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Unique 'Monuments Men' Exhibit Can Only Be Seen In Cincinnati

Image courtesy of National Archives at College Park, MD
The U.S. Third Army discovers Édouard Manet's "The Winter Garden" in the salt mines at Merkers, April 25, 1945."

It's a story that captured the imaginations of millions of movie-goers, readers and historians alike: a special team of Allied forces during the end of World War II scouring Europe to find valuable pieces of art hidden or stolen by the Nazis.

Dubbed the "Monuments Men," their story - and art - is coming to the Cincinnati Art Museum this summer, and it's the only place to see it.

"Curator Peter Jonathon Bell worked with museums in Berlin and across the country in order to bring this together," says Jill Dunne, director of marketing and communications. Bell's book of the same name is the basis for the exhibition.

"They tell the story of this historical moment when World War II was happening and the Nazis were involved in attempting to loot artworks, and talking about specific artwork that toured America in the 1940s and became the first blockbuster art exhibition that this country has ever seen."

Credit Cincinnati Art Museum; Gift of Mary Hanna, 1946.102
Claude Lorrain (French, active in Italy, 1604–1682), An Artist Studying from Nature, 1639, oil on canvas.

The exhibit, Paintings, Politics and the Monuments Men: The Berlin Masterpieces in America, details the story of 202 paintings from across Europe that were rescued by the U.S. Army from a salt mine. The artwork toured the United States shortly after the war ended before returning to Germany, and eventually - decades later - the Prussian and German people.

It includes four of the original paintings lent by the State Museums of Berlin, including Sandro Botticelli's Ideal Portrait of a Lady. Several pieces are also on loan from the National Gallery of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum, along with paintings from the Cincinnati Art Museum's collection.

"It's not going to other museums anywhere in the country," Dunne points out. "In order to see this anytime other than July 9 through October 3, you would have to set a course across the globe to see these works together."

Credit Lindsay C. Kenneth Papers, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Walter Farmer holding a painting at Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point.

The exhibit also focuses on Walter Farmer, a Cincinnatian and member of the Monuments Men. He served as director of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point where "he oversaw the sorting, cataloguing, restoration, and eventual restitution of thousands of objects," according to his bio with the Monuments Men Foundation.

Farmer was involved in the controversial decision to send these 202 paintings to the U.S. He led an effort to draft what would become the Wiesbaden Manifesto, protesting the decision to take the artworks to the U.S. The revolt was "the only act of protest by officers against their orders in the Second World War," according to the foundation.

He remained heavily involved in the Cincinnati - and U.S. - arts scenes after returning from the war. He was awarded the Commander's Cross of the Federal Order of Merit, Germany's highest civilian honor in 1996. He died in Cincinnati in 1997. His memoir The Safekeepers: A Memoir of the Arts at the End of World War II was published posthumously in 2000.

Credit Image courtesy of National Archives at College Park, MD
Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley, and George S. Patton inspect art found in the Merkers salt mine, April 12, 1945.

The Monuments Men were comprised of about 350 men and women. The special unit included art historians, museum curators and others specially trained to protect artworks, archives and culturally and historically significant monuments across Europe.

Their efforts were depicted in the popular 2014 George Clooney movie The Monuments Men, loosely based on the 2007 non-fiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter titled The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.

Paintings, Politics and the Monuments Men: The Berlin Masterpieces in America, runs July 9 through Oct. 3, 2021 at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.