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Opening the Mona Lisa at the end of WWII, 1945


A visitor looked at a photo of the ”Mona Lisa” being unpacked at the end of World War II. (Remy De La Mauviniere/ Associated Press)

PARIS – On the eve of World War II, curators at the Louvre swathed the museum’s most priceless painting – the “Mona Lisa” – in layers of waterproof paper, boxed it up, and spirited it to the French countryside for safekeeping. Leonardo da Vinci’s smiling maiden moved another five times during the war before she was brought, safe and sound, back to the Louvre.

A new Louvre exhibition, which opened last week, brings together photos of the museum before, during, and after the war, recording how thousands of pieces of art were taken to safehouses far from the fighting.

Black-and-white shots from 1939 show workers packing paintings into boxes and storing bronze and marble sculptures into wooden crates and loading them into convoys of trucks that would ferry them to chateaux across the country.

Perched on a pedestal of wooden moving crates, “Venus de Milo” wears a harness of cords around her slim marble waist in one image.

Another of the Louvre’s Greek masterpieces, the 2d century BC “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” is shown entangled in a web of ropes and dangling from an oversized pulley. Another photo shows the a massive crate containing the marble statue being wheeled down a staircase on specially installed wooden planks.

Return of the Mona Lisa at the end of World War Two. — On the eve of war, curators at the Louvre swathed the museum’s most priceless painting in layers of waterproof paper, boxed it up and spirited it to the French countryside for safekeeping. The painting was moved another five times during the war before she was safely returned to the Louvre after the Liberation.

“The principle was that the artwork had to be gotten away from combat zones and strategic centers,” said the exhibition’s curator, Guillaume Fonkenell, adding that the pieces weren’t hidden from the occupying Nazi forces.

“The Germans were perfectly aware of the different places the artwork was being stored,” he said. Most of it was kept at chateaux, whose owners volunteered to safeguard the pieces as a way of preventing their properties from being requisitioned by the Nazis, Fonkenell said.

The situation in Paris was vastly different than in other European capitals occupied by the Germans, like Warsaw or Prague, which saw treasures in their museums plundered.

Generally, the pieces remained sealed in their boxes, but curators worried about the conditions of the “Mona Lisa” and took the painting out of its box.

“It was stored in a bedroom so that there would always be someone with her,” said Fonkenell. “There were people who slept with ‘Mona Lisa’ in their bedroom.”

Nearly all the Louvre’s collection of paintings was evacuated from Paris. But harder-to-transport items, like fragile pieces and heavy sculptures, were removed only selectively.

Much of the remaining artwork was stored in the museum’s basement during the war. One shot shows dozens of Roman statues of life-size, toga-draped men and women crowded together, as if they were posing for a group photo.

The most chilling images are the ones taken after the artwork’s removal.

The Grande Galerie is stripped of its floor-to-ceiling paintings. Heavy shadows envelop the stately marble hallway where the “Venus de Milo” had presided.

A 1942 photo shows a gallery once dedicated to Rembrandt, dozens of gilded frames hanging, empty, from the walls. Inside the frames, the names of the paintings that once hung there were scrawled in chalk on the walls.

“It’s strange for us to imagine, but there was not a single painting exhibited,” said Fonkenell. “The Louvre without a painting, it’s a little bizarre.”

The museum remained open during much of the war, though only a few halls and just a fraction of the collection – mostly sculptures – was exposed.

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