National Geographic : 1948 Dec
Masterpieces on Tour BY HARRY A. MCBRIDE Administrator, National Gallery of Art M RACULOUSLY surviving the war, some of the greatest art masterpieces of Europe, many painted before Co lumbus crossed the Atlantic, are being seen and enjoyed by millions of Americans. Nearly a million people viewed them in Washington, D. C., alone. As art lovers feast their eyes upon these priceless works of long-dead masters, or view the reproductions of selected paintings in these pages, they may well see in the background the lurid flash of bursting bombs, furtive flight from shattered Berlin, the gloom of a German salt mine. Probably no such collection of art in history has traveled so far and had so many narrow escapes. Safeguarded as carefully as VIP's (Very Important Personages), 202 German-owned masterpieces were brought from Germany by the United States Army in December, 1945, for safekeeping and proper preservation at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington. They soon became known as "very important paint ings." In the collection were 15 works by Rem brandt, six by Rubens, five by Botticelli, two by Pieter Bruegel (Breughel) the Elder, two by Vermeer, three by Raphael, five by Titian, three by Watteau, and five by Jan van Eyck, as well as paintings by Fra Angelico, Giovanni Bellini, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Diirer, Gior gione, Frans Hals, Hans Holbein the Younger, Fra Filippo Lippi, and others (Plates I to XXIV). "Very Important Paintings" Cross Country From Washington all but the most fragile have gone on a tour of 13 cities-New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Cleve land, Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Toledo-before being returned to Ger many.* What a story these paintings could tell! Like Europe's millions of displaced persons, they were shunted hither and yon by war. All but two of the paintings in this famous collection came from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, in Berlin. This impressive building of Italian baroque style was completed by the German Government in 1903 at the junc tion of the Spree River and the waterway called the Kupfergraben in the heart of the city. At the start of World War II it housed one of the world's greatest art collections. The real nucleus of the collection was the gift in 1821 of nearly 600 paintings, mainly of the Italian schools, by the British merchant, Edward Solly, then living in Berlin. In fact, the Solly mark appears on the backs of several of the masterpieces which traveled to America. Among them are the famous "Saint Sebastian" and the "Venus," by Botticelli; "Madonna and Child," by Raphael, and the famed Titian "Self-portrait." The museum building itself suffered severely from aerial bombardment. The massive dome was shattered, a large part of the roof demol ished, the lower floor piled high with rubble, and the stone walls so cracked that the cellars were flooded with several feet of water. Its reconstruction will be a long and costly job. In the first days of the war the Nazis expected heavy air raids over the German capital; in 1939 the curatorial staff of the Museum hurriedly removed the most precious works of art to its vaulted stone cellars. Although early air raids did not materialize, the paintings were left in the cellars. Many were carefully crated, but not all, because even then wood was scarce, and specialists to do the packing were even scarcer. The uncrated paintings were merely stood around the cellar walls. In 1943 air action over Berlin started in earnest. Close to two railroad stations, the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, with its glass sky lights, no longer formed a safe repository for such treasures. The collection made its first move from home, to an air raid shelter on D6nhoffstrasse. Soon this protection also became inadequate and a second move was made, this time to a flak tower, a huge concrete antiaircraft sta tion, near the Alexanderplatz. The flak tower provided excellent protec tion. The paintings were placed on various floors. There were accommodations for a curator and restorer and, most important for preservation of the paintings, the structure was air-conditioned. Early in 1945 conditions in Berlin became more and more critical. As air raids increased in intensity, the art experts wanted the paint * The German-owned paintings are scheduled to be at Minneapolis, October 29-November 17; Portland, November 24-December 3; San Francisco, December 9-28; Los Angeles, January 3-22; St. Louis, Janu ary 29-February 17; Pittsburgh, February 23-March 14; and Toledo, March 19-31.