Growing up, Dr. Damien Van Puyvelde didn’t know the term Monuments Men or any variation of it in his native language French.
Instead he knew about a statue – a bust to be exact – and its importance not only in his family’s history, but to world history as well.
He already knew the man was his great-grandfather, Leo Van Puyvelde and, over the course of his academic career and life, he was going to learn much more about him.
So much so, that it would eventually take him to Washington, D.C., where Dr. Damien Van Puyvelde, an Assistant Professor of Security Studies and Associate Director for Research at UTEP, will attend a Congressional Gold Medal in Emancipation Hall for his late relative and the entire organization that became known as and immortalized as The Monuments Men.
The elder Van Puyvelde earned his mark to become an immortal sculpture; unlike many a World War II veteran, he did not kill a man, wasn’t caught in enemy fire, but his service was every bit as important.
He was tasked, along with 300-plus other men and women from allied forces, to retrieve and protect some of Europe’s most prominent cultural relics. This was a commission by the newly founded Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program (MFAA) at the time.
Van Puyvelde, who died in 1965, was not labeled as a Monuments Men until just recently, following the publication of Robert Edsel’s 2009 book of the same name. From there it became a foundation, gaining traction thanks to the 2014 movie directed by and starring George Clooney.
He saw it in a much more positive light and doesn’t feel he would be headed to Washington had it not been for the movie and recognition of the Monuments Men.
“Of course the movie is a very romanticized version of what actually happened, as you could imagine, so some families of Monuments Men are a bit upset about the movie. I think it’s great because they wouldn’t even have the Congressional Gold Medal without the kind of attraction the book, movie and foundation have drawn to the story of the Monuments Men,” Damien said.
Long before he was listed as a member of the Monument Men Foundation, or the words were even conceived, Leo Van Puyvelde was an art historian in Belgium.
The Van Puyvelde name, survived only by the current UTEP professor, derives from a town in Belgium, where Leo was chief curator of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in the 1930s.
During the war, he was invited by the royal family in Great Britain to assess medieval paintings, presumably because he published books in and spoke English and because of his role as chief curator of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in the 1930s.
Following the commission of the MFAA, he was tasked by the Belgian Prime Minister near the end of the war to retrieve what he believed to be one of the most important pieces of art in western civilization: Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece.
The 15-panel, 165-square foot painting was taken by Nazi forces and believed to be in Austria or Germany. That led to Van Puyvelde’s commission as a Lieutenant Colonel.
He led three other men in May 1945 to tour those two countries, where he had heard U.S. soldiers found art in mines in previously occupied German territories.
His mission was so out of the way and he was so displaced from the Allies that during his long tour, he only learned of Germany’s surrender May 7 on the radio in his jeep.
Surviving a brief encounter with Soviet soldiers, he was then met and imprisoned by U.S. soldiers close to one of the salt mines he was looking for.
After verifying his credentials, he learned that his piece of art was found in the salt mines by Capt. Robert Posey and Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein.
Van Puyvelde was disappointed that he had not found the piece and frustrated he couldn’t take it back immediately; waiting a year to transfer it back to Brussels, then its original cathedral in Ghent, Belgium.
While in Brussels, he studied and wrote a book about the art piece, then finished his role as Chief Curator at the same Fine Arts Museum until 1948.
Dr. Damien Van Puyvelde, along with Monuments Men families and friends, will attend the ceremony and honor the memories of the Monuments Men at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony.
Van Puyvelde’s interest in his great-grandfather stemmed from the bust that was on display in his grandfather’s house and then at his parent’s home.
That discovery then led to even more questions as Van Puyvelde grew more and more curious. That interest kept growing and intensified when his uncle found recordings from the elder Van Puyvelde several years ago, detailing his missions and his findings. and With that information, Damien’s curiosity took off after the discovery, and that’s’ when he reached out to the Monuments Men Foundation.
In May 2014, Van Puyvelde e-mailed the foundation and told him he was related to Leo. With his father’s help, he gave them information to put on the website, including some family photos and other artifacts, such as recordings about his mission.
Then, six or seven months ago, Damien was informed that the organization was lobbying to recognize the Monuments Men in a ceremony of some kind.
After a resolution was put forth, he checked periodically online to see if a medal was being awarded. His only interest was getting one for his father and uncle, not for him to attend.
On August 31st he received an e-mail saying that, pending a Congressional vote, the Monuments Men were going to be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. He was told to keep it confidential, due to the forthcoming vote, but to begin looking at travel arrangements.
On September 29th, he received an invitation from the Office of House Speaker John Boehner to attend the ceremony.
Van Puyvelde tried to convince his uncle and father to make the trip across the Atlantic to D.C. but they declined, telling him they were happy for him and his wife to attend on behalf of the family.
“I’m the last descendant of Leo who still keeps the same family name…I don’t really care about it, but for my uncle, it seems to be like, you’re the youngest one in the family who has kept the name [and] the last one, too, so it makes sense you are the one representing him.” Van Puyvelde said.
When Van Puyvelde arrives at the ceremony, he says he hopes to purchase a coin for his father and uncle – barring prices – and meet a couple of faces at the ceremony.
He admits that, deep down, he would like to meet Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray or any of the all-star cast from the movie, but most importantly, he wants to meet the relatives of Posey and Kirstein, who found the Ghent Altarpiece his great-grandfather was searching for.
“One of my interests next week is, of course attending the ceremony and I’ll probably be very emotive and so on, but also getting a picture with the family of these two soldiers would be really fantastic,” Van Puyvelde said. “Of course, my great granddad met them at the time and to be able to meet them now and kind of make a connection – Belgium and U.S.A.- that was made at the time and to do it again, three or four generations after, get a picture with them, that would be quite nice.”
Keeping it in the family
“I’m proud of what he did and I’m proud of what he did for our family,” Van Puyvelde said. “In hindsight, I see the influence he’s had on the family and that touches me.”
Even though no one else in his family shares the field with their Monuments Men relative, art and academia are a heavily-shared interest. His granddad co-authored a book on art with his dads in the 1950’s plus, they kept a lot of paintings from Leo, including the bust. Damien’s father and uncles kept a strong interest in art, visiting museums and exhibitions frequently. He grew up attending exhibitions, as his sister even became a graphic designer.
While Damien’s work stretches into research about security organizations, intelligence committees and military affairs, there is some overlap with his great-grandfather: military history.
However, his theories on art and society very much mirror what was believed by the Monuments Men over 70 years ago.
“The idea is that these are the roots of Western Civilization and that you don’t fight for no value. You don’t war just to do war, you do war to protect what is dear to you and to protect what you like about your country. To these people, art is one thing that is worth protecting because it’s nice and it tells something about us humans that have been doing art since we’ve existed. It’s a refined form of human expression,” Damien says.
“Any war endangers not just lives but pieces of art, too, but of course we care about lives more than we do pieces of art. If you look at the long term of human history, people come and go but pieces of art stay and we have pieces of art from thousands and thousands of years ago. There is also a case to be made for the protection of art in that sense,” Van Puyvelde added.
Parallels to today
When George Clooney’s character describes the Ghent Alterpiece in the opening minutes of his 2014 movie, he calls it “the defining monument of the Catholic church.” He goes on to say: “we must remember the high price that must be paid if the very foundation of modern society is destroyed.”
While only two of the more than 300 Monuments Men were killed during World War II, unrest in the Middle East currently – specifically Syria – shows that the spirit of those scholars who entered the battlefield is still alive today.
“There are clear echoes that I expect will be some talks of with some Congressman and women [which] echo with current situations with Syria and Iraq with the Islamic states that are destroying pieces of art and killing curators, killing historians who are trying to protect pieces of art by hiding them,” Van Puyvelde said.
And just to think, it starts with a sculpture, a bust, a mural, a painting.
Whether it’s someone retrieving, protecting or studying it, it takes just a little bit of passion and curiosity to lead them to the battlefield, to an art exhibit, to influence generations of scholars or all the way to Washington D.C. and a Congressional Gold Medal.