By Linda Weiford, WSU News
PULLMAN, Wash. – When we think of World War II heroes, museum curators and archivists aren’t who come to mind. Unless, of course, we’ve seen the box-office hit, “Monuments Men,” based on a true story about a ragtag group of men and women who risked their lives in Europe – not by killing the enemy but by saving art.
There’s a lot to be learned from these little-known heroes who fought against one of history’s biggest art thefts, and a film that brings their achievements into focus is a good thing, said two Washington State University scholars.
“Monuments Men,” directed by George Clooney and based on the book of the same name, follows a small unit during a dangerous, yet quirky, wartime operation to rescue art and relics stolen by the Nazis. Clooney himself plays its leader.
The real-life band of brothers and a few sisters included curators, archivists and art restorers who crisscrossed Europe with no authority, no vehicles and little military training. Instead of using bullets and bombs, they relied on word-of-mouth information, secret notes and records to recover the pillaged items. Famous paintings, sculptures and rare books were among the objects they chased down; others included artwork, furniture and dishes owned by Holocaust victims.
Efforts appreciated at WSU
As the story recently unfolded on screen at a local movie theater, an audience member who paid close attention was Trevor James Bond, head of WSU’s Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections. Painstaking research and record keeping don’t typically figure into war movies, so the film brought a new perspective to the Second World War, he said.
“The focus on provenance – that is the information regarding the origins of collections, their custody and ownership – is something that museum curators and archivists still obsess over,” he said. “Good, accurate provenance records allowed for the return of art stolen during the war.”
Meticulous sleuthing led to the recovery of thousands of paintings, medieval church bells, granite statues – you name it – that otherwise might not have been found. Had the objects not been systematically recovered, “looted from their institutions and owners, deprived of their origin and history, they would have entered a black hole and taken centuries of Western culture with them,” said Bond.
Extra credit for students
Among the artworks saved were masterpieces by Leonardo de Vinci, Michelangelo and Johannes Vermeer, which were presented only in glimpses during the film. This was probably no accident, said Michael Delahoyde, clinical associate professor of English who awards students in his Humanities 304 class extra credit for seeing the movie and writing about this obscure, yet intriguing, chapter of WWII.
“The movie isn’t so much about appreciating the art itself, but more about possessing it,” said Delahoyde, whose class examines fine art, literature, film and other humanities from the 20th century forward. “Therefore, archiving and indexing were portrayed as much more significant than in any other movie intended for such a wide audience.”
Biggest hero was a Rose
And here’s where Delahoyde and Bond zeroed in on the efforts of the real-life Rose Valland, played in the film by Cate Blanchette. No character played a bigger role in the art’s rescue than this studious French woman did, they said.
Valland was an archivist at a Parisian museum where Nazis stored the pilfered artwork until it could be moved by railcars or trucks. Under the pretense of her normal duties, she secretly kept records of every object, where it came from and where it was destined.
Using this documentation, the Monuments Men located an enormous cache of the loot inside a remote Bavarian castle. Not only that, but they were able to return much of it to the rightful owners.
Portrayed in the film as bookish, simple and quiet, “the idea that she put her life at risk by spying and ultimately outwitted the Nazis is delightful,” said Delahoyde.
Which leads to a question posed by the film that Delahoyde prods his students to think about:
Why is art considered so valuable?