Puppet theater remembers the woman who saved the Louvre in World War II

Paris. August 28, 1939. The Mona Lisa is carried out of the Musée du Louvre in a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance. Six days later, Germany has declared war on France, and the museum has sent more than 3,600 paintings and sculptures into hiding.

Many hands helped.

“Café workers, students — in a short time they evacuated thousands of works, huge paintings hauled away in army trucks,” said theater artist and puppeteer David Lane in his studio in the Eclipse Mill in North Adams.

And they did save the Mona Lisa, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Venus de Milo, he said. But not long afterward they would look out the windows to see Picassos burning in the courtyard.

Though the treasures of the Louvre were hidden, many thousands more were not. Between 1940 and 1944, the Nazi military controlled first Northern France and then the whole country, and they systematically stole and looted tens of thousands of works of art, many by Jewish artists and from Jewish collectors.

One woman got them back.

On Saturday night at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, Lane will honor her, as he directs three puppeteers in the newest production of his “Chronicles of Rose.”

A regular contributor to the internationally recognized Old Trout Puppet Workshop, Lane has led workshops across New England and at Dell’Arte International in Blue Lake, Calif., and he has given work-in-progress performances of the Chronicles at MCLA in 2014. The play has evolved since then, he said, from five shorter episodes into one longer work, and his daughter, Sophie Lane, will perform a score she has composed with touches of waltzes and klezmer.

With wooden puppets he has made, Lane tells the story of Rose Valland — a curator and art historian, captain in the French military and a member of the resistance.

He first encountered her in a documentary film, he said, and her courage moved him. But he could not find her widely recognized in English, though in Europe she is known as a hero of the war. He turned to her story as a way to explore his own Jewish heritage and the ideas she fought for.

“It’s not just history,” he said.

He can open a newspaper today and read about the destruction of Muslim architecture and cultural works in Syria, and that loss makes Valland’s story immediate and wrenching.

She was a blacksmith’s daughter from a small town who worked her way through the École des Beaux Arts, the École du Louvre, the University of Paris and the Sorbonne.

At the time of the Nazi occupation, she was a volunteer assistant curator at the Jeu de Palme, a museum and center for contemporary art at the Tuileries Gardens beside the Louvre. (Jeu de Palme means tennis court, because in the time of Napoleon III the stone building housed one.)

Under the occupation, the Nazis turned the Jeu de Palme into a clearing house for their art operations, Lane said. When they commandeered her museum, Valland turned to her friend Jacques Jaujard, director of National Museums in Paris, who had organized the evacuation of the Louvre. He encouraged Valland to stay at her post, to learn what she could of the Nazis’ activities.

They brought thousands of artworks to the Jeu de Palme to sort through them. They seized the collections of art dealers like Paul Rosenberg, who represented Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The museum’s modern works were relegated to back rooms, and the main rooms became a gallery for the Nazi elite.

“Nazi officials, especially Göring, would come, and they would set up elaborate shows for him,” Lane said. “… They would bring in red carpets and palm trees and display stolen work.”

In that phantasmagoric setting, Hermann Göring — the founder of the Gestapo and the second-most powerful man in Nazi Germany — drank champagne and looked through stolen masterpieces while the people of Paris were suffering food shortages.

He would note which paintings would go to him, which to Adolph Hitler’s personal collection and which to a projected museum that would extol the culture of the Fatherland. And Valland would listen.

“The Germans didn’t see her as a threat,” Lane said. “She was a petite woman, and they didn’t know she spoke German. She would ride her bike home and write in her journal — which paintings were transported, where they were taken from and where they were going — from memory.”

Through Jaujard’s connections in the French underground, she alerted the Allies to keep them from bombing trains that carried artwork — trains were often targets, because they often carried munitions.

And after the war she led efforts to recover and restore thousands of paintings and sculptures.

But some are still lost, and some she could not recover. Some works Göring destroyed — by policy. Early in his ascendency, Hitler had rounded up a vast exhibit of what he called “degenerate art,” Lane said. It was often Modern art painted in reaction to World War I, showing the psychology of people who had survived the war. It was not always pretty or representational. It could be shocking.

Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Max Beckman, Picasso and others showed a world fractured by a war that had shattered empires across Europe and Asia.

Hitler mounted the exhibit to show “a sickness in society,” Lane said, and though much of the work was not by Jewish artists, he equated that sickness to the Jewish presence in Berlin. By one account, he meant to exhibit “degenerate art” across from his planned museum, which would show work idealizing the Germanic people.

As a curator, Valland knew Modern artists and their work. Some of paintings she risked her life to save were painted by her friends, Lane said. He imagined what she thought and felt when Nazi soldiers made a bonfire of Dali and Miró, Klee and Léger paintings, and she had to watch them burn.


If you go …

What: ‘Chronicles of Rose’ puppet theater

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5

Where: Congregation Beth Israel, 53 Lois St., North Adams

Admission: Free

Information: 413-663-5830cbiweb.org


This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle — my thanks to Arts & Entertinament Editor Jeff Borak. Photo at the top: ‘The Chronicles of Rose’ tells the story of Rose Valland, part of the French Resistence in World War II. Photo courtesy of David Lane.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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