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Lincoln Kirstein: Weston’s own Monuments Man

1970
1945
The Weston Forum 14 February 2014
By Patricia Gay

Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece of 1432, was one of the stolen paintings Lincoln Kirstein helped rescue from the salt mines at Altaussee in the Austrian Alps, where the Nazis had hidden it. The work is considered a masterpiece of 15th-Century European art.

Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece of 1432, was one of the stolen paintings Lincoln Kirstein helped rescue from the salt mines at Altaussee in the Austrian Alps, where the Nazis had hidden it. The work is considered a masterpiece of 15th-Century European art.

While moviegoers are abuzz these days about the film The Monuments Men, few realize there is a significant Weston connection in the film.

One of the film’s characters, played by actor Bob Balaban, is based on Lincoln Kirstein, who owned a home on Norfield Road in Weston for more than 40 years.

Adapted from a book by Robert M. Edsel, the film is based on the true story of the MFAA — Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section — also known as the Monuments Men, a group of 345 men and women from 13 Allied nations tasked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to save pieces of art and culture before they were destroyed by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in World War II.

As one of the Monuments Men, Mr. Kirstein helped recover a number of priceless art works, including a 15th-Century art masterpiece the Nazis had stolen and hidden in an Austrian salt mine.

Right pedigree

Mr. Kirstein had the right pedigree and background to become a member of the elite Monuments Men group. Born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1907 and raised in Boston, he was a Harvard grad and founder of the university’s Hound and Horn literary magazine. A Renaissance man, he was an art connoisseur and a writer, and in 1933, he founded the School of American Ballet with George Balanchine, whom he brought to the United States from Russia.

Lincoln Kirstein was portrayed by actor Bob Balaban, far right, in the film The Monuments Men.

Lincoln Kirstein was portrayed by actor Bob Balaban, far right, in the film The Monuments Men.

But Mr. Kirstein had to take a pause from his career after he was inducted into the Army in 1943. There, he achieved the rank of private first class and was a courier, interpreter and chauffeur with Gen. Patton’s Third Army.

Mr. Kirstein’s unit moved to Germany in 1945 and he joined the Monuments Men, where he used his cultural expertise to trace and recover artwork stolen and hidden by the Nazis.

When it came to art, Adolf Hitler, a frustrated painter, destroyed modern works he found offensive to the Third Reich. He looted museums and private collections to take classical pieces he deemed noteworthy for his home and a museum he planned to construct in Linz, Germany.

According to the Monuments Men Foundation, one piece of art that Hitler especially coveted was The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, more commonly known as the Ghent Altarpiece of 1432, a 15th-Century masterpiece painted by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

No ordinary painting, the altarpiece is large and imposing, made up of two rows of hinged wooden panels, standing 11 feet high and opening up to a span of 16 feet wide.

Each panel depicts a painted scene in vivid colors, including the Lamb of God on an altar with the Holy Spirit.

At the outset of World War II, the altarpiece was on display in a museum in Belgium. But when the Germans started to invade Europe, it was taken to the French town of Pau for safekeeping. Hitler tracked it down and through Hermann Göring, his second in command, was able to steal the painting from Pau and hide it in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, a secret Nazi storage facility.

The altarpiece soon became No. 1 on the Allied Army’s list of missing artworks it hoped to recover.

Recovered artwork

In April 1945, with the war at an end, members of the Monuments Men began their task of tracking down stolen art. They feared that paintings stolen by the Nazis might be destroyed based on the “Nero Decree” issued by Hitler before he committed suicide. The decree ordered the destruction of German infrastructure to prevent its use by the Allies. Some interpreted that to include the destruction of the stolen art.

Lincoln Kirstein

Lincoln Kirstein

Soon after starting their mission, members of the Monuments Men found a large number of pieces in a secret stash at the Merkers Mine Complex in Thuringia, Germany. They recovered 393 paintings, including a Rubens and a Goya, and a considerable number of rare sculptures, photographs and textiles.

Lacking adequate packing materials and supplies, the men used one thousand sheepskin coats from a uniform depot to wrap the pieces for safe removal.

Meanwhile, acting on a tip from a dentist, Mr. Kirstein and Capt. Robert Posey (portrayed in the film by Bill Murray) made their way to a salt mine in Altaussee, high in the Austrian Alps.

Down a damp side chamber in the dusty mine, the pair came across numerous panels of the Ghent Altarpiece simply resting on some empty cardboard boxes.

Mr. Kirstein wrote about the discovery in an article in Town and Country magazine, saying, “The miraculous jewels of the Crowned Virgin seemed to attract the light from our flickering acetylene lamps. Calm and beautiful, the altarpiece was, quite simply, there.”

It was the great find the Monuments Men had hoped for. In total, they recovered 80 truckloads of artwork from Altaussee. The altarpiece was returned to Belgium in a ceremony presided over by Belgian royalty at the Royal Palace of Brussels.

Man Walking, a bronze statue of Lincoln Kirstein, was created by renowned sculptor Gaston Lachaise and is on display at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.

Man Walking, a bronze statue of Lincoln Kirstein, was created by renowned sculptor Gaston Lachaise and is on display at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.

Mr. Kirstein was discharged from the Army in September 1945 with no fanfare and quickly returned to the dance world and the New York City Ballet, where he served as its general director until 1989.

While maintaining an apartment in New York City, in 1955 he bought a country home in Weston on Norfield Road with his wife, Fidelma, the sister of painter Paul Cadmus. Although he had a very public life in the arts world, Mr. Kirstein kept a low profile when he was in Weston.

Karin Giannitti of the Weston Historical Society said the society does not have any records about Lincoln Kirstein. “There were a great many artists living in Weston at that time, but we have nothing about him,” she said.

In 1984, Mr. Kirstein received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan, bestowed on Americans for “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Mr. Kirstein died in 1996, at the age of 88. In a local obituary printed in The Weston Forum, his brother-in-law, Paul Cadmus, called him “a reclusive man when he was in Weston. He was a polymath, one of the most dynamic and brilliant people I’ve ever known. He knew so much about everything.”

In something of a coincidence, with the timing of the release of the Monuments Men, Debbie Rehr, a real estate broker with Camelot Real Estate, has listed Mr. Kirstein’s former home at 12 Norfield Road for sale. Sitting on six acres of land, the asking price is $1,250,000. “How cool is it to know there is a home in Weston where one of the Monuments Men lived!” Ms. Rehr said.

Mr. Kirstein’s profile in Weston is low no more.

Lincoln Kirstein’s former Weston home at 12 Norfield Road is currently listed for sale. —Debbie Rehr photo

Lincoln Kirstein’s former Weston home at 12 Norfield Road is currently listed for sale. —Debbie Rehr photo

 


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