People & Inspiration

In Focus: Frederic Ossorio: Monuments Man

In Focus: Frederic Ossorio: Monuments Man

 

The 2014 film The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, and many of today’s biggest movie stars, portrayed a little-known group that worked for the Monuments Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) section of the Allied Forces in World War II. These extraordinary men and women, collectively known as the Monuments Men, retrieved and returned to their rightful owners countless artworks, religious artifacts, and personal belongings stolen by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. 

Despite being hobbled by limited resources, they recovered over five million artifacts, according to Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the book on which the film was based. It then took six years to “pack, transport, catalogue, photograph, and return this plunder to its country of origin.” 

Among the priceless cultural treasures they recovered were Van Eyck’s Altarpiece from Belgium, Michelangelo’s Madonna and Vermeer’s Astronomer. Last year, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Monuments Men Foundation, these 345 men and women were given the Congressional Gold Medal, considered the highest civilian award in the U.S., for having “protected and recovered historical sites and cultural artifacts.”

Sometime after the movie was released, we were delighted to discover a Filipino among the roster of Monuments Men. We reached out to the Foundation’s staff, wrote to his family, and collected information from the U.S. National Archives, the National Gallery of Art (Washington), Gemeentemuseum den Haag (Hague), and the Van Gogh Museum Library (Amsterdam), among others. Below we share highlights from what we have learned to date.

 

A native of Negros Occidental

Frederic Eugene Ossorio was born in the Philippines in 1919 but lived most of his life abroad. He was one of six sons of Miguel Ossorio, founder of Victorias Milling Company in Negros Occidental, and Paz Yangco Ossorio. His older brother Alfonso was a celebrated painter and sculptor while his younger brother Roberto founded the Manhattan School of Ballet in New York. He studied in England and New York and then completed a degree in European History at Yale University. He was at the Harvard Business School when, like the rest of his generation, his studies were suddenly cut short by the war. He joined the U.S. Army and was first sent to North Africa and later to Europe.

In mid-1945, he found himself in Vienna working as a clerk in the Division of Reparation, Deliveries, and Restitution (RD&R) of the U.S. Allied Commission in Austria (USACA). Frederic’s Division was further subdivided into branches, including the Property Control Branch, the Monuments & Fine Arts (MFA) Branch, and the Archives Branch. In a letter to a friend, he wrote about how pleased he was with his work, his efficiency allowing time to read the paperwork he found interesting. He was fascinated by the information that passed through his desk, noting that his work struck the right balance of “scholarship and action.” By October 1945, he had been promoted to Chief Clerk.

When he was discharged from the army in early 1946, he chose to continue participating in the restitution work of the Property Control Branch. (“I am now a civilian,” he told a friend in February that year, “employed by the War Department to work in Property Control and Restitution at least until July.” He appreciated the opportunity to remain in Austria. “It was belated indeed but they have been generous with me.”)

Although Frederic seemed to have been primarily engaged in administrative and regulatory work, in at least one instance he was directly involved in field work, helping recover an artistic treasure in Austria. Frederic accompanied Capt. Jean Vlug of the Royal Netherlands Army and Robert M. Miller of MFA in Salzburg. Months earlier, it was Frederic who helped Miller secure his job, as they had fought together in Italy and quickly became friends. 

“On Saturday off we drove,” Frederic told his mother in March 1946, “to Bad Ischl...(where) we stopped off to pick up a Van Gogh, which had been stolen from Holland for Baldur von Schirach.” Once a leading member of the Nazi Party, von Schirach founded and headed Hitler’s Youth Army and was Reichsstatthalter and Gauleiter (governor) of Vienna. Von Schirach’s possession of a Van Gogh was unusual, considering Van Gogh’s works were banned from the museums by the Nazis. The painting Frederic and his companions recovered was one of the last paintings made by Van Gogh.

 

Deep into the salt mine

Retrieving the Van Gogh meant “a deep penetration of the Lauffen Salt Mine,” Frederic wrote. In fact, many of the artworks recovered by the Monuments Men had been hidden in salt mines, as the Nazis stored away their stolen treasures safe from air raids in a place marked by constant temperature and little moisture. “Nazi officers descended on the mine as guards,” according to Robert Edsel. “Workers arrived, expanding catacombs and building wooden floors, walls, and ceilings in dozen of salt chambers.” 

And in the post-war period, recovering these carefully hidden artworks was nerve-wracking. Allied soldiers traveled “a quarter mile into the ground and another quarter mile laterally at the bottom.” The mine itself was “dark and cold,” “tunnels branched off in numerous directions,” “each chamber held similar-looking brown crates, any of which could contain cultural treasure, gold coins, bombs, booby traps.” (Frederic wrote, “While there, we browsed through the pictures stored in this mine during the war for safe-keeping belonging to the Vienna Art History Museum.”)

 

Life after the war

At the end of the war, and with the weekend spent recovering the van Gogh nearly forgotten, among millions of artifacts retrieved, the Monuments Men returned to their day jobs in the art world as professors in universities, directors of museums, and artists. Frederic, meanwhile, agreed to run the family business in the Philippines. “Our father returned to the Philippines after the conclusion of WWII to assist his father in rebuilding Victorias Milling,” his son Eric recently told us. “They determined together that the sugar central should be rebuilt, and all of the employees would be paid back wages for the previous three years that the sugar central was under Japanese occupation.”

While living in the Philippines, Frederic decided to build a church for their workers in Victorias. He recruited Czech American architect Antonin Raymond to design the chapel, and his brother Alfonso to paint the mural. Today, the Church of St. Joseph the Worker is more popularly known as the Church of the Angry Christ, after Alfonso’s striking and unusual painting, and is considered an early example of modern religious architecture in the Philippines (“contemporary, universal in the most enlightened sense of that word, and aesthetically satisfying,” art critic Eric Torres once wrote). Last year, the National Museum of the Philippines designated it An Important Cultural Property possessing “exceptional cultural, artistic and/or historical significance.”

Frederic moved back to the United States in the 1960s and served as board member of the Amstar Corporation. He also served on the Board of Trustees of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. Through the years, and until he passed away in 2005, he and his wife Siena generously donated significant artworks they owned to institutions such as Harvard, Vassar, Yale, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. One of them was an iron sculpture, The Bell Image, made by Isamu Noguchi, considered one of the most important American sculptors of the twentieth century.

Perhaps touched by his experience as a Monuments Man and the fragility of the world’s cultural treasures, Frederic retained a deep, lifelong love of art, its creation and preservation. 

 

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Original article by Titchie Carandang-Tiongson, Ginger Potenciano, and Erwin R. Tiongson. Photograph provided by Monuments Men Foundation Collection, courtesy of the Frederic E. Ossorio family. Check out all these and more in Metro Home & Entertaining Magazine Vol. 13 No. 2, now out in major bookstores. Metro Home & Entertaining Magazine is available in bookstores and on newsstands for P200. Download the Metro Home & Entertaining Magazine app for access to all digital editions on your tablet or smartphone, available in Zinio. Like Metro Home & Entertaining Magazine on Facebook (www.facebook.com/MetroHome.Magazine) and follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@MetroHomeAndEntertaining)

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