Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Middle-Aged Librarian WWII Spy You Never Knew About

My friend Danielle requested I create a comic-book version of Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra.  While I think a) there very much should be a comic book version of every tragedy play ever written by Shakespeare and b) I would be the perfect candidate to draft these, I c) don't have the time to draw it.  Yet.

Instead, this week I am going to introduce you to yet another woman who isn't nearly as famous as she should be.  This is part of my Random Acts of Hindsight Feminism (see: Anna Mae Wong and Nicolaa De La Haye or the post inspired by Dr. Marlene Zuk).  Looking back, I am shocked that these women are not nearly as famous as their male counterparts. 

Feminist whingeing aside, I have found a new woman to admire for her gumption, her gallantry and un-gripulous nature.  Don't ask me how I got that last 'g' word.  It's incredibly hard to find a good 'g' word.*

Oh sure, you might have barely noticed her.  You might have decided, as I think most would, to look at the Giant Naked Lady instead.  

You might have completely ignored that mousey little woman with her pristine stereotypical Librarian fashion.  

But, you see, so did the Nazis.  

Godwin's Law Doesn't Count When You're Actually Having A Discussion About WWII, Right?  

The Nazis, I think all sane people can agree, are an emblem of When Humans Go Really, Really--No, Really--Bad.  I am not going to summarize what they did or even entertain the idea of explaining why they're bad because if you HAVEN'T learned about their actions during World War II by now you grew up in a walnut shell.  Or you're a crazy maladjusted dictator of Iran.  Just saying.

So among the many horrible things this army did systematically, the German Army in the 1940s began an enormous, secretive operation of art proliferation.  After the invasion of France in 1940 and the "armistice" between France and Germany was signed and ratified, Hitler and Goehring had a particular surreal project in mind:  the confiscation of cultural artifacts they liked and the eradication of everything else.

Keep in mind, Adolf Hitler applied to the Akademie der Bildenden Künste Wien, aka the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, as a painter.  He was denied admission.  Twice.**  

That's where Rose Valland comes in.

You May Have A Systematic Way Of Looting But We've Got An Art Historian With A Memory Like A Polyurethane Mattress 

I can't help it.  I like someone automatically if they're a smoker.***  
Rose was the overseer of the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris right when that armistice went through. Hitler had just decided not to obliterate Paris.  Among the many odd facts about Hitler, he both adored and envied Paris and was "happy" when he finally got to visit the city.  It seems a bit hypocritical to point out as an American, but I always thought one doesn't have to overrun a country to become a tourist.

Anyway, the Germans created an organization solely dedicated to systematic looting of the occupied territories.  It was called the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die Besetzen Gebietesay that three times fastor the ERR for short.  The ERR used the Jeu de Paume as their central storage and sorting unit before sending thousands of pieces of art--pieces of culture--to Germany.

Emptied frames of the works stolen by the Nazis during WWII

I Spy With My German-Fluent Eye

Rose was a quiet woman.  She didn't dress flamboyantly and didn't cause much attention, which is a good thing because for over four years she recorded the distribution and looting of over 20,000 pieces of art.  Much to the German's chagrin, Rose could also understand German.  

Imagine that sweet, quiet librarian you always thought nothing of, spying on every conversation between brutal, murderous Nazis.  She would just sit there, soaking up the information, memorizing the names, titles and locations of every piece, and would later write it down every night in a secret journal to be distributed to the Allied Forces if and when the invasion would occur.  She also risked her life to send this information the French Underground so that bombs wouldn't be dropped on the trains shipping out the priceless pieces of art. 

And that's why you should know about Rose Antonia Maria Valland.  Yes, she has been awarded and remembered by the French Government for her incredible work.  She published the book Le front de l'art in 1961 describing her incredible story and proceeded to become the chair of many artistic preservation boards.  However, I would have much preferred to learn about her during my sparse education of important women in, say, middle school or high school or hell even in college.  The fact that I'm learning about her now leads me to believe that many other Americans have no idea about her.

So, remember:  Rose Valland.

Bad. Ass.


*I think I now understand why the 'g' spot is not called the 's' spot or the 'f' spot because in English, well, it wouldn't be as nearly evasive, wouldn't it?

**Please now join with me in the ritual "What if...?" and imagine how Adolf Hilter might have handled Art 135B, Introduction to Charcoal and Pencil.  Would he have been the type to break his pencil lead repeatedly, unfamiliar with the medium, only to then stab it in his professor's chest for getting a low mark?  Or would he have instead rushed with a fury at his own canvas during Elementary Oil Painting 11 because the damn thing wouldn't dry instantly unlike his darling little watercolor paints?  Personally, I like to envision Hitler after graduating from art school, unable to be taken seriously as a real artist, and ending up trapped in a job as a greeting card artist for slogans like "A Special Message for Someone Special!" or "Miracles come in all sizes!" and "Eye will always luv u!" That last slogan would have to have an image of a cute kitten with big eyes or a magnifier on a happy baby's eyeball or something.  And yes, all slogans would have to be in Comic Sans MS.

***Small Disclaimer:  I like you automatically if you're a smoker but only if you're also French, female and a middle-aged Spy working against the Nazis.


  1. learn something new everyday. =) i esp enjoy it when it's through your blog.

  2. Thanks Amy! I love writing about random things for you. Wahoo!

  3. Also, to the Anonymous reader who very kindly sent me a message FILLED--Filled, I say!--with very timely links, I'd like to respond with...

    1) I was thinking of Eddie Izzard's "Dressed to Kill" the entire time I was writing this. It was hard not to reference him. ;)

    2) I have seen/looked over the pieces of art by Adolf Hitler, and very much like that Guardian article you sent, it was a hard pill to swallow when I first saw them that they were actually good. My mother is a professional painter and we've talked extensively about how complicated it is to work with watercolor as a medium because of the fact that they are weak in strength, dry quickly and you can't just go back and attack the painted canvas 4 years later like with an oil painting. Well, that's an exaggeration. 2 years.

    Anyway, the point is, knowing from experience what kind of skills it takes to create those pretty pictures I feel uncomfortable acknowledging that he did have talent. He just wasn't the Next Big Thing. And the Akademie's exclusivity just tore right into him. Again, I don't know whether to congratulate the Academy for not including the obviously horrible person or cringe at them that their socially constructed elitism encouraged a mass-murdering Nazi Fuckhead.

    Hm. Thinkfull thoughts.

    Thanks Anonymous! And also, thanks to all who are reading and don't send me random links. I don't know how many of you there are out there but I do encourage you to keep reading because I hear blips and blurps along the way that you *are* out there and that makes me smile. Well, smile and think "Am I scary or too bold to write to?"

    It's ok, Kate Winslet. You can tell me. I'm right here, writing away and happy to write back to you.


  4. loved learning bout this! especially now as I'm in France and having been to a few art museums and know a lot more of the culture and a bit of the history, it's awesome to learn. the pictures are hilarious.