Last year, one of the books I read was The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel, a true story that I probably never would have heard about were it not for a Rick Steves podcast. The way I described this book in one word last year—the best book I read all year—incredible. And if you’ve only seen the movie of the same name, I can say you got but a small snippet of the full story.
A lot has been written about Adolf Hitler and the atrocities he carried out but this is the first I had read of his mad lust for art. Concurrent with the pillaging of towns and villages was the looting of works of art—many of them incredibly famous. Driven by the desire to build the world’s best art museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria, Hitler had numerous soldiers collecting and shipping artwork to the Fatherland.
As the tide of the war began to turn and occupied cities were liberated, it was the job of the Monuments Men to recover and return the stolen works of art. Aided by Rose Valland, an unpaid volunteer at the Jeu de Paume museum, adjacent to the Louvre in Paris, she was witness to Hitler’s selection of art for his collection and secretly kept records that proved key to the uncovering of this art in the world’s greatest treasure hunt. Having been to the Orsay museum in Paris this past year, I often had to pause in front of a painting to appreciate that the work of art I was viewing was there for me to see only through the efforts of these brave men and women who risked their lives to save these treasures for future generations to enjoy.
This year, my appreciation for the work these individuals did, and others trying to safe guard art from the pillagers of war, was elevated even more in an unexpected way.
During my recent trip to Amsterdam, one of the museums I visited with my three siblings was the Stedelijk Modern Art Museum. The main focus of all four of us was the special Matisse exhibit they had.
Since I had been to this museum with my wife the previous year, I didn’t spend too much time looking through those parts of the museum I had seen the year before. A few days later after my brother and sisters left for Belgium and my wife and her sister joined me, the Stedelijk was one of the museums they wanted to see. Having only been there a few days before, I spent a good part of my time in the museum café drinking a beer.
When I entered the museum to find my wife and her sister, I discovered that they had found another special exhibit I had totally missed just a few days before, this one marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Holland in May 1945. When I rounded the corner, I came face to face with this unsettling photo.
Having just visited the Anne Frank house, the German occupation of Holland was already fresh on my mind. But seeing this photo of German troops marching in the Museumplein (museum square) took the stark reality of this period to a whole new level (that is the Concertgebouw Music hall off to the right). Part of the exhibit included photos and film clips of the Dutch exploding the concrete bunkers the Germans had built inside Amsterdam. But when I found the portion of the exhibit related to the Dutch efforts to hide pieces of art and the men who helped return it, I became enthralled.
This photo in the exhibit shows how the paintings were stored in the bunker near Castricium. It is absolutely amazing the dangerous efforts that were undertaken to safeguard these pieces of art.
Were it not for the efforts of Stedelijk curator Willem Sandberg to build this bunker and his work with the local museums to hide them, these incredibly familiar and priceless pieces of art may have been lost forever and for those of us born after World War II, would have only had photos to see them.
With so many pieces of art to protect, a clever color system was developed and art was categorized into three classes, basically: critical, important, desirable. Colored dots, white, red, and blue (the colors of the Dutch flag) were then painted on the back of the paintings to designate its category. The most efforts were then spent on putting the top two categories into hiding.
This bunker housed works of Van Gogh, Matisse, and for a time, even Rembrandt’s Night Watch from the Rijks Museum, rolled up like a carpet.
Thanks to my wife and her sister, me finding this exhibit at the Stedelijk was a incredible and unexpected treat and gave me an even greater appreciation for not just the Monument’s Men, but the other men and women who risked their lives to save these art treasures.