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France

Clooney film honours forgotten French Resistance heroine

© © Musée nationaux/Fox | Rose Valland and actress Cate Blanchett

Text by Stéphanie TROUILLARD

Latest update : 2014-03-12

With the release of George Clooney’s Hollywood war epic 'The Monuments Men', a forgotten heroine of the French Resistance, played by Cate Blanchett in the film, is finally getting the recognition she deserves.

Rose Valland was a highly decorated French Resistance fighter who worked tirelessly hunting down tens of thousands of artworks looted by the Nazis during World War II.

Her enormous efforts have never been honoured or celebrated – until now.

With the release of George Clooney’s film 'The Monuments Men' (March 12 in France) this modest and forgotten woman, who died in 1980, is at long last getting the acclaim she deserves.

The author of Valland’s biography, French Senator Corrine Bouchoux, is delighted.
“Mission accomplished!” she told FRANCE 24 with a grin. “I am over the moon.”

“If someone had told me before that my book could be the inspiration of such a big production, I would never have believed it,” Bouchoux, who represents the Maine and Loire administrative region in western France, said after viewing a screening of the Hollywood blockbuster.

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When Bouchoux received a phone call inquiring about buying the film rights, she thought it was a joke.

The movie 'The Monuments Men' is centred on a group of allied soldiers whose mission is to follow assault troops into combat and save as many artworks as possible from the clutches of the retreating Germans.

Valland’s important role in history

The value of Rose Valland’s work to save France’s artistic heritage cannot be understated.

When the Germans invaded, she was working as an assistant curator at the Jeu de Paume gallery, next to the Louvre Museum in central Paris.

The Jeu de Paume would become a sorting centre for artworks destined for Hitler’s “Führermuseum” in Linz, Austria (a project that never came to light) and also for the personal collection of Herman Göring, a senior Nazi who spent much of the war greedily accumulating property and artworks from victims of the Holocaust.

Valland gained unique insight into the systematic theft of France’s artistic heritage.
“Throughout the occupation she became a specialist sort of spy,” said Bouchoux. “She made careful notes of every single work of art that passed through the Jeu de Paume, including their destinations."

“This information was passed on to the Resistance, and from there to the Allies so that they could avoid bombing those destinations," she added. "Without this information, so much could have been lost.”

“The Monuments Men” focuses on this shadowy work, with Blanchett playing Valland under the name Claire Simone (all the names are changed to allow a greater degree of artistic interpretation), who hands the information to American officer James Granger, played by Matt Damon.

Valland negotiates with the Soviets

But the film, which ends with Germany’s defeat in 1945, skips an important part of Valland’s contribution to France’s effort to recover its looted art.

“After 1945, Valland went to Germany and stayed there until 1954,” said Bouchoux, adding that Valland, now commissioned as a captain in the French army, scoured Germany with a fine-toothed comb to recover the stolen art.

“Thanks to her, some 70,000 works were returned to France, more than two-thirds of the art that had disappeared into the former Third Reich,” said Bouchoux.

“She became an underground negotiator, dealing in the shadowy world of diplomats and middle men. She went into Soviet-occupied Germany dozens of times to see what the Russians had recovered – not an easy job when the Communists considered everything in their zone as rightly theirs.”

A life of total anonymity

In 1952, Valland became “Conservator of National Museums” and had accumulated an impressive list of awards and titles, including France’s Legion d’Honneur, the Resistance Medal, the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit from the new Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the US Medal of Freedom.

And then Valland returned, perhaps of her own will, to a life of almost total anonymity while obsessively carrying on her work .

“She was given a new job on her return to France, to protect France’s artistic heritage in the case of a third World War,” said Bouchoux.

“She was the central pillar of the security of France’s museums, and even as the threat of war diminished, she kept up her work until her death in 1980. Valland was resolutely determined to locate every single stolen artwork and return it to its rightful owner, and close the book on Nazi looting completely and irrevocably.”

So why has Rose Valland not been remembered and celebrated?

“Firstly, Valland was a woman. At the time, the French preferred their heroes to be men,” says Bouchoux. “She was also from a poor background, but perhaps most importantly she was gay.

“And while she lived with the same companion most of her adult life, she was seen simply as an cranky old maid, when she actually was nothing of the sort."

"She was simply discreet, which was important because she was aware of a number of scandals and abuses within the French establishment. It was in no-one’s interest, she understood, that any of these scandals saw the light of day.”

Valland’s work continues

Seventy years on, the work that Valland began continues. French museums still house some 2,000 stolen works of art that have yet to be claimed, and on Tuesday March 11 French Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti formally handed over three paintings to their rightful owners.

Bouchoux is determined that Valland’s legacy should continue to be applied as rigorously as in the years immediately after the war.

She heads a Senate commission that is trying to find ways to make sure Jewish families who had their property confiscated get it back, and to see a dedicated research programme created to identify artworks with a dubious history.

“If we cannot identify the owners we should make sure that France has a clear policy,” she told FRANCE 24. “I do not want French museums to buy a single work of art if the ownership history is under any doubt.”

For the moment that work is being done through an obscure section of the Ministry of Culture website bearing Valland’s name, which links to a list of around 2,000 artworks recovered from Germany that remain unclaimed.

This isn’t enough for Bouchoux: “I find it unbelievable that national museums don’t all have a portrait of Valland alongside a plaque explaining just how important she was.

“I hope to see these memorials one day. It’s always seemed a terrible injustice to me that she has been forgotten."

Date created : 2014-03-11

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