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Monuments Woman Professor Helped Save Historic Artwork

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Monuments Woman Professor Helped Save Historic Artwork

Post by Mazy on Tue 11 Mar 2014, 05:24

Monuments Woman Professor Helped Save Historic Artwork

Michael Morain, The Des Moines Register6:02 a.m. EST March 2, 2014

Art professor Gladys E. Hamlin served on the commission that authorized the Monuments Men and helped write a key field guide for soldiers who were handling treasures stolen by the Nazis.

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(Photo: Special to The Des Moines Register)

DES MOINES, Iowa -- All of the source material for "The Monuments Men" movie has been sitting for decades in a bundle of long-forgotten files at the Iowa State University library. All that was missing was the dramatic music and George Clooney.

It's true. If a student had stumbled upon the archived papers of one Gladys E. Hamlin and written a decent research paper about them, who knows? Maybe we'd see that student's name in the movie credits instead of Robert Edsel, the guy who wrote the 2009 book, "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History."

But Hollywood used Edsel's account, and the rest is history — or at least a version of it. The truth is more complicated.

While Winterset native George Stout (Clooney) was sneaking across enemy lines, Hamlin hustled on the homefront, helping the government until the war ended and she settled at Iowa State. The longtime art professor served on the wartime Roberts Commission, which authorized the so-called Monuments Men to pluck artwork and antiquities from the clutches of the Nazis. She helped write one of the key field guides that taught Allied soldiers exactly how to handle the paintings and sculptures and tapestries they found in hidden stockpiles across Western Europe.

"The movie makes it look like they just cobbled the plan together, but they obviously had enough time to put together these publications," said Iowa State art conservator Kate Greder.

Many of those once-classified field guides are now among the documents Hamlin donated to Iowa State's archives before her death, in 1986.

"It was like the heavens parted," Greder said. "I couldn't believe I found all this stuff."

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Iowa native George Stout, wearing an “N” for the U.S. Navy, helps return the famous Ghent Altarpiece from an Austrian mine, shown here, to the artwork’s home in a Belgian church.(Photo: Special to The Des Moines Register)

There are photos of Stout hauling off Michelangelo's marble "Madonna of Bruges" from an Austrian salt mine and then leaning over Van Eyck's famous Ghent Altarpiece in a staging area at Germany's Neuschwanstein Castle. (Both photos show up in the movie's closing credits.)

The Hamlin files also contain some of the field guides she helped prepare, often for soldiers who didn't know much about art history. Greder held up a booklet about Rome and read the first sentence: "Rome is a very, very old city."

One of Hamlin's most influential contributions was the 1944 guide for the "Field Protection of Objects and Archives," issued under "restricted access" by the Secretary of War. The table of contents in the yellowing copy at Iowa State lists how-to instructions for the care of paintings, textiles, manuscripts, arms and armor, sculptures, monuments and even historic buildings.

"So how do you save a palace? That's what I want to know," Greder said.

Hamlin had earned a master's degree from Columbia University before the war and put it to good use afterward by writing a series of journal articles about the Monuments Men and their allies. She wrote about the Louvre officials who whisked the "Mona Lisa" away to mountains in southern France, only to discover that the high altitude damaged the portrait's surface.

They moved the masterpiece downhill.

She wrote about similar efforts in Amsterdam, where Dutch authorities moved treasures in the middle of the night from the Rijksmuseum to remote caves out in the countryside.

Hamlin started teaching at Iowa State in 1949 and continued there until her retirement in 1973. The scholar with the horn-rimmed glasses taught a generation of students who were at least a little surprised to learn that she had helped stymie the Nazis. It was sort of like hearing that Julia Child had been a wartime spy.

"With that generation, they didn't really toot their own horns," said former student Lynette Pohlman, who directs the Iowa State University Museums. "Everybody played a role, so their singular stories were part of the collective one."

Pohlman had known about Hamlin's war efforts for years, but the new movie rekindled her curiosity.

"It's an opportunity to teach students," she said. "At Iowa State, sometimes we forget to celebrate what we have right here and the role we played in history, especially in the arts."

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From left: Sam Epstein, George Clooney, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Matt Damon star in the current Hollywood movie “The Monuments Men.”(Photo: Special to The Des Moines Register)

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