“Museum director” and “art historian” don’t sound like they belong in the same sentence with “war hero.”
But that’s exactly who the Monuments Men were. Not even the Nazis could stop these unsung heroes from securing a place in the history of war and art — a history that experts say helped develop Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art into a world-class museum.
Commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, Monuments Men and women did what many called impossible — saving more than 1,000 years of culture from the Axis powers. In all, the Nazis stole millions of European masterpieces that they stored in a thousand repositories. As the Third Reich fell, the German army had orders to destroy everything. Meanwhile in Asia, ancient art was left vulnerable to invading armies and looting.
The Monuments Men not only helped protect the great art, but also return it to its rightful owners.
And, yes, Kansas City played a part.
Six of the more than 300 Monuments Men and women either worked for the museum — two later became directors — or maintained strong ties with it. After the war, these people helped the gallery grow and amass one of the pre-eminent collections of Asian art in the world. The gallery even bought an 18th-century painting that the Monuments Men rescued from a bomb-rigged salt mine in Austria.
Now the movie “The Monuments Men,” opening Feb. 7, will chronicle their mission. George Clooney, who co-wrote and directed the film, heads an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and John Goodman. The movie is based on the book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert Edsel.
“The Monuments Men story is an epic part of our shared history that is not common knowledge,” Edsel said. “The Monuments Men are a group of museum directors, curators, art historians and artists — men and women who volunteered for service to be a new kind of soldier, one charged with saving, and not destroying.”
Edsel, who spoke in Kansas City in 2007, said the group played a direct role in helping make the Nelson-Atkins “one of the finest museums in the world.”
“Its first two directors were Monuments Men,” he said — Paul Gardner and Laurence Sickman. “And there is a definite connection between those Monuments Men and the museum’s outstanding collection of Asian art.”
Julin Zugazagoitia, the Nelson-Atkins’ director and CEO, says the movie will bring art history alive.
“It’s thrilling indeed that out of a great book comes now a riveting film — one that for many will bring these great heroes back to life,” he said. “I met Mr. Edsel recently, and he was telling me how profoundly committed George Clooney was to this story. He went to great expense to film on location and get the story of these incredible heroes as close to real life as possible.”
To honor the group’s achievement, the museum is creating a display of manuscripts, newspaper clippings, postcards and biographies of the gallery’s Monuments Men.
The display should be ready by the time the movie hits theaters.
The men are all deceased, but their legacy lives on:
Paul Gardner, who oversaw the work of the Monuments Men in Italy, went on to become the museum’s first director.
Laurence Sickman, the gallery’s second director, served as an intelligence officer in the war. After the Japanese surrender, he was assigned to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Tokyo headquarters, assessing artworks for their damage and how best to preserve what was remaining and protect it from looters.
“First as a young man in China, he was buying the best art he could and sending it to Kansas City,” Zugazagoitia said. “That makes our collection one of the top collections of Asian art in the nation. And during his service in the Pacific, he also managed to acquire works of art that he brought to Kansas City.”
Patrick J. Kelleher served at the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point in Germany, helping to figure out where artwork had come from and where it belonged. He later became the museum’s first curator of European art and, says Nelson-Atkins researcher MacKenzie Mallon, was responsible for some of the most significant acquisitions, including Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies.”
In 1954, Kelleher had the museum purchase Nicolas de Largilliere’s painting “Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.” The Monuments Men had found it in an Austrian salt mine rigged with bombs, and they risked their lives to get it out. They returned it to its rightful owner, Clarice de Rothschild, who later sold it to an art dealer in New York. It now hangs in the museum’s first floor. Zugazagoitia calls it one of the finest examples of 18th century portraiture.
“What you see is a man who, 300 years ago, was both forceful and elegant,” he said. “What I like about a painting like this is it takes you back in time to witness someone living in the courts of Europe. You also grasp the joy of painting in expressing someone’s personality at a time when photography didn’t exist.”
Langdon Warner “persuaded the (U.S.) military not to heavily bomb the cultural Japanese cities of Kyoto and Nara,” Edsel said. “As a result, much of the artwork was spared in those cities, which were minimally damaged. Other cities, of course, sustained much more damage.” Before the war, Warner was an adviser to the fledgling museum.
Otto Wittmann Jr., the first curator of prints for the museum, worked for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA, prosecuting art looters after the war, Mallon said.
James A. Reeds was a chief clerk at the U.S. military headquarters in Germany, handling messages from Allied forces when they discovered artwork or monuments that needed attention, Mallon said. Reeds eventually returned to his hometown, taught linguistics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and served as a docent at the museum.
“It is humbling for me to be a successor to these great heroes,” Zugazagoitia said.
He does not use the word “heroes” lightly.
“They were definitely on the front lines,” he said. “Some unfortunately did not make it back.”
Others helped after the war to catalog and return priceless works of art. And all played an important part in preserving many of the world’s masterpieces.
“It’s great when we can celebrate the best accomplishments of mankind,” Zugazagoitia said. “And these men and women literally put their lives at risk to save and celebrate humanity in all its creativity.”
Recently, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri introduced a bill to award Congressional Gold Medals to all the Monuments Men and women.Coming soon
“The Monuments Men,” with writer/director/star George Clooney, opens Feb. 7. It’s inspired by real people, but the characters were invented for the film. Clooney plays a Harvard art historian. Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) is a British expert.
To learn more about the stories the film is based on, go toMonumentsMen.com.