In the Library: Preservation and Loss during World War II

July 7 – September 26, 2014

East Building, Ground Floor, Study Center

The loss of cultural patrimony in times of war is often a sad byproduct of military action, and until the modern era was rarely documented. But the department of image collections of the National Gallery of Art Library contains thousands of photographic images that do just that: chronicle the loss and preservation of countless works of art and architecture that were in peril or destroyed during armed conflict. The collection has particularly strong holdings of World War II–related material that document the devastation as well as remarkable actions to preserve cultural objects.

The 70th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy (June 2014) and of the end of the war in Europe (2015) has drawn attention to a much-overlooked aspect of World War II: the Roberts Commission, which formed the Monuments, and Fine Art, and Archives (MFAA) unit of the US Army, charged with identifying and preserving buildings, artworks, and libraries in Europe during the last months of the war. In addition to stabilizing buildings, the MFAA unit was also responsible for later repatriation of looted works of art from four centralized depots, the largest being in Munich.

With photographs depicting the evacuation of art from the Musée du Louvre in Paris, snapshots of the aftermath of the Blitz in London,  objects collected for repatriation at the Munich Central Collecting Point, albums created by the so-called Monuments Men documenting destruction of buildings in Baden-Württemberg, and even 35 mm color slides taken by the Nazis of frescoes and stained glass at risk from bombing by the Allies, the visual images in this case depict not only the loss of works of art during the war but also the valiant efforts to safeguard and preserve some of the world’s great masterpieces for future generations.

Image: Andrea Mantegna, Scenes from the Life of Saint James: Martyrdom, Church of the Eremitani, Padua. Destroyed in Allied bombing March 1944. Photo: Carlo Naya