Letter from Berlin, Part 1

Indian Fantasy

Indian Fantasy, Marsden Hartley’s ecstatic dream of a Native American paradise and one of the glories of the Museum’s modern collection, is 100 years old this summer. Unfortunately, the party will have to be held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the painting is featured in a brilliant exhibition, Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings, 1913–1915. The exhibition was organized by the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in collaboration with LACMA. I was fortunate to be in Berlin in late June for the last days of the show at the Neue Nationalgalerie.

Believe it or not, though regarded on this side of the Atlantic as perhaps the greatest of this country’s modernist pioneers, Hartley is virtually unknown in Europe. This even though many of his most powerful and inventive paintings were created during two and a half years spent on and off in Berlin (1913–15). In the German capital, Hartley first found his voice as an American artist. He reveled both in the dynamism of the metropolis and in the parading pageantry of the Kaiser’s army, everywhere on show in the days leading up to and after the outbreak of World War I. Berlin intoxicated Hartley, but he was ever aware of himself as a foreigner. (I cannot imagine Hartley declaring, “Ich bin ein Berliner!”). Hartley’s status as an outsider jolted his ambition, liberating his imagination toward new ways of picturing the intensity of his inner life. That was the main takeaway of the exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie.

Marsden Hartley: Die deutschen Bilder, 1913–1915, was the first major exhibition devoted to Hartley’s art in Europe since 1961. By all accounts it was a revelation to the German public. Among the first-magnitude stars of the exhibition was our own Indian Fantasy, arguably the finest, certainly the boldest, painting of a series employing Native American themes and symbols and executed in the fateful summer of 1914. For me it is always a surprise, not always pleasant, to see one of our paintings in a different context. Happily the curator in Berlin treated Indian Fantasy as the centerpiece of a gallery, flanking it with two other paintings of the series. Surrounded by works dating from the same extraordinary moment in Hartley’s career, I was able to see the artist building a new vocabulary of forms and symbols, testing structures and color combinations, abandoning some ideas while elaborating on others. He was reaching for something, radiant and profoundly hopeful, while outside his studio window, the Guns of August flared and the world went mad.

Early Nights at the Movies

With our outdoor movie series coming up on its 25th anniversary, and with the welcome introduction of our digital projection system this summer, we thought readers might like to know about the NCMA’s role in pioneering outdoor cinema in the Triangle. Joseph Covington, former director of the Museum’s Education Department and visionary implementer of the series, takes a look back.

The Museum Park Theater’s new digital projection equipment was hardly imaginable when we screened the first outdoor movies in the summer of 1988. They started as an experiment related to the planning for a hoped-for-someday outdoor theater complex that would include a screen and projection booth. The team of artist, landscape designer, and architects planning the theater wanted to know what the response might be, so we moved our movie series outdoors for one month.

A staff member knew of a large white canvas stored away somewhere, so we only had to work out how to frame it and haul it up against a wall of the Museum. It was weighted at the bottom with a heavy metal pipe to keep it straight. Projection was in the form of an old portable 16 mm projector installed in a van, projecting through the open doors. The sound had to run by cable from the van to speakers below the screen. It was a primitive arrangement, but we thought it would work.

For the program, that month in 1988, we observed an anniversary of the Warner Bros. Studio—I think it was the 65th. (We didn’t program outdoors again for a couple of years, if memory serves.) Among the four films was the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood. Just as the pirate ship stormed onto the scene, a genuine wind caught the screen and lifted it into the air. That metal pipe banged against glass doors behind it, giving those of us responsible for the jury-rigging a tense evening.

When outdoor films returned, it was with what seemed like the luxurious provision of a real perforated silver screen on a tightly engineered steel frame securely attached to the exterior of the Museum. It had been saved from one of the neighborhood theaters that closed, and redesigned by theater entrepreneur Bill Peebles.

Before the stage for live performances existed, movies were all we had for several years to animate the grounds. Eventually we expanded to every Friday and Saturday night from June through September. Audience size varied, but for repeat favorites such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, with the old red and blue 3-D glasses, we could count on a huge turnout.

The audience and the venue were proven, and the long run of outdoor movies since the Joseph M. Bryan, Jr., Theater opened has grown into a tradition.

Plan a night at the Museum and check out the full list of 2014 summer movies. Get the latest news about summer movies and concerts by signing up for our email list.

A Clear Look at Ancient Glass

In September I invited Janet Jones to come take a look at the ancient glass vessels in the NCMA’s holdings. Dr. Jones is a professor at Bucknell University, a graduate of the UNC–Chapel Hill, an archaeologist, and—more important—an expert on ancient glass.

Janet Jones at work in the NCMA Conservation lab

Janet closely examined the all the vessels in our collection, those we normally have on view in the galleries as well as those in storage. Her investigation revealed a few Islamic vessels, notably a Mamluk/Ottoman kohl vessel dating to the 17th–18th century. This vessel (92.7.22) is currently listed in our files as “long flask with flanged neck, dated to the 4th–5th century, or as late as 12th century.” Evidently, this file will need to be revised.


Two of the vessels listed as glass turned out to be very fine ceramics. When Janet came across them, she called me over to look. As an Egyptologist and having worked exclusively on the Egyptian collection until I became curator of ancient art in 2011, I had not had the opportunity to look at the majority of our glass objects before. Fewer than a handful of them are said to have been discovered in Egypt, and of the few we have—you can see them in our Egyptian galleries—two were imported from elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and the third is actually Islamic. (Those are the only glass vessels I had studied previously.) As soon as I saw the two Janet pointed out, I agreed with her: ceramic, not glass.

Also, one unguentarium (vessel for ointment) is a pastiche—a composite made from two different ancient fragments (92.7.13). Take a closer look at the picture: can you see the two different fragments? The body and neck of the vessel are transparent blue-green with the iridescence indicative of glass disease, but the rim is transparent colorless glass.


This assessment of the ancient glass collection is extremely helpful. It allows me to see what types of vessels we have, what gaps we might need to fill, or which pieces should be deaccessioned because they don’t fall within our collection parameters.

Support for this research is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Ann and Jim Goodnight Fund for Curatorial and Conservation Research and Travel.

(This is one in an occasional series about ongoing research on the classical collection.)

A Conversation with Sonia Romero

This is the third of three conversations between exhibition curator Jennifer Dasal and artists in Estampas de la raza. Previously, Dasal interviewed printmakers Vincent Valdez and Oscar Magallanes. Today we’re hearing from Sonia Romero.

Sonia Romero in studio. Photo courtesy of Sonia Romero

Jennifer Dasal: This exhibition zeroes in on contemporary prints created by Latino and Hispanic artists. How do you define your own unique cultural heritage?

Sonia Romero: I am half Spanish/Mexican American and half German/Russian American.

JD: What makes a work of art specifically Chicano, Latino, Hispanic, etc.? Is it simply the cultural makeup of the artist who created it, or is it something more?

SR: I think it could be the cultural makeup of the artist or the subject matter pertaining to Chicano/Latino/Hispanic issues. My piece in the exhibition, Bee Pile, is an appreciation of honey bees in light of the recent environmental phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder. The disappearance of our pollinators is a national disaster and does not pertain solely to the Latino community. Therefore, I can assume that the [McNay Museum’s] curator chose my work because of my heritage.

JD: What is it about printmaking that makes it so conducive to portraying the larger issues of struggle, traditions, identity, and so forth?

SR: Printmaking was developed so that messages, be they religious, political, or informative, could be spread among the largest amount of people for the least amount of cost. The main asset of printmaking is that it makes multiples.

JD: How did you begin your career as a printmaker? What drew you (or still draws you) toward printmaking?

SR: I began my career as a printmaker at Rhode Island School of Design. I was drawn to it because I wanted to learn a traditional craft, and the definition of painting has been blown apart so much that the craft of painting is no longer highlighted as the core of [some] painting departments. I like the history of printmaking, the precision, the ability to make multiples and the graphic quality of the imagery.

JD: What artistic traditions or histories are you pulling from in your works, if any?

Sonia Romero, Bee Pile (Found ‘Em), 2010, screen print, 37 x 26 in., Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Harriett and Ricardo Romo, 2011.3, © 2013 Sonia Romero

SR: By creating work at Self-Help Graphics and Modern Multiples [printing houses in Los Angeles], my work has become part of the serigraph tradition. The process of the technique, collaborating with the print shop to create layers of color that translate into an image, has an influence on the finished piece. For instance, the blend or “split fountain” I have in the background of Bee Pile is a traditional silkscreen/serigraph effect. The bees were created with a block printing technique, and then translated into the silkscreen medium.

JD: Can you reflect upon the role of icons in Latino/Chicano art? Who do you consider to be an icon? Are you yourself an icon of Latino or Chicano art?

SR: Popular cultural icons bring people together, creating a feeling of community and commonality. By using a popular icon is one’s artwork, you have automatic access to a wealth of emotion and history. On the negative side, these commonly used images can flatten or create caricatures out of the culture. I think it’s important to assess the origins and meanings that are associated with the images before you decide to use them in your artwork.

JD: What are the biggest challenges facing artists today? What do you feel is the best way to meet such challenges?

SR: I think the biggest challenge to being an artist is facing your own fears and carving out your own artistic path and career. There is no one way to live as an artist.

JD: What was the most fulfilling or unexpected aspect of your experience as a part of Estampas de la raza?

SR: Being part of Estampas de la raza opened the door for me to both the Latino community and the art community in San Antonio (I’m based in Los Angeles). The artists from the show have created follow-up exhibitions between Los Angeles and San Antonio, creating a cultural interchange. I hope to do the same in North Carolina.

Recipe: Blueberry Zinfandel Sorbet

It’s blueberry season in North Carolina! These little gems are such a darling summer fruit―powdery, pop-able, useful in so many things from popsicles to barbecue sauce to smoothies. Their abundance in July and August sends me into a Pinterest whirlwind, pinning wildly to find as many ways to use them as possible—even tie-dye! They stain like a beast anyway, right?

I especially love putting them together with my favorite red wine varietal, zinfandel. It brings out less of the demure side and more of the “POW” side of blueberries. Using them together in a sorbet reminds you that blueberries are a serious superfood. I mean, bears seek these things out to eat!

Putting wine in desserts is nothing new, and it’s not about the alcohol … it’s about the marriage of flavors and creating depth. Fruit on its own is bright and beautiful and simple. Wine is the fierce element that comes in and gives the calm some excitement. Straight-up blueberry sorbet is delightful, but Blueberry Zinfandel Sorbet is memorable.—JH

Blueberry Zinfandel Sorbet

4 pints fresh blueberries

1 ½ cups zinfandel

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

½ cup honey

2 cups water

¼ tsp. cinnamon

1 bay leaf

  1. Pour wine into a stainless steel saucepot and place over high heat. Add the other ingredients and stir to combine.
  2. Bring the mixture to a boil. Then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat and discard bay leaf.
  4. Puree mixture in a blender.
  5. Chill in refrigerator at least three hours, and then freeze according to ice cream maker’s instructions.

Jennifer Hicks is executive pastry chef at Iris. In case you missed her last post, check out Jennifer’s recipe for Sweet Potato Scallion Biscuits.

A Conversation with Oscar Magallanes

Want to know more about the artists behind the dazzling prints in Estampas de la raza? Exhibition curator Jennifer Dasal spoke with some of the featured artists about their work, their inspirations, and their experiences. This time, we’re talking to Oscar Magallanes.

Photo courtesy of Oscar Magallanes

Jennifer Dasal: This exhibition zeroes in on contemporary prints created by Latino and Hispanic artists. How do you define your own unique cultural heritage?

Oscar Magallanes: I identify culturally as a Chicano, having grown up in a predominantly Mexican suburb of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. My neighborhood, while rich with culture, was also filled with challenges—and it was this upbringing that instilled a sense of pride in a heritage deeply rooted in perseverance and overcoming challenges. I think all of this really comes through in my artwork.

JD: What is it about printmaking that makes it so conducive to portraying the larger issues of struggle, traditions, identity, and so forth?

OM: Prints are rich in what Walter Benjamin calls “exhibition value” because of the art form’s accessibility and reproducibility. I like to think that my work is part of this long tradition of artwork specifically designed for reproduction that has been considered revolutionary because of its breaking with tradition. Before [printmaking], works of art [were] unique and could be only appreciated by a very few, and prints allowed artwork to be much more democratic and mobilize the artwork across many income levels and societal classes.

Also, putting aside the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, and taking a larger view of art to include art that stems from a cultural lineage, then we achieve a perspective on the importance of prints in many communities that lack the resources or institutions to serve the rich experiences that deserve an outlet and documentation by their own artist. As with my work, the works in the Estampas exhibition not only preserve cultural traditions but also help create culture by allowing artists and individuals to express themselves and their struggles and to help create their identity.

JD: What makes a work of art specifically Chicano, Latino, Hispanic, etc.? Is it simply the cultural makeup of the artist who created it, or is it something more?

OM: I can only speak to my experiences and my esthetic. While I do use some of the traditional imagery such as Dia de los Muertos and revolutionaries, I come to them from a different perspective where I am trying to deconstruct identity as a questioning of icons and how symbols become signifiers for much larger themes that are broader then Chicano art.

JD: What artistic traditions or histories are you pulling from in your works, if any?

OM: [Until I was 15 years old], the only art that existed for me was on the walls of my neighborhood. The Chicano murals and strong calligraphic hand styles were my first art lessons. They instilled in me a sense of pride and an identity that I continue to explore through my artwork. Migration and the cause of migration that is often directly tied to local struggles, along with perseverance, are common themes of my work. Also, many of my paintings contain pre-Columbian imagery that mirrors Western iconography. The viewer is visually confronted with facing the dominance of Western culture over indigenous cultures, allowing for conversation on the subtle injustices which are prevalent on a daily basis.

JD: What are the biggest challenges facing artists today? What do you feel is the best way to meet such challenges?

OM: I believe many artists are taken advantage of and that the biggest challenge facing artists today is a constant struggle to have their work appreciated in a real way that translates to monetary compensation for their work—which then allows the artist to continue working. My personal challenge has been to get out of my community and have my work travel and have new audiences for the work. This is one of the reasons why I am very happy to be part of the Estampas exhibition, because it has allowed for just that.

JD: Can you reflect upon the role of icons in Latino/Chicano art? Who do you consider to be an icon? Are you yourself an icon of Latino or Chicano art?

OM: Icons in Latino/Chicano art serve many of the same purposes that traditional icons serve. Images or people who become iconic can serve as rallying points or representations of ideologies that give communities or activists a symbol that allows for solidarity with the movements or communities. One example is Che Guevara. Others have called my work iconic because of the blending of imagery that has become iconic in the Chicano community. But one thing I believe is that the designation of icon comes from others—the same way that Charles Eames said something like, “Calling yourself an artist is embarrassing, it is like calling yourself a genius.”

JD: What is something special that viewers might miss about your work, or something they might not immediately see?

OM: Many people will miss more minute cultural details that speak directly to popular cultural and political references. The details in the bandanna, for example [in Magallanes’s work And the Boss Laughs], but I want the work to say as much about the viewers’ own preconceived notions as about my own narrative, and have the work bridge those two and in that create a broader narrative. While I created the work with many images that are derived from my own unique understandings, I understand that all artwork becomes subjective and probably none more than political artwork.

JD: What is it about this exhibition that is important to you? Why is a show like this so necessary?

OM: What comes to mind when thinking of the importance of Estampas is the great care that was given to the curation of the work—that is very specific and often referencing unique experiences or struggles. [This makes the work] accessible because of the framing thesis of the show, and it allows for a very uncompromising and inspirational narrative that is clear to the viewer, regardless of their background.

JD: What was the most fulfilling or unexpected aspect of your experience as a part of Estampas de la raza?

OM: The most fulfilling aspect of Estampas for me is the breadth of the exhibition in terms of the quality and focus of the work represented. It is presented in a way that allows my work to take its place in a cohesive narrative of Chicano art. With so much diversity in the community and in the artwork, it is great to see the connections that help viewers understand how the diversity can coalesce.

Last time, Jennifer Dasal talked with artist Vincent Valdez. Next time: Sonia Romero.

A Conversation with Vincent Valdez

Want to know more about the artists behind the dazzling prints in Estampas de la raza? Exhibition curator Jennifer Dasal spoke with some of the featured artists about their work, their inspirations, and their experiences.

First up: Vincent Valdez.

Vincent Valdez, Suspect: Dark Clothes, Dark Hair, Dark Eyes, Dark Skin, 2002, screen print, 22 x 16 ¼ in., Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Harriett and Ricardo Romo, 2010.95, © 2013 Vincent Valdez

Jennifer Dasal: This exhibition zeroes in on contemporary prints created by Latino and Hispanic artists. How do you define your own unique cultural heritage?

Vincent Valdez: I am a third-generation American born of distant Mexican and Spanish descent. I acknowledge and respect the cultural and political struggles of the Chicano movement that came before me, but I [believe] the proper term for me is “Hispanic.” Perhaps I no longer relate to any of these, or perhaps I am all of the above. Such is the never-ending dilemma of the Mexican American.

JD: What is it about printmaking that makes it so conducive to portraying the larger issues of struggle, traditions, identity, and so forth?

VV: Printmaking is such a raw form of communication and protest. It is grassroots and has been a very, very important way of communicating to the masses throughout world history. It can be produced in one’s kitchen or in a professional studio. It is accessible, and it allows the artist to mass produce images rapidly. The effectiveness of mass communication and information through printmaking was quickly realized and adapted by the business and advertising worlds for different purposes.

JD: What makes a work of art specifically Chicano, Latino, Hispanic, etc.? Is it simply the cultural makeup of the artist who created it, or is it something more?

VV: The cultural makeup of the artist is not reason enough to label art as Chicano, Hispanic, etc.

Some artists specifically state that their work is a continuation of the Chicano art movement. Some artists state that their work is a celebration of their culture, family, or community and focus on traditionally based imagery of the genre. But what happens when an American-born artist who happens to be Mexican refuses to be labeled with any identity at all? For example, I recently completed a series of paintings titled “The Strangest Fruit.” It is based after the almost entirely unknown and unrecognized history of lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States. Although based off of a historical event, each of the works displays a contorted contemporary brown male body wearing disheveled denim jeans, Nikes, hoodies, NBA apparel, etc. The noose, once a powerful and violent American symbol, is now just as prevalent as ever in unspoken terms such as mass incarceration, poverty, the war on drugs, military wars, immigration, etc. To me, these images are all very American before they are ever Mexican or Chicano only.

Historically speaking, it may have been easier to look at a piece by a “cultural” artist and identify it as such because of the foreign imagery displayed. But now, this is becoming more complicated because of the infinite possibilities and experiences that “Latino” artists can present their work in. How could we term a painting of minimalist dots on canvas as Chicano art simply because the [artist’s] last name ends in “-ez”? I feel strongly that many young Latino artists are now attempting to breach these very rigid borders that have been established not only by mainstream society but also by the contemporary art world. So, essentially, it should be the artist who gets to decide what cultural context or category to place the work in.

JD: What artistic traditions or histories are you pulling from in your works, if any?

VV: I focus primarily on the tradition of painting and drawing, usually executed on a monumental scale. I have now started to experiment with film and three-dimensional drawings. There are numerous influences on my work: the world around me, video games, cinema, historical political posters, the endless myths and illusions of heroes throughout time, contemporary America … In terms of specific artists whose work inspires me the most: Phillip Guston, Peter Saul, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, Vija Celmins , Paula Rego, Paul Cadmus, and Ben Shahn. Almost all of which were or are very important printmakers during their careers.

The political content of the Chicano art movement played a huge role for inspiring me during my teenage years. I started off as a muralist as a young child, in love with the Mexican muralists, the East L.A. muralists in the 1970–’80s, and with my books of the WPA artists in the 1940s. Films left a deep impression on my awareness of images conveying messages to the masses on a monumental scale. I have never really abandoned these early influences.

JD: How did you begin your career as a printmaker? What drew you (or still draws you) toward printmaking?

VV: Yo Soy-ee Blaxican [in the exhibition] was my first time ever printing. I was fresh out of Rhode Island School of Design and had an opportunity to try my hand at lithography. I was hooked. It’s a very tedious and somewhat complicated process, but with such rewarding results. I continue to create new editions of lithographs and serigraphs every year. Because I tend to work on a massive scale, it really provides me with the opportunity to work on an intimate scale with quicker production turnarounds. I’ve always tended to approach printmaking with a willingness to experiment and aim for different results than I would get from a charcoal drawing or oil painting.

JD: What is something special that viewers might miss about your work, or something they might not immediately see

VV: John is one of the works I have in the exhibition. John Holt Jr. was my best friend since the age of 9. He was a combat medic in Iraq and died in 2010. This portrait is based off of the last time that I saw him, at his mother’s house in San Antonio while he was on leave. He was dressed in full combat gear for a photo shoot that I was doing [with him]. He displayed this expression when I asked him about his experiences in Iraq. Using the title John commemorates him but also signifies the usage of the term “John Doe.” He is the endless numbers of soldiers who have walked in his boots.

Yo Soy-ee Blaxican [I am Blaxican] is a portrait of my younger brother Daniel. He coined this term when I asked him how he identified himself. He refused the labels Chicano, Hispanic, Mexican, or Latino, and gave the title as a response in homage to the death of Tupac Shakur. The image depicts the “New Skool” generation: from the barrio but trying to leave it behind, [wearing] hip-hop gear [that] signifies he identifies more with black culture than his own, and the golden arches from McDonald’s defines the modern American landscape. He is a product of his environment but also of the history that came before him. Reinventing his identity ironically carries on the Chicano history, as it imitates the same need for self-identity and proclamation of existence.

JD: What was the most fulfilling or unexpected aspect of your experience as a part of Estampas de la raza?

VV: The exhibition covers a span of two or three generations of printmakers, so it’s interesting to identify how the content and techniques over a few decades relate, differ, and are evolved.

JD: What is it about this exhibition that is important to you? Why is a show like this so necessary?

VV: This exhibition provides insight into the legacy of printmaking. It shows that it is alive and well and relevant. It also provides an audience with an educational aspect of the legacy of Chicano printmaking for social and political purposes and awareness. Above all it helps to further the notion that Mexican Americans and Chicanos share the same qualities as all other Americans do, for change, for equality, for protest, for love of family and community, for pride and hope, and for the experience of being American.

Next, Jennifer Dasal talks with artist Oscar Magallanes.

The NCMA’s Monuments Men

The current film The Monuments Men, largely based on the books of Robert Edsel, is bringing new attention to a little-known aspect of World War II when extraordinary art was stolen, hidden away, and even destroyed on a massive scale. Regardless of the critical response to the film, the actual Monuments Men were indisputably successful, and like so many art collections around the world, our NCMA is better for their efforts.

From the beginning of the war, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis implemented a systematic plan to acquire the best art in Europe, specifically for the future Führermuseum or Leader’s Museum in Hitler’s hometown of Linz, Austria. They targeted masterpieces in all the major museums and collections in Europe. Thousands of German soldiers were put to the job, locating and confiscating millions of pieces of art. Much of the best work, mainly Old Masters, ended up in the personal collections of Hitler, his right-hand man Hermann Goering, and other members of the Nazi elite. Their plan also included the destruction of what they considered “degenerate” art, which encompassed virtually all modern art such as that of Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Van Gogh, and German artists such as Ernst, Klee, Nolde, and Kirchner. Much art was destroyed, but, ironically, the more valuable “degenerate” works were kept by the Nazis for their collections or were sold outside of Germany for personal gain.

A perfect example of the art they coveted can be found at the NCMA in Madonna and Child in a Landscape by Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1518. The German Old Master’s work was highly valued. In 1940 the painting was stolen from Philipp von Gomperz, a Jewish collector in Vienna, and ended up in the possession of Baldur von Schirach, wartime governor of Vienna and leader of the Hitler Youth. After the war the painting was sold on the art market, unrecognized for its past, and was eventually donated to the NCMA. After the full history of the painting was revealed in 2000, the NCMA formally purchased the painting from Gomperz’s descendants.

The Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives program (MFAA), or “Monuments Men,” was created in the last years of World War II. It was a special unit tasked with identifying cultural treasures in the war zone and protecting them. As the war ended, the MFAA’s work turned to identifying stolen art and returning it to its rightful owners if possible. Initially the group was small, less than a dozen men, but ultimately 345 men and women from 13 countries served in the MFAA for up to six years. Most of them were volunteers and far older than the average enlisted person. Museum directors, curators, historians, artists, and conservators were tasked with no less than preserving the world’s artistic cultural heritage, something no army had done before on that scale.

In the end the MFAA saved untold numbers of churches, historic buildings, and monuments from destruction; restituted 5 million works of art including works by Michelangelo, Vermeer, and Leonardo da Vinci; and were instrumental in reestablishing the cultural life of Europe. Their work continues to enrich us today.

One painting at the NCMA is known to have passed through the hands of the MFAA. Our St. Leonard (German, Circle of Pleydenwurff, circa 1460, currently not on view) was stolen from a collector in Paris and appropriated by Hermann Goering. Near the end of the war, the MFAA removed it from Goering’s Veldenstein Castle and sent it on to the Munich Central Collecting Point, one of two main distribution centers for art restitution. The painting was returned to Paris in 1947. A decade later it was purchased for the Kress Collection and subsequently donated to the NCMA.

Records show that the NCMA’s painting Young Man with a Sword (Dutch, Circle of Rembrandt, circa 1633–45) was restituted through the Stichting Nederlandsch Kunstbezit (SNK), the Netherlands’ version of the MFAA. The SNK and MFAA were close collaborators. The painting was later purchased by Kress and donated to the NCMA.

Practically every major museum in Europe and the U.S. has similar stories. But as extraordinary as the MFAA’s achievements were, an untold amount of art escaped their effort. Certainly some art was destroyed, purposefully or as collateral damage of war. Like our Cranach, some works were stolen and hidden or sold. Surprisingly, art continues to come to light, such as the nearly 1,400 works discovered in 2012 in a Munich apartment.

But the contributions of the Monuments Men didn’t end with the war. Many went on to long careers, and a few helped create the modern museum as we know it. As an art conservator, I’m especially interested in two of them:

George Stout is the basis for George Clooney’s character in the movie. Essentially the MFAA sprang from Stout’s efforts, and he’s probably the one person who should get the most credit for it. But Stout was first a pioneer in the museum world, establishing the first science-based art conservation research facility in the U.S. at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. After the war he was founding president of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, creating the foundation of modern conservation in this country.

Certainly the conservation center at the NCMA is built on the work of George Stout, but a more direct link is through Monuments Man Sheldon Keck. To me Keck is the grandfather of modern conservation in the U.S., and his wife, Caroline, is the grandmother, a huge figure in American conservation in her own right. NCMA conservators Bill Brown, Noelle Ocon, and I are all products of their work.

Sheldon Keck graduated from Harvard in 1932 and served a conservation apprenticeship at the Fogg, no doubt under Stout’s eye. Keck joined the army in 1943 and was assigned to the MFAA. A letter to his wife on September 19, 1944, from “Somewhere in France” suggests that things started off slowly:

“Still know nothing about Arts & Monument and expect nothing. Don’t even believe the army knows that I’m supposed to be in it as I have been classified as a clerk since I left the States.”

His time with arts and monuments did come. He was with Stout in the first small group of the MFAA that followed the D-Day invasion of 1944 through France, Holland, and Belgium and into Germany. Unfortunately, at one point Keck and close friend Walter Huchthausen unwittingly drove their jeep behind enemy lines while pursuing an altarpiece that had been removed from a German town. Huchthausen was shot and killed, one of only two Monuments Men to die in action. In the movie the death of fictional French character Jean Claude Clermont (actor Jean Dujardin) is based on this incident. Later in life Keck rarely talked about the war; I assume that, as with many WWII vets, he simply found it too painful to relive.

After the war Sheldon and Caroline founded two of the three conservation training programs in the U.S. First Sheldon started the program at New York University, the first graduate-level conservation training program in the U.S. A few years later he started a conservation program for the State University of New York in Cooperstown, which subsequently relocated to Buffalo, N.Y. Bill Brown and Noelle Ocon are graduates of that program. I’ve worked with numerous people trained by the Kecks, including their son Larry Keck. I met Sheldon on several occasions. His calm, confident demeanor and approach to conservation is one I’ve always tried to emulate.

Is The Monuments Men a good film? I certainly enjoyed it, but then I love art and history and had a personal connection through Sheldon Keck. The movie has great actors and is loosely based on the facts. The actual Monuments Men were personally committed to the preservation of art before, during, and after the war. They felt they were simply doing their duty, were incredibly humble, and returned to their normal lives without much fanfare. Seventy years later we have nearly forgotten what they did for us. The movie and the growing number of books on the subject serve to remind us of their extraordinary achievements and the gratitude we should have for them.

Perry Hurt is associate conservator at the NCMA.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Scallion Biscuits

A recipe from Jennifer Armstrong Hicks, pastry chef at the NCMA’s Iris restaurant

Jen notes: “This savory biscuit is the base of our famous Oak City Benedict. Since ramps are coming into season (and they’re so fleeting), it might be fun to use those in place of the scallions if you can come by them.”

Makes about 12 large biscuits

2 ½ cups All-purpose flour

4 ½ tsp. Baking powder

¾ tsp. Kosher salt

¼ tsp. Black pepper

1½ sticks Unsalted butter

¼ cup Finely chopped scallions

¾ cup Roasted and pureed sweet potato (about 1 medium)

¾ cup Buttermilk (use more as needed)

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. Bake, peel, and puree the sweet potato, and set aside to cool.
  3. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper. Pulse to combine.
  4. Chop the butter into about 12 pieces and add to the flour mixture. Pulse until the butter is still visible (pea-sized).
  5. Turn the mixture into a large bowl with room to mix by hand. Make a well in the center and add the buttermilk, sweet potato, and scallions. Gently mix by hand (or with a wooden spoon) until the mixture is all slightly moistened (don’t overmix!).
  6. Turn the dough out onto a generously floured countertop and shape into a rectangle (about 1½ inches thick) with the short end facing you. Fold the dough in thirds (like a letter), make a 90 degree turn, and press out into your rectangle again. Repeat folding in thirds. Repeat process one more time, redust countertop with flour, and roll dough out evenly until about 1 inch thick.
  7. Cut with a biscuit cutter. Place biscuits on parchment-lined sheet pans about 1 inch apart.
  8. Bake in the top third of the oven at 375°F until the biscuits are puffed, golden, and baked through (about 10–15 minutes). Remove and cool slightly before consuming.


Check out the spring 2014 menus at Iris for brunch, lunch, and dinner. For the latest news from the Museum, sign up for our e-newsletters.

Where Did Bacchus Go?

Those of you who love to stroll through the Flemish Kunstkamer (art room) in West Building will undoubtedly have noticed that the marble statue of Bacchus was nowhere to be seen on your recent visit. Where did Bacchus go? Not too far, actually. Bacchus took a stroll of his own down to the conservation lab for the makeover of the century. Let me tell you why.

Bacchus as he came to the Museum

Bacchus was accessioned into the Museum collection in 1958—when he had a head on top of his finely muscled body. However, it was soon learned that this sculpture of Bacchus was a composite of ancient parts assembled together with more recent additions. In such cases composite sculptures are sometimes dismantled to remove the ancient components from the later additions and display them separately (while often discarding the later additions).

Head of Bacchus

Thus, in the ’80s, Bacchus’s head was removed from the rest of sculpture and displayed by itself in the galleries. The Head of Bacchus is currently on view in West Building. It’s also on one of the NCMA banners at Crabtree Valley Mall. This head is a genuine Roman antiquity, and it was once part of an ancient statue of Bacchus, now lost.

As for the body, it was relegated to storage because it was not as elegant as the classical sculptures already in the collection. The superbly chiseled torso is also a genuine Roman antiquity of a rare type, but the legs, left arm, base, and that weird-looking tree trunk are actually baroque additions. (Plus, it does not even represent Bacchus!) NCMA curators and conservators have known this since the early ’60s. Unfortunately, when the head was removed in the ’80s, the Museum did not have the means or the technology to take the sculpture apart any further. And so it was in storage that “Bacchus” languished until he was rescued by Dutch and Flemish art curator Dennis Weller in 2002 and displayed in the Kunstkamer.

(Fast forward to 2013)
After having completed and published the research on the Egyptian collection (2012), I decided the classical collection was to be the object of scholarly research, a new project that started in 2013. Rather than attempting this on my own (I am an Egyptologist, after all), I am bringing in classical art experts in various fields to study our objects. The first consultant was Mark Abbe (assistant professor at the University of Georgia, Athens), whose expertise is Roman marbles. Mark visited in June 2013 to do a detailed visual examination of all our ancient marbles and (oddly enough) he spent an inordinate amount of time in the Kunstkamer—he found Bacchus utterly fascinating.

Mark Abbe at work

As we worked together through the curatorial and conservation files and discussed the works of art, we came across a letter in the Bacchus file dated 1962 from former NCMA Director Justus Bier that said: “I feel we might leave the problem of disassembling it to some future generation, rather than attempting it now.” Mark and I looked at each other. We talked to Dennis as well as conservator Noelle Ocon (who’s working on the classical catalogue research project with me). Now, I’m pretty certain you have an idea why Bacchus was moved to the conservation lab …

We’re the future generation. And we’re taking Bacchus apart.

(Stay tuned for more blog posts regarding the ongoing research on the classical collection and the “Bacchus Deconstruction Project.”)