The Archivist’s Nook: A Venus Fixer Goes to War

A devastating scene during the Italian Campaign of WWII.

“It’s been a strange way to do my wartime service but somebody had to do it and, since…I wondered inside who will take care of the monuments and the objects of art, I’m afraid I rather asked for it and so it was not improperly myself who was chosen.” – Staff Sargeant Bernard M. Peebles to Colonel Ernest T. DeWald, 1945

The Museum, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Subcommittee, more popularly known as either the Monuments Men or Venus Fixers, was a program that focused on protecting and restoring cultural and historic sites and materials during the Second World War. Consisting of scholars of art, manuscripts, and architecture, the members of the MFAA often operated in active warzones across North Africa and Europe with limited resources. Not only did they work to assess the damages rendered to cultural sites and archives, but they worked to guarantee the survival of missing or pillaged art or manuscripts. Long-time Catholic University Professor of Greek and Latin (1948-1971) Bernard M. Peebles was one such Venus Fixer, serving in Italy from 1943-1945.

German Field-Marshall Albert Kesselring allegedly referred to the Italian campaign as “waging war in a museum.” With limited resources and combat raging across a culturally-rich and highly urban peninsula, the Allies relied on informational flyers and posts and local aid to secure sites.

Peebles was born in Norfolk, Virginia on January 1, 1906. He received his Bachelors in Greek and Latin in 1926 from the University of Virginia, and his Masters and Doctorate at Harvard University in 1928 and 1940 respectively. During this time he was also a fellow at the American Academy in Rome from 1932-1934. While in Rome, he met and befriended a fellow scholar by the name of Wolfgang Hagemann. The two would later be on opposing sides of the war effort, with Hagemann engaged in art and translation work with Rommel’s armies in North Africa and Italy.

In the years prior to the war, Peebles’ teaching career blossomed as he taught at Harvard (1937-1939), Fordham University (1939-1941), and at St. John’s College in Annapolis (1941-1942). With the US entering WWII, Peebles enlisted in 1942, being assigned as a chief clerk for the MFAA . As one of the earliest members of the Program, he began his service in Sicily in the fall of 1943, where he was regarded as a “discoverer of manuscripts.”¹ As a report dated 20 January 1944 from Palermo, Sicily relates:

Visiting a hardware shop in Via Cassari, [Peebles] saw there some old MS. Documents loose on the counter and apparently about to be used as wrapping paper. Upon showing interest in the documents he was allowed to examine them and, afterwards, a larger number which apparently had been removed from the same bound volume and comprised some sheets of parchment, one with heading in gold. Upon offering to buy the smaller batch of documents, he was told that he have them as a gift… A second visit to the neighborhood to determine the precise location of the shop found it closed but revealed that several shops in the Via Argenteria were using similar old MSS. (along with other documents of more recent date) to wrap fish and other edibles.²

Right photo: Peebles (L) with Hagemann (R), together on a hike in Verona in 1933. Left photo: Peebles during his MFAA tour in Italy.

Among the documents recovered were those belonging to the Palermo state archives, including early eighteenth-century manuscripts from Philip V of Spain! Peebles continued to serve with the MFAA in Italy throughout the remainder of the war. In 1945, a request came in for him to transfer to Austria to assist the Monument Men there. Writing to Colonel DeWald, Director of the Italian MFAA, he expressed a desire to finish the job in Italy – a mission he referred to as “[his] baby” – and then return to his wife, child, and academic career in the United States. He was awarded this opportunity, along with the Bronze Star and British Empire medal.

Peebles returned to the US in 1945, and began teaching at Catholic University in 1948. He served with the Greek and Latin Department – including an eight-year stint as Chair (1962-1970) – until his retirement in 1971. A scholar with wide-ranging interests in Latin manuscripts, he is most well-known for his work on the Church Fathers and Patristic studies. Sadly, he died during a robbery attempt in 1976.

In addition to recording his long academic career, the papers of Bernard Peebles catalogs his experience of the Second World War, with Allied reports, maps, and propaganda material.  It may be viewed here: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/peebles.cfm

A small sampling of the WWII documentation and objects contained in the Bernard M. Peebles Papers, including his Bronze Star.

¹laria Dagnini Brey The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Monuments Officers Who Saved Italy’s Art During World War II (New York: Picador, 2010), 71-72.
²Ibid.

The Archivist’s Nook: Embodiment – Becoming the Spectacle of the Opera

Sample of Novak’s North African/Moorish/Al-Andalus image study for Lakmé

Joseph Novak was The Chief Scenic Artist of The Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City, from 1910 to 1952—an approximately 40-year tenure. His archival papers consist of a collection of artistic works and associated documents that were originally donated to The Catholic University of America’s School of Music to become a part of the Luce Library in 1976; however, the collection was housed, processed, and exhibited at the Mullen Library. The collection consists of approximately 500 sets of opera models, 100 photographs, 600 drawings, uncounted numbers of clippings, and associated documents produced by Novak. Among the many intriguing projects undertaken by Novak was his set and costume design for the 1932 revival of Lakmé —a tale of the Orient…

Embodiment: Becoming the Spectacle of the Opera.

In 2013, Gerard-Georges Lemaire wrote a compendium titled Orientalism: The Orient in Western Art. He opens the monograph with a meditative preface by Genevieve Lacambre who ponders: “Where exactly was the Orient that was so vividly depicted by the Orientalists?…we ought more accurately speak of the Orients”—a place of multiple iterations. The Orient is difficult to define because of the supernumerary of cultures that were swept up by Europe’s non-stop quest to capture the ontological essence of The East and to become the author of its authenticity. The Orient was an imaginative state, channeled by nearly the whole of Western society, across an astonishing temporal reach, in which “For over two thousand years the Orient has exercised an irresistible fascination over Western minds…” The Orient meant different things to different Western cultures and within each respective culture there was a great deal of intra-cultural variegation as to who and what were referred to as Oriental.

Orientalist art was the materialization of the push and pull between a Europe that was arrested by its profound fascination with the other and a Europe whose cultural mythos had set it diametric to the vast array of cultures that comprised world around it. These opposing energies engendered the desire to recreate other cultures through the visual arts and imposed a layer of cultural semantics through the establishment of a visual vernacular that was steeped in decadence and violence.

Orientalism penetrated the visual realm from fine art to advertising. This advertisement blends the emerging trendiness of art deco with the continuing rage for all things Oriental.

The orient was conjured by those who had visited the regions that unwillingly carried the pseudonymous “Orient” moniker and was remixed by those who had never visited beyond the borders of Europe. By the 19th century, Orientalist art entered a grotesque stage—a semiotic shift that arose in response to new geopolitical occurrences. European’s Colonial expansion had created a new impetus through which “Some of the first nineteenth-century Orientalist paintings were intended as propaganda in support of French imperialism, depicting the East as a place of backwardness, lawlessness, or barbarism enlightened and tamed by French rule.” The striking paradox of the French artist’s use of the Orientalist genre to create sociological delimitation, was that Europe’s obsession with the Orient had driven its artists into a memetic state, wherein Europe began to see itself as the embodiment of The East: the owner of its peoples, its lands, and its luxuries.  

The Metropolitan Museum of Art notes that “Male artists relied largely on hearsay and imagination, populating opulently decorated interiors with luxuriant odalisques, or female slaves or concubines (many with Western features)…” It was quite a twist, as Europeanized women began to appear as subjects in Orientalist works that were less about the patriarchal exercise of choreographing women’s sexuality and more about the prismatic renderings of whiteness and the subjugation of dark skinned persons. Whiteness had become an actor on the Orientalist stage, signifying a shift in the political attitude towards The East—from one of fascination, to one of possession and control. Darker skinned women began to be depicted as naturally born to please the European subjects in such works as the blandly titled Works Odalisque and Slave.

The desire to subvert other cultures while simultaneously consuming their artistic, intellectual, and cultural capital, in what The Metropolitan Art Museum notes as “…architectural motifs, furniture, decorative arts, and textiles, which were increasingly sought after by a European elite”, is the precarious intersection at which Joseph Novak undertook the task of creating the world of Lakmé —an operatic revival of the story of an Indian woman who viciously gives her life—and by extension her nation—in the name of Britain, embodied as a solider. According to Lakmé ’s father, the British solder is an oppressor who must be expelled from the native lands; however, the fantasy transfigures British oppression by dressing it in drag and having it masquerade as a mechanism that can grant Lakmé  love, freedom, and power.  

How did Novak imagine an Orient that would match the gravity of the vocal, symphonic, and narrative spectacles of the operatic stage? Not only would Novak need to imagine an already imaginary world, he would have to play upon these contortions to manufacture the woman who would inhabit it—the singer Lilly Pons, a European woman, would have to become the fantasy, of the fantasy, of the fantasy– a perpetual, indefatigable figure who was without a past and without a future. A mythical other—embedded in a tortuous hierarchy of somatic servitude but blissfully trapped in her prison of sensuality, luxury, and the desires of Western men for her.

Enter the World of Lakmé…

One of hundreds of photos used by Novak to develop costuming for Lilly Pons (right) as Lakmé circa 1932..

The final 1931 Lakmé set featuring the cast with Pons seated center. Bottom from the left to right: Shwe Dagon in Burma; Ruins of the Al-Hakeem Masque in Egypt; The Moorish Architecture of the Great Mosque in Cordoba; Unlabeled. The final set for Lakmé is a fusion of Moorish and South East Asian architectures.

Click here to see a Pons performing The Bell Song from Lakmé, as was featured in the 1935 movie “I dream too much.” Apart from Pon’s brilliant Coloratura performance, in which she gave the audience everlasting life, the finalized Lakmé set can be seen, as well as, extras donning clothing that appears to be a fusion of Moorish and South Asian, as is consistent with Novak’s visual studies of North Africa, Moorish, South Asian, and South East Asian peoples’ textiles.