Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Mini film review: The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men *** is a film (released in 2014) written, produced and directed by George Clooney who also acts in it. The story is about thousands of stolen works of art taken from across Europe and hidden by the Nazis - and their rescue by a small team of international art experts who risked their lives, in war torn Europe, to keep most of them out of the hands of the advancing Red Army. At first sight, a number of unfit, middle aged men in uniform getting into scrapes is not very gripping cinema. However, the topic itself is interesting. Though this is not a great film, it has intellectual impact. For one reason, I was really quite moved by it (more about that, in a minute).

I was one of those taken as child, not to the beach, but round Europe's art galleries, taking them for granted. However, as this film shows, their very existence hung in the balance in 1945 when all these paintings were housed in mines in southern Germany and Austria. Hitler had grabbed them all, planning to show them in a vast and yet to be built Fuehrermuseum in Linz. His Plan B was to command they were all destroyed if he died. Clearly his connection to them was about power, rather than about any love of art....

The remarkable thing is that so much great art survived WW2, which killed 80m people and that so much was returned to its rightful owners whether museums or private collectors by the real Monuments Men. There were no major art work losses in WW2 apart from the "Portrait of a Young Man" by Raphael, which as one can see in this list of major works of art now lost is the only significant art loss in WW2.

George Clooney offers two theories about art in this film: the first is that you can destroy a people but they will rebuild - unless you destroy their great art.  The other is that great art belongs to all of us (so why is so much stocked as investments, in private collections?). Apparently, the Russians kept some of it (but not the majority) and did not have a policy of returning it to its owners in 1945, on the basis of its 20 million dead in WW2. I have yet to work out whether the Winter Palace art gallery is such a great place to visit, due to this. Possibly not.

Art is a great cultural treasure: Paris would not be the same today without The Louvre (thanks to the Monuments Men). My own belief is that it is language that is the primary driver of cultural identity.  If the works of Shakespeare were somehow lost, England would indeed have an identity crisis.  If you want to galvanise a sense of nation, translate the Bible into a people's language.  If you want to crush a people, make them speak in a language not their own - and lose their poetry.

I will remember this film for its devotion  to the Ghent Altarpiece, which was clearly heading for either stardom in the Fuehrer Museum or ashes. It is definitely an artwork in its own ineffable category. It is the only work of art that I must have in my home. I have even set up a display of three framed postcards that I bought of it in our kitchen-dining room (as shown)

                  Ghent Altarpiece rescued from German saltmine in 1945 (Singing Angels in background)
                                          The Singing Angels in our kitchen - postcard

I am of the Sister Wendy-type of art lover - I am largely happy with postcards of great art. Sister Wendy is a cloistered nun-cum-art expert who asks friends on art tours to send her postcards of great art. A postcard is better than no image at all, or not seeing the artwork - or the artwork being lost. At least, then, the postcard uses the latest digital camera technology.

A postcard gets into the detail that one misses while seeing the painting.  Ebay is a good place today to buy art postcards. Postcards are often only on sale where the art work is displayed - so worth buying them when one sees them.  You can always later sell them on ebay!

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