Art in the Time of War: Cranbrook’s Monuments Men

Monuments Men, opening today in theaters, chronicles the efforts of men and women in the US military to protect and preserve Europe’s artistic and cultural patrimony during World War II. Directed by George Clooney, the film has brought to national attention the work of these non-traditional soldiers, arts and cultural professionals who recognized that while the world was tangled in a struggle that engulfed countries and cost thousands of lives, the art and artifacts prized for centuries by those communities were equally at risk.

With the renewed attention to the work of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA)—nicknamed the “Monuments Men”—has come the realization at museums across the country that many of their early directors and curators were active members of the MFAA during World War II.  At Cranbrook we’ve uncovered the stories of two Monuments Men who played a role in our own history.

Robert S. Davis at Cranbrook, 1942. Cranbrook Archives.

Richard S. Davis at Cranbrook, 1942. Cranbrook Archives.

When the Cranbrook Academy of Art opened its museum in 1942, Richard S. Davis was named the first curator. A graduate of Harvard University, Davis came into the position with bold plans for the new museum. Conceiving of the museum’s primary audiences as Cranbrook Academy of Art students, the larger Cranbrook community, and the general public, he also argued for the museum to focus its collecting on modern and contemporary works. Before becoming curator, however, Davis had enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves, and by 1942 he was called up to service.

Leaving Cranbrook after only a year as curator and one month after he was promoted to the position of director of the museum, Davis worked first as a diplomatic courier for the Department of State before being sent to the Pacific. In January of 1946 he joined a group of specialists stationed in Tokyo. Charged with documenting military damage to the region, he and the team from the MFAA inspected collections and monuments and worked to return looted artwork. Davis worked specifically on cataloguing pre-war holdings of Japanese art and identified work stolen by Japanese forces from occupied countries.

Returning from Japan in 1946, Davis took a position as curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. He held the position for ten years before being promoted to Director—a position that he held until 1959. That year he took on the role of United States Commissioner of the fifth Bienal in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and continued to work as a consultant until 1985, when he died at the age of 68.

Davis was recently included in the Cranbrook Archives exhibition From the Archives: Teaching and Exhibiting Painting at Cranbrook, 1934 – 1970. Mounted in the Art Museum during the summer of 2013, the digital exhibition is available online here.

Mark Ritter Sponenburgh graduated from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940 and began his practice as a sculptor before enlisting in the military. Serving first in the Army Corps of Engineers, he worked in cartography, reproducing maps in anticipation of D-Day. In 1945 he began service with the MFAA, supervising the transportation and packing of artwork and leading the first armed convoy of art through the Alps. A prolific sculptor, Sponenburgh trained at the Ecôle des Beaux Arts in Paris following his military service and worked as an arts educator at the University of Oregon, the Royal College of Arts, and at schools in Egypt and Pakistan. In 1961 he returned to Oregon to teach at Oregon State University, earning the title of Professor Emeritus in 1984. A recipient of an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the National Council of Arts in 1970, Sponenburgh died in 2012.

David Fredenthal, Combat Troops Reach Beach, c. 1941-1945. Cranbrook Art Museum.

David Fredenthal, Combat Troops Reach Beach, c. 1941-1945. Cranbrook Art Museum.

While two members of the Cranbrook community worked as Monuments Men, countless other Cranbrook Academy of Art students and teachers served the war effort during World War II. David Fredenthal, a Detroit local, studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1935 to 1938. In 1943, he served as a correspondent for LIFE magazine, documenting the war in the South Pacific, Yugoslavia, and Nuremburg, where he covered the post-war Nuremburg trials for LIFE.

Jack Keijo Steele, meanwhile, was also a Michigan native. He studied under Zoltan Sepeshy at Cranbrook Academy of Art before enlisting in the United States Army in 1942. Stationed in Australia and the South Pacific as an embedded artist, he documented his harrowing experiences in gritty, realistic paintings when he returned. Both Steele and Fredenthal are represented in the exhibition What to Paint and Why: Modern Painters at Cranbrook, 1936 – 1974.

Jack Keijo Steele, Soldiers in New Guinea, 1943. Cranbrook Art Museum.

Jack Keijo Steele, Soldiers in New Guinea, 1943. Cranbrook Art Museum.

For more information on Cranbrook’s own Monuments Men and the Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives Section in general, be sure to check out the Monuments Men Foundation. To find out more about David Fredenthal and Jack Keijo Steele, visit  Cranbrook Art Museum and tour the exhibition.

Shoshana Resnikoff, Collections Fellow

3 thoughts on “Art in the Time of War: Cranbrook’s Monuments Men

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