Celebrating the Real Monuments Men (and Women!)
Director George Clooney's movie, The Monuments Men, releases today, Friday, February 7, 2014, and you can bet I'll be sitting in a theatre tonight.
Image: Columbia Pictures
Set during the darkest days of World War II, The Monuments Men tells a story that is little known outside the fine arts field. That Hitler, himself, was an artist and a highly accomplished one. In addition, he was determined to give the world the finest collection of art possible, in his soon to be built, Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. But, that was the problem. The art objects in the proposed collection already belonged to the world. They were owned by private collectors, museums and churches, all over Europe, before being looted as war booty by the Nazis.
We have the historical advantage of knowing the outcome of the War and that this never came to pass. There were many years, however, when the systematic pilfering of people, their lives, culture and art was steadily goose-stepping toward the emblazoned edification of the Third Reich. According to the book, Rescuing DaVinci, by Robert M. Edsel, upon which The Monuments Men is based, Hitler's culturally pathological vision resulted in art being stolen as soon as he got into power in 1933 and continued through 1945, the end of World War II.
Recognition for Cultural Heroes
Early on, those in fine arts disciplines from all over the world, many of whom had studied in Europe doing world tours throughout their academic years, were aware of Hitler's intent and the Nazi advance. This highly educated grapevine bore fruit as artistic appreciation, passion and concern gravitated into action, determined to stop the willful destruction of the world's cultural heritage.
Even before the United States entered the War in 1941, there were academic groups in this country working together to locate and protect European art collections. A growing national movement, however, resulted in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's formation of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas in 1943. This American group joined the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives or MFAA, formed by the Allies, also in 1943. And, these academic professors and historians risked their lives by putting on uniforms to join the Allied Forces, while going into combat areas for coordinated hands-on salvage efforts.
The Strongest Link: Rose Valland
The Monuments Men drama and story line couldn't be more powerful for any aficionado of the arts. I was captivated by it in graduate school as I was studying under one of the actual Monuments Men in my classes of Art Conservation at the Cooperstown Graduate Programs of Historic and Artistic Works, administered by the State University of New York at Oneonta. Conservator Sheldon Keck and his wife, also a Conservator, Caroline Keck, had begun the program in 1970, after initiating the academically degreed study of conserving artwork. Both the Kecks had studied at Harvard together in the 1930s and been in Europe to study the grand collections of the famous museums we all recognize.
After listening, in person, to Mr. Keck's stories of the MFAA, I am now remembering how he told of efforts to sandbag Da Vinci's Last Supper at The Santa Maria Delle Grazie, Milan, Italy. What a thrill to see a recreation of the sandbagging in the official trailer for The Monuments Men movie on the feature film's web site. It's so very realistic I am looking forward to the movie tonight. Realistic, that is, except for a few things.
The Monuments Men
In the movie, there are eight Monuments Men and we get to know them very well. They appear to be composites of the types of art professionals that worked together on the venture. But, the truth is, there were 345 Monuments Men AND WOMEN from 13 different countries, which gives more credence to the vast, endless amount of priceless artifacts held hostage. The seemingly insurmountable odds of locating, protecting and salvaging cavernous storage areas full of treasure were mitigated with combat courage and fortitude, by these fine arts troops. It is hard to imagine the legacy of trauma when one sees these familiar masterpieces in museums today, in sublime settings, on the way to pick up a postcard in the gift shop. You can see why, thinking back to Sheldon and Caroline Keck, I cannot wait to see this movie. In fact, what time is it now?
In closing, thank you, Robert M. Edsel, for your determination to bring this story to common consciousness with your obsessively researched books. And, thank you, George Clooney, for being the cutest art historian, I have ever seen.
Oh, and sweetheart! *puttingonshades* George! How does it feel to be touted for your face, body and that snappy little uniform number, rather than for your vision as a Director?
Call me...so I can apologize.