Are you one of the millions of moviegoers who has watched the movie Monuments Men? In America, as of yesterday, the film has grossed close to $60 million dollars. I wanted to devote this blog to the largely unrecognized contributions of the women who worked alongside the men portrayed in George Clooney's latest hit.
In the film, Cate Blanchett portrays a female art historian (Rose Valland) who helped rescue over five boxcars worth of valuable artwork. She later received three of France's highest honors for her work, and she is one of the most-decorated women--ever--in French history. She was also awarded America's medal of Freedom; Valland died in 1980, at the age of 82.
But the photos above are of Anne Olivier Bell, who is the last surviving woman to have been a part of this daring art escapade. Currently 97 years old, this Englishwoman was part of a multinational group of women who risked their lives to protect artistic treasures from being destroyed by the Nazis. The group included (among others) Americans Edith A. Standen and Ardelia Ripley Hall, as well as the French Valland and the British Bell.
In November 1945, Anne Olivier Bell was approached by a young man at a party and asked if she would like to work for the Museum, Fine Arts, and Archives branch of the Allies Control Commission. In her words, "I was concerned about all the bombing and the destruction and the horror and the moving about the pictures and so forth. And I knew that I had something of use and value to offer." She was given the civilian rank of Major.
The art-hunting team actually had several hundred people in it, but there were only a few dozen women included in their ranks. Almost everyone was a dedicated scholar, and their bravery is unquestioned. The movie is based on a variety of books, including 2009's The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and The Rape of Europa, a 1994 book by Lynn H. Nicholas as well as Sara Houghteling's 2009 novel Pictures at an Exhibition.
The Monuments Men Allied section operated in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. And it included architects, curators and scholars, as well as workers like Ms. Bell, who handled logistics for the team in Germany. She helped coordinate the rescue and return of thousands of Medieval Church bells that the Nazis had seized and were planning to melt to use for weapons.
It took decades after the war to restore and return the "saved" artwork, which included everything from work by Leonardo, Raphael, Onyx altar pieces and two massive rose granite lions that had been taken from the Louvre. To give you an idea how vast the looting was, in France alone from April 1941 to July 1944, 4,174 cases of artwork were shipped to Germany. The same sort of theft took place in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy and Poland.
In addition to her art-rescue work, Anne Olivier Bell, these days, is best known as a scholar who has made a life's career out of editing Virginia Woolf's diaries.
Looking forward to your comments...