Reading List: Art and World War II

This year marks the seventy-seventh anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II. To commemorate this historic event, the Frick Art Reference Library presents a reading list devoted to art of the Second World War. This list includes titles that discuss artists as witnesses, the use of art as a transmission of political agenda, and the challenges associated with post-war provenance research and the restitution of artworks to their original owners.

The Allied and Axis powers possessed different approaches toward art, depending on where and by whom it was produced, to whom it belonged, and when it was created. In the Third Reich, works of art that demonstrated its perceived values, as well as those offering monetary value to fund wartime initiatives, were confiscated from individuals and institutions throughout Europe by Nazi officials. Important provenance scholarship and restitution work continue to this day to research and undo the effects of this widespread plunder. For the Allies, special campaigns—such as by the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives division of the United States Army, better known today as the Monuments Men—were undertaken to preserve monuments and cultural heritage from destruction. Later conservation efforts sought to repair cultural property and to repatriate items to their countries of origin.

Find these titles and more in the library’s online catalog, and discover more information about ownership and repatriation through our WWII Provenance Bibliography. Thanks to our program with Open Library, the e-books in the list below can be accessed by creating an Internet Archive account. Reserve a free appointment today to browse these books and many other resources at the Frick Art Reference Library’s reading room at Frick Madison.

  1. The Rape of Europa

    By Lynn H. Nicholas (1994)

    Through a dynamic and revealing investigation of the activities of Allied and Axis forces, dealers, and museum personnel, this seminal work on WWII-era provenance and restitution history explores Nazi plunder throughout occupied territories during the war, from duress to smuggling, and recounts the efforts of Allied Monuments officers to locate, preserve, and repatriate artworks to their rightful owners. Nicholas also examines the role of the veneration of art to both the Allied and Axis powers.

  1. The Safekeepers: A Memoir of the Arts at the End of World War II

    By Walter I. Farmer (2000)

    In April 1945, the most prominent pieces from the collections of the Berlin State Museums were transferred for safekeeping to salt mines in Merkers, Germany. Eventually discovered by Allied forces, these hundreds of works of art were dispersed according to occupation zones between Soviet and U.S. and British forces and, subsequently, between East and West Berlin prior to Germany’s unification in 1990. In this personal memoir, Walter Farmer, U.S. Captain of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, gives a detailed account of the history of these collections and how they were later used in negotiations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

    Six books about art and World War Two stacked on a white shelf
  1. Living with History, 1914–1964: Rebuilding Europe after the First and Second World Wars and the Role of Heritage Preservation

    Edited by Nicholas Bullock and Luc Verpoest (2021)

    This compilation of essays focuses on a particular aspect of heritage preservation in the twentieth century: destruction and post-war reconstruction in Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. The book, with entries in both French and English, establishes a historiography of wartime and post-war preservation and studies the specific role of conservationists, heritage institutions and administrations, and architects in the overall preservation of areas devastated by the First and Second World Wars.

  1. Histories in Conflict: Haus der Kunst and the Ideological Uses of Art, 1937–1955

    Edited by Sabine Brantl and Ulrich Wilmes (2017)

    Published to mark the eightieth anniversary of the opening of Adolf Hitler’s Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich in the summer of 1937, this book examines the role of this institution in “cleansing” Germany of modernism during the Third Reich. With contributions by internationally renowned scholars, this volume explores the history of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in its first eighteen years, both as a symbol for the suppression of modernism and as a site for the use of art by the Nazis, as well as its current role in the contemporary art scene.

    Five books on art and World War Two stacked on a white shelf. The front book cover features clippings of Nazi-era art images.
  1. The Central Collecting Point in Munich: A New Beginning for the Restitution and Protection of Art

    By Iris Lauterbach (2018)

    This book documents the story of the Allies’ Central Collecting Point, set up in the former Nazi Party headquarters at Königsplatz in Munich, where confiscated works of art were transported to be identified and sorted for restitution in the years from 1945 to 1949. Through archival research, Lauterbach traces the official framework of the organization and sheds new light on the people, events, and logistics that made this meticulous and important work possible.

    Four books on art and World War Two stacked on a white shelf. The front book cover is orange with an image of army officers handling artworks.
  1. A Tragic Fate: Law and Ethics in the Battle over Nazi-Looted Art

    By Nicholas M. O’Donnell (2017)

    In this book discussing the organized theft of art by the Nazis, O’Donnell investigates restitution complications that arose in the decades after the Second World War. Using both prominent and lesser-known stories, he examines the ways in which agreements with Nazi officials and collaborators during the Third Reich have led to present-day legal and ethical issues in repatriation.

  1. The Berlin Masterpieces in America: Paintings, Politics, and the Monuments Men

    Edited by Peter Jonathan Bell and Kristi A. Nelson (2020)

    This exhibition catalog focuses on the transfer of 202 paintings from the Berlin State Museums to the United States in the aftermath of World War II. In November 1945, the U.S. military government in Germany ordered that “at least 200 German works of art of greatest importance” be sent to Washington, D.C., for safekeeping. After two years in storage, they were exhibited at the National Gallery of Art and in thirteen other cities across the country in 1948–49, before returning to Germany. The catalog essays explore the controversy that surrounded this transfer of patrimony, as well as the reception of the paintings themselves among U.S. audiences.

    Three books stacked on a white shelf. The front book cover features an image of two soldiers recovering an oil painting.
  1. They Drew Fire: Combat Artists of World War II

    By Brian Lanker and Nicole Newnham (2000)

    Through the war portfolios of seven artists, Lanker and Newnham examine the art programs sponsored by the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines, in which artists were sent to active theaters of war from 1941 to 1945 to chronicle all branches of the Armed Services. The book also includes pictorial highlights from over forty other artists, which provide a fascinating record of life in the trenches, on the front lines, and behind the scenes during the Second World War.

    Two books stacked on a white shelf. The front book cover features an artwork detail of a shell-shocked soldier.
  1. Mirroring the Japanese Empire: The Male Figure in Yōga Painting, 1930–1950

    By Dr. Maki Kaneko (2015)

    Dr. Kaneko, Associate Professor of Japanese Art at the University of Kansas, takes a fresh look at yōga painters (Japanese artists of Western-style painting), who became well known for their work featuring male figures during and shortly after the Second World War. The author challenges the notion that these artists were either simply collaborating with the wartime government or relaying anti-war sentiments. Focusing on artists such as Fujita Tsuguharu, Matsumoto Shunsuke, and Yasui Sōtarō, Kaneko claims that male archetypes of the brave, strong soldier and the intellectual and artistic civilian coexisted during the war, despite Japan’s increasing emphasis on the militarized male body.

  1. Images of War: The Artist’s Vision of World War II

    Edited by Ken McCormick and Hamilton Darby Perry (1990)

    This volume showcases the artists who chronicled the events of the Second World War from their own perspectives. While some created works from the front lines, others provided a glimpse of life in loading docks, hospitals, bombed cities, and war-bond rallies. McCormick and Perry strive to document the representation of the war from every viewpoint, culminating in a catalog of over two hundred artists working in more than twelve countries, including those in the former Soviet Union, North Africa, and the Pacific.

    A book cover featuring an artwork detail of battle at sea sitting on a white shelf

All photos by Joseph Coscia Jr., The Frick Collection

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