria. Howe’s efforts were almost thwarted by the Hungarian museum curator who was charged with safeguarding the art, but Howe prevailed and he brought the paintings to Munich where the Central Collecting Point was located. Several years later, it was restituted back to Hungary, and then back to the widow of the Herzog heir. She allowed a dealer to sell it, and it had a number of owners before it was acquired by the IMA in 1998. Long story short, a painting now located in Indianapolis was safeguarded by a Monuments Man from Indianapolis!