Parisian Monuments Men
March 05, 2014
How would I define Hollywood? The epitome of entertainment, with mind-blowing visual effects but generally lacking content and interest. Occasionally though, some Hollywood productions are testimonies of historical events that have been crucial for future generations. The true story behind Monuments Men, a movie directed by and starring George Clooney, is one of 7 art historians and museum curators going behind enemy lines to recover some of the greatest works of art during WWII. I’m not here to criticize the movie, nor will I spoil it, but I thought it might be interesting to tell you the story of what happened to the museums of Paris between 1939 and 1945.
It is the year 1939 and tension is rising between France and Germany. The Nazis have already invaded Austria in March 1938 and a part of Czechoslovakia has recently been conquered by the German army. This very tense situation leads France to elaborate a plan to evacuate the most valuable art works from all its major museums, based on earlier plans developed to help Spain protect its cultural heritage during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. All hell breaks loose in September 3rd 1939 as France declares war on Germany . Yet the National Museums director Jacques Jaujard had already seen it coming and had ordered the closing of the Louvre a few days before, on August 25th. Officially: to avoid damage due to enemy bombings. Unofficially: The menace of France’s museums being looted by the enemy. The secret evacuation plan is therefore quickly implemented…
Jacques Jaujard’s was right. Shortly after the declaration of war, Paris is invaded by the Nazi German troops. The Nazis walk down the symbolic Avenue des Champs-Elysées, and head off to the Louvre. Unlike today, you can’t say that entering the Louvre at that time was an awe inspiring moment for them. Au contraire! Most of the walls of the museum were empty and hollow frames were lying on the floor! 3690 masterpieces, including the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo had vanished... This was also the case for artworks from other Parisian museums and private collections, as well as furniture from the Château de Versailles. The Louvre soon re-opens though, with “second class” originals and vulgar copies of some of the missing “first class” works of art. Entrance is free for the Germans, yet no one is really interested to see copies!
Keeping the remaining artworks in Paris is not what the Nazis intend to do in the long run. In 1940, the Nazis create an administrative department called the Special Personnel for Pictorial Art in charge of systematically looting the French museums and private collections, mainly those belonging to the Jews. Art works from all over the occupied territories of France are gathered and stored in Paris before being sent to Germany to fulfill Hitler’s dream to create the most beautiful museum in the world in Linz. Ironically, the most beautiful works never really made it to Linz as the German officials preferred handpicking them in Paris for their own private collections. 2 areas are chosen for the storage in Paris, the Louvre and the Musée du Jeu de Paume (in the Jardin des Tuileries), following the proposition made by Jacques Jaujard himself. Traitor? Far from it, as he had a plan of his own: making these items transit via these two sites would enable his team to secretly keep an eye on the transactions.
Art vanished in thin air? Not quite… But where did the most famous paintings and sculptures actually go? The safekeeping areas were usually remote places out of reach from enemy bombings. Some of these secret places include the Château de Sourches, the Château de Chambord or the Château de Valençay. The latter is where the Venus de Milo is kept hidden. As for the Mona Lisa, it’s a much more complicated story. Unlike most paintings, she is not painted on canvas but on poplar wood, therefore very sensible to hydrometric variations. This explains why she is first hidden in the Château de Sourches, then in the Château de Chambord and finally ends up under the bed of René Huyghes, the Louvre’s curator! Such technical details had to be taken into consideration for all the fragile paintings and sculptures.
Here’s a fun story about one painting that left the Louvre before the lootings began: Gericault’s Radeau de la Méduse (Louvre). To create the black color for this huge painting, Gericault used asphalt. Since it can never really dry up, it is impossible to take it out of its frame and roll it up. This 4.9 x 7.2m painting stuck out of the vehicle used to transport it to its secret destination. Just when the vehicle left Paris, the painting hit tramway power cables. Sparks started dancing in the air but the painting miraculously never caught on fire!
Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Nazi air force, regularly dropped by the Musée du Jeu de Paume to chose a few paintings for his own private collection. He and many others would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for Rose Valland, the heritage conservation attaché of the museum. She secretly kept a trace of all the artworks’ whereabouts (origin and destination), risking her life in the process. She then informed the Resistance, who would intercept trucks loaded with artworks bound for Germany. This also later helped the French authorities recover almost all the artworks that had transited via the Musée du Jeu de Paume storage room.
Not all the Germans support this massive looting though. Because of very slow bureaucracy and with the help of some German officials who are against the looting and despoliation going on in occupied France, not all the museums are taken to the cleaners. Although points of view might differ here, Franz Wolff-Metternich is considered by many as one of the generals hostile to the looting. He was awarded the Legion of Honor at the end of WWII.
At the end of WWII in 1945, the artworks gradually come back to the museums or private collections they originally came from. It’s a long and painstaking process to pinpoint all the missing paintings and recreating the museums’ collections. The Louvre, for example, reopens in 1947 as it is difficult to circulate after the liberation and because of the lack of heating inside the museum (constant temperature is vital to the preservation of the paintings). So now, when you head to any of the major Parisian museums, just think of what might have happened to the painting, sculpture or object you are admiring today during WWII …