PROTECTING ART in War

By Christopher, Thomas | Humanities, March/April 2015 | Go to article overview

PROTECTING ART in War


Christopher, Thomas, Humanities


CONNECTICUT DEANE KELLER WAS FORTY-TWO YEARS old in 1943 and handier with a paintbrush than a gun, but still he was determined to serve his country. As it turned out, this Yale University art professor had skills the Allies badly needed: He knew Italy, its geography and language, and he was intimately familiar with its artistic treasures. To appreciate the vital role Keller would play in saving Italy's cultural heritage, one has only to visit the exhibition "An Artist at War: Deane Keller, New Haven's Monuments Man" currently on display at the New Haven Museum, supported by Connecticut Humanities.

"Perhaps for the first time in history," Keller later wrote, "there were men whose sole job it was to preserve the heritage and culture of nations being torn to shreds by the ravages of war." Known formally as the "Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives" program, but remembered today as the "Monuments Men," this select group of 345 men and women from thirteen countries was called to protect cultured treasures and rescue artworks stolen by Nazi Germany as the Allied Armies invaded Europe. George Clooney's 2014 movie, The Monuments Men, celebrated the northern European activities of the group; equally dramatic but less well known are the exploits of the Monuments Men in Italy, where Keller was a leading figure.

Born and raised in New Haven, Keller had studied at the Art Students League in New York and at Yale before winning a three-year fellowship at the American Academy in Rome in 1926. When not working in his studio at the Academy, Keller traveled throughout the Italian peninsula, familiarizing himself with its great works of public and private art; in the process he became fluent in Italian and developed an abiding love for the Italian people. When it became clear that Italy would become a battlefield, Keller (by then an art professor at Yale) knew that he had to be there.

He was an unlikely soldier. In addition to his age, Keller was short and nearsighted, a family man with a wife and a three-year-old son whom he adored. In fact, it was his affection for his son that prompted some of the exhibition's most evocative items: the cartoons of his daily activities that Keller sent home via V-Mail. Conditions were primitive-one cartoon shows Keller bathing out of a pair of army helmets-as Keller followed the front line of the Fifth Army, which was fighting its way north from Sicily. …

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