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Art of World War II

Even in the best of times it's a running battle to keep up with the deterioration through age and abuse of a nation's art treasures. What happens, though, when that running battle literally becomes a running battle? What happens to a nation's art when that nation goes to war? Well, there are lots of different scenarios from lots of different wars but basically most of them, not surprisingly, boil down to "get it out of town." As far back as the Franco-Prussian war in 1881 no less an art figure than Gustave Courbet was in charge of "getting it out of town," in this case, shipping a lot of it, including incidentally, every last piece of his own work, to London for safekeeping. And more recently, during the Second World War, countries on both sides of the lines were in a similar situation.

In Europe, the Nazi war machine moved at such a rapid pace that many countries and individuals were caught flatfooted, simply unable to save themselves, much less their art treasures. The Germans confiscated enormous lodes of some of the finest artwork in the world, transporting it back to the fatherland to decorate their country chalets and bureaucratic palaces. This, only to find a few years later, themselves in the same position as Allied Forces bore down upon their country. In Belgium and France, foreseeing the possibility of invasion, museum curators put together travelling shows of their best work, the French sending theirs to South America while the Belgians sent many of their best pieces to the US. That was in 1940. In some cases, it was almost ten years before they got them back.

In this country, the National Gallery of Art in Washington had just opened the doors of its brand new white marble temple on the mall less than nine months before Pearl Harbour. At that point in time, paranoia ran rampant at all levels of the U.S. government. Many of our greatest works of art were shipped off to Biltmore House near Asheville, North Carolina for safekeeping. Then, as the war progressed and fears eased, they were left there for the duration, to be replaced in Washington by the French and Belgian art as it sought a safe haven in an upside-down world at war. After the war, the museum staff was inundated by confiscated German art sent to this country for safe keeping amid the massive social and political turmoil all over Europe. And although it didn't get shipped back here, gallery curators did go there to help in trying to untangle the nightmarish ownership and provenance quagmire involving art treasures confiscated by the Nazis. Today, some fifty years later, problems still exist in returning this art to its rightful heirs.

And as if all this wasn't enough, during the war itself, art experts from the National Gallery were often near the front lines helping military commanders in preserving, whenever possible, the national art treasures of the countries in which they were fighting. In Italy especially, frescos were covered, walls shored up, maps marked with locations of important art treasures, monuments wrapped for protection, and architectural landmarks specially earmarked to avoid bomb damage. In Germany, shortly after the April 1945 surrender, the military found a whole salt mine full of some 202 works saved by German officials from Berlin museums and certain destruction by allied bombing. These were the ones shipped back to Washington, including the elegant Hohenzollern family silver service. This treasure alone filled 44 teakwood cases and consisted of silverware, glassware, and table ornaments that had once belonged to the family of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany's leader during the first World War.

In addition to preserving and protecting the nation's art treasures, not to mention those of other nations, the National Gallery of Art in Washington also ran a full-time cultural enrichment program for the massive influx of military and civilian wartime personnel making the nation's capital their home. Up to 35% of the gallery's patrons during this period were military personnel stationed in the DC area. There were concerts, ballets, and an endless series of art exhibits by, about, and for the nation's military. As the nation's premier art museum, the National Gallery found itself in the thick of the war effort even though they were thousands of miles from the bombs and bullets. The nation's armed forces weren't the only ones who went to war. So did our curators.

contributed by Lane, Jim

20 June 2000

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