Alumni ‘Monuments Men’ rescue looted artwork after WWII

The Monuments Men aided in the rescue of countless pieces of art stolen by the Nazis or endangered by World War II.  Photo Courtesy of Williams Magazine
The Monuments Men aided in the rescue of countless pieces of art stolen by the Nazis or endangered by World War II. Photo Courtesy of Williams Magazine

On  May 15, 1945, a little over a week after the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies, a company of the Allied soldiers began disassembling one of the most important fortifications of the war in Milan, Italy. Over 10 days, they removed a bulwark of sandbags and scaffolding surrounding the north wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie that had been in place since August 1943, when a German bombing annihilated much of the city. Hidden for two years beneath this makeshift cover was the fate of one of the most iconic works of art ever created, already compromised by a weak attachment to its surface and 500 years of poor preservation. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper, was either preserved or entombed behind a layer of steel, burlap and sand.

It was thereafter in the hands of the men of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program (MFAA), or the Monuments Men, a detachment of the Allied military forces that was tasked with the preservation and recovery of valuable artwork that was threatened by the violence of the war or was stolen by the Nazis. As they had done many times before, they uncovered the beloved artwork, inspected it and celebrated its miraculous survival of the trauma of war, before determining what steps would be necessary for a proper restoration.

At this point, your critical mind might question why a College student should care about a group of militant art historians from a half-century ago. But besides providing justification for your art history degree, the story of the Monuments Men is an oft-forgotten story about not only military and cultural history, but also the history of art at the College. Their story has been told nationally in the film The Monuments Men, currently showing at Images, and also locally at a Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) “storytelling session” last Friday.

S. Lane Faison ’29, an alumnus of the College, was tasked with figuring out why Adolf Hitler was so interested in looting priceless artworks. He introduced his official report to his administration, the Office of Strategic Services, a pre-CIA intelligence agency, by boiling down the Nazi art looting to a simple analogy: “Like a small-town boy who made good, Adolf Hitler wanted the home folks to bask in his success.” He determined that Hitler’s idea of success hinged upon dominating centuries of European cultural history.

After the war, Faison returned to the College to continue his career in art history and education. He continued to teach at the College until the end of his career, and served as the art department chair from 1940 to 1968. He also worked as director of WCMA beginning in 1948 until his retirement in 1976.

As a Naval Lieutenant and Chief Deputy of the MFAA proper, Charles Parkhurst ’35 was responsible for organizing the restitution of looted artworks found in postwar Germany. He contributed substantially to the recovery of the saved artworks, which are over five million in number.

After his time in the MFAA, Parkhurst went on to be head of the art department at Oberlin and direct the nearby Allen Historical Art Museum. He was director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, before taking a prestigious position as the assistant director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He returned to Williamstown in 1983 to teach and serve as the Deputy Director of Special Projects at WCMA, while also working with the Smith College Museum of Art in Northhampton, Mass. He held these positions until his retirement in 1992.

Though the role of the MFAA is often neglected in the popular history of World War II, its importance should not be understated. They recovered or evacuated many universally-recognized pieces of art. Another of da Vinci’s masterpieces, the Mona Lisa, is one example that the MFAA transported across Europe six different times between 1939 and 1945 to keep out of Nazi hands. Not every recovered piece was a painting; Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges is a marble statue that was looted from the Bruges Notre Dame Cathedral in Bruges, Belgium, and later recovered in the Steinberg salt mine in the Austrian city of Altaussee. Music lovers would likely relish another discovery made in a tunnel in Siegen, Germany, where MFAA soldiers found the original manuscript of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6.

So we return to our original question: why should this interest a student of the College, many decades removed from the looting of these pieces of art? Perhaps it is merely an academic curiosity, but it is tough to imagine the number of artworks left unrecovered in the wake of World War II being even greater. The current list includes famous names like Cézanne, Degas, Kirchner and Monet. Due to the carelessness of military conflict and their deliberate removal from the places that had cared for them, some priceless works of art are all but forgotten today. Were it not for the MFAA, the common man’s knowledge of art history would have many notable gaps and would be much less rich overall. The MFAA, and the two Williams alumni who contributed to its mission are a testament to the necessity of preserving the culture of the past, without which the culture of today would be much less colorful.