A Pair of Local Exhibits Show the REAL Story Behind ‘The Monument’s Men’

Image credit smithsonianmag.com

One popular movie in theatre now — based on true bravado — tells the unlikely, but absolutely mesmerizing, story of a group of World War II heroes who raced against time (and the enemy) to preserve 1000 years of culture and achievement… in art.   The real story is even more spectacular, and evidence of the crusade remains right here in the Capital!

The Monuments Men,’ a film starring George Clooney, describes how officers in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program rescued masterpieces from the greedy clutches of Nazi thieves and returned them to their rightful owners.   Well, in real life, many of these men—and women—worked for the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

“These men—and women—worked to protect Europe’s cultural heritage at the height of World War II, ensuring its safety in the aftermath and returning works, when possible, to their rightful owners once peace and security were restored,” explained Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, opening a showcase this month that gives a behind the history look at the role the NGA played in the creation of the MFAA, the Roberts Commission, and the experiences of real-life MFAA officers.

The Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art: Behind the History (on view until to September 1, 2014) is an archival display at the National Gallery filled with World War II-era photographs, documents, and memorabilia — many never before exhibited — of the efforts of what Powell calls “an unlikely group of aesthetes in uniform.”  In peacetime, they were art historians, curators, archivists, librarians… who then bravely followed frontline troops into war zones.

Image courtesy Archives of American Art (www.aaa.si.edu)

Another local exhibition, this one at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, also presents photographs, official records, maps, correspondence and audio interviews that chronicle the mission, from the formation of the Civil Conservation Corps in the United States to locating and recovering major works of art that had been looted by the Nazis.

MONUMENTS MEN: On the Frontline to Save Europe’s Art, 1942-1946 (on view until April 20th in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture) is extraordinary as it contains the personal papers of one of the prominent Monuments Men, Stout, who was a well-respected art conservator and instructor at the Fogg Museum in Boston.  The exhibit displays Stout’s correspondence during the commission’s development and his time in Germany, as well as field manuals and maps of cultural sites that the military carried with them from D-Day through V-E Day.

Papers and photographs in the Archives’ collection of the stolen treasures that were hidden in salt mines across Germany reveal the magnitude of the plunder.  Recovered objects include Michelangelo’s sculpture “Madonna and Child,” the Ghent Altarpiece and piles of gold reserves valued at billions of dollars.

Sounds like it these efforts were just made to be a movie!  But take advantage of this pair of behind the film exhibits of truth before being entertained in the theatre.

*Lead image credit Smithsonianmag.com

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