The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, will open a new exhibit Feb. 5 dedicated to the work of volunteers known as the Monuments Men. This group of over 300 men and women from 13 nations saved priceless works of art during World War II that had been stolen by the Nazis. Six members of the rescue effort had a direct connection to the museum: four as employees and two others in an advisory capacity. The Kansas City museum, itself, served as a repository for many of these paintings.
Paul Gardner was the Kansas City museum’s first director. The Nelson-Atkins opened in 1933, the same year that Franklin D. Roosevelt began his first term as president of the United States. The permanent collection grew quickly even though it did not completely fill the three-story building’s west wing and upper level galleries. That gallery space already had climate control systems installed when Gardner received a telegram in 1939 from art dealers in Amsterdam. A Dutch collector had 15 paintings that he wanted to ship to the museum for safe-keeping.
During the next few months, the collector emigrated from London to the U.S. The museum received eight paintings in July 1940, instead of 15, that included works by Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. This was the beginning of the Nelson-Atkins Museum being used as a protective haven for endangered masterpieces during World War II.
American financier Robert Lehman contacted the museum in December 1941. He loaned his collection for display that included Italian paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries by Bellini and di Paolo, and 15th century works by Flemish artist, Hans Memling. The museum director reported back to Lehman that the public had “an enormous interest in them.” Most of those works eventually became part of the Robert Lehman Collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C. was the first museum to request that its collection be moved to Kansas City, away from the possible danger of air raids. Duncan Phillips, the director of what has since been renamed as The Phillips Collection, was concerned about the safety of such paintings as Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) by French impressionist, Pierre Auguste Renoir. This was one of the largest works sent to the Nelson-Atkins. At 51 1/4 by 69 1/8 inches, it was hung by itself in a gallery which was crowded daily with visitors. After the war, this painting was returned to The Phillips Collection where it hangs to this day.
The French government had sent 45 contemporary paintings for display at the San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition of 1939-1940. By the time the exhibit was over, Nazi Germany occupied France. The French Consulate agreed that the paintings should be kept at the Nelson-Atkins for the remainder of the war. This was the largest number of works in a single collection from one source and included works by French artists Bonnard, Valadon and Vuillard who lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Gardner, the museum director, left Kansas City to serve in the war. He arrived in Naples, Italy, October 1943. While there, he was the Director of the Fine Arts Section of the Allied Military Government. He was in charge of many of the operations by the Monuments Men. He returned to Kansas City after the war and continued as the museum director until his retirement in 1953. His connection to his fellow art rescue workers continued the rest of his life.
Laurence Sickman took over as the museum director following Gardner’s retirement. He had been the Oriental art curator since 1935 and continued that while holding the director position. Because of his expertise in art, he served as technical advisor for monuments and collections. He made several trips to China and Korea to assess damages to artwork and was awarded the Legion of Merit.
Patrick J. Kelleher helped recover such famous works as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and the bust of Nefertiti that is in the Neues Museum in Berlin. He also worked with recovered art that was brought in for cataloguing and assessment. He was the European art curator for the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Otto Wittmann, Jr. investigated Nazi art looting. As part of the OSS Art Looting and Investigation Unit, he interviewed art dealers who were responsible for buying and selling looted art. He received high honors from France, the Netherlands and Italy for his work. Prior to the war, he was the museum’s curator in charge of prints.
James Reeds, a former docent for the art museum, was invited to the White House in 2007 with other surviving Monuments Men. There, they were awarded the National Medal of the Humanities by President George W. Bush. He served in France and Germany during the war recovering art.
Langdon Warner was an Asian art advisor who collected maps and other data on cultural monuments which was then sent to field commanders. Because of his knowledge of Japanese art and culture, he was able to prevent the army from bombing the cities of Kyoto and Nara. Prior to his association with the Nelson-Atkins Museum, he was with the Fogg Museum at Harvard.
The exhibit will have original documents, telegrams, postcards, newspapers of that time period and the biographies of six men associated with the museum. It is opening Feb. 5, in time for the Feb. 7 release of the movie, The Monuments Men, and runs through March 9. This display will make art history come alive by showing the connection the six Monuments Men had with the famed Kansas City museum.
By: Cynthia Collins
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – World War II
Monuments Men and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Stars and Stripes