Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Outing: Monuments Men

Thanks to everyone who came out to see the film on Sunday night!

"Monuments Men" is a Hollywood film that captures, to me, the necessity of saving cultural artifacts. Yes, it's a war story, but its themes and issues move beyond World War II and the elite group of cultural professionals—museum directors, art historians, conservators and others—who led this effort to save items from destruction.

Their job description was simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat. These Monuments Men were charged by President Roosevelt and Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to undertake this mission. These leaders and those that they enlisted had the vision to understand the grave threat to the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of civilization, and, they ultimately joined the front lines to do something about it.

The character names were fictional, but they
represented one or more actual persons involved in this effort.
Approximately 345 individuals rose to the challenge. In the last year of the war, they tracked and located more than five million artistic and cultural items (including furniture, menorah, Torah, and other objects) stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. In the years that followed, they aimed to return these to their rightful owners. This work is still being done (the repatriation). Nonetheless, the role of these monuments men and women in preserving cultural treasures was without precedent.

A Google Art Talk was held to address
the current scholarship related to the Monuments Men
The movie doesn't begin to scratch the surface as to what happens next. How do the works removed, stolen, or otherwise changed get returned to their owners? Since WWII (and, more recently, since the 1998 Washington Principles), communities in the museum world and academia have gathered to discuss repatriation. That discussion sometimes crosses over into analogous discussions of the monuments men and their legacy (both personally and in terms of "saving cultural artifacts").

Thomas Carr Howe (far left) at the removal of
Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna from a salt mine at Altaussee, Austria, 1945.

Therefore, it's not possible for a 2-hour film to begin to do historical justice to this effort and the aftermath. Did it function as a solid, art historical film and documentary? No. But it doesn't pretend to do so. It's a narrative that's based upon an historical event that continues to have relevance. It's populist, not documentary. And, for that, I am grateful. 

Yes, Rebecca (senior art history major), it does have a bit of a "Ocean's Eleven" meets "World War II" in that George Clooney narrates the events and, ultimately, pairs up a few buddies to undertake a significant feat. But, this aspect of the film (and its uneven dialogue, flow, and music) do not bother me in the least. There were some very poignant scenes that made me stop to think about the value of a life (the scene where Bill Murray listens to a recording from home, for instance).  What is art worth? What is a life worth? And, at the end of the day, to have students come to class talking about the Bruges Madonna or the Ghent Altarpiece because they found out about those works through this film is wonderful. Because, for now, the right to preserve culture seems to have relevance to a few more individuals than it might otherwise. 

Thanks to those who ventured out Sunday night to see the film. It was great to discuss the film with you on Monday. To anyone who missed it and would like to discuss at some point later, feel free to contact me!



Raine said...

The John Goodman scene where he was handling the vase improperly made me want to scream at the screen. I was also in tears about the rolled paintings that had been ripped from their stretcher supports. I guess it is apparent that I have been cataloging paintings and prints too long.

Earl Grey said...

Yep, there are some improper techniques on display. But, considering the greater good in saving the works at all....I can let that go:)