”The Monuments Men,” a new movie about a group of art scholars and historians who recovered and restored art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, has a strong connection to Princet
By Gabriel Fisher, Special to the Packet
”The Monuments Men,” a new movie about a group of art scholars and historians who recovered and restored art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, has a strong connection to Princeton University, said James Steward, the director of the Princeton University Art Museum.
Dr. Steward spoke alongside retired art museum curator Alfred Bush about their personal connections to the real-life scholars-turned-soldiers, some of whom graduated or taught at Princeton.
”Princeton played an unusually deep role in the formation of the Monuments Men,” Dr. Steward said to a packed audience of more than 200 people at the Garden Theatre immediately after a screening of the movie on Sunday afternoon. “We were able to identify over a dozen men who had ties to Princeton.”The movie, which opened in theaters nationally on Friday, was directed by George Clooney, who also stars in the film alongside a cast of A-list Hollywood actors, including Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett.
Two of the Princeton scholars who served in the unit, formally called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program, were Ernest Dewald and Patrick “Joe” Kelleher, who both went on to serve as successive directors of the Princeton University Art Museum from 1947 until 1972.
”The two of them were of different generations and did different things in the unit,” Mr. Bush explained.
Dr. Dewald, who completed his graduate studies at Princeton in 1916 and went on to serve as combat soldier in World War I, was charged with directing the Allied Forces on how to navigate in battle around Italy’s many art treasures.
”His focus in the war was to identify the monuments in all of Italy that were to be avoided if possible and to give them some sort of a ranking for ones that should not be touched and ones that could be sacrificed,” Mr. Bush explained.
Meanwhile, a young Dr. Kelleher was drafted to be a simple combat soldier immediately after finishing his master’s degree at Princeton in 1942.
”He was drafted as a private and then 60 days later was made a major when the Monuments Men were formed,” Mr. Bush said, joking that he “was one of those 60 day wonders.”
Dr. Kelleher went on to write his doctoral dissertation in 1947 about St. Stephen’s Crown, an 1,100-year-old Hungarian national artifact that he helped recover from the Nazis during the war.
The crown ended up being stored in Fort Knox until 1978 when President Jimmy Carter sent it back to Hungary — but not before Dr. Kelleher got one more chance to examine the masterpiece.
”It came from Fort Knox to Princeton University to Joe Kelleher’s office where he authenticated that it indeed was what it was and sent it back to Hungary,” Mr. Bush said.
In 1950, the Austrian government formally thanked Dr. Dewald for his service during the war. “As a thank you note for all he had done, the Austrian government sent [Johanne] Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting” to the Princeton Art Museum for a brief stay,” Mr. Bush said.
Both Dr. Steward and Mr. Bush spoke about how the movie captured the way the war had affected these scholars and historians who suddenly found themselves on the front lines of the greatest, most destructive war in history.
”All of these men were not trained to be soldiers, they were art historians,” Dr. Steward said. “It’s hard to imagine as a 52-year-old art historian being at the front in these circumstances.”
Toward the end of the movie, George Clooney’s character Frank Stokes is asked whether the art he saved was worth the lives of two fallen Monuments Men. Stokes responds emphatically that their project was not just about art but about preserving history and a way of life, a statement with which Dr. Steward was inclined to agree.
”Their direct experience in the war shaped their ideas about the power of art and the power of museums,” Dr. Steward said to a small group that had gathered after the discussion ended.
While Dr. Steward expressed slight disappointment at the way the story was dramatized and exaggerated to fit the big screen, some stories of the original Monuments Men, like the one about Dr. Kelleher’s last Christmas in Europe, were too surreal for even the best Hollywood screenwriters to imagine.
”His favorite story was Christmas eve in 1945 in Wiesbaden (Germany) where he and a couple of Monuments Men were trying to celebrate in this room with lots of cartons that hadn’t been opened yet and someone said, ‘Hey, this is Christmas. Shouldn’t we open a package,’” Mr. Bush said amid laughter from the audience. “And he got out a crowbar and opened a carton and reached in and pulled out the bust of Nefertiti.”