Earlier this year, the movie The Monuments Men came out in theaters. It tells the story about a group of allied service men and women who were charged with protecting and finding art during and after World War II. It boasted a well known cast - George Clooney (who also wrote the screenplay and directed), Matt Damon, Kate Blanchett, and Bill Murray to name a few. The reviews for the film were meager. Historians found it to be less than accurate (that's Hollywood for you) and critics found it too comical or light for a war-time film. I saw it over winter break and liked it. It was entertaining and opened my eyes to this part of history. The film made me want to learn more about this hodgepodge group of art historians/professors, artists, architects, and museum curators who donned service gear to save some art.
The movie's screenplay was based on the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel. I reserved the eBook from the library about 6 months ago and it finally came available over my summer break. It was SOOOOO interesting. I didn't find it a fast read because it jumped back and forth across the WWII timeline. The jumping was purposeful as the handful of Monuments Men (MFAA) worked with different allied units throughout Western Europe. A lot of the work and "good stories" happened simultaneously and therefore the back and forth was necessary, just not quickly followed.
Most of the critic reviews complained of the screenplay being a bit too silly and showed the Monuments Men as bumbling comic relief. But I think that was on purpose to a point. Many of the MFAA were out-of-shape middle aged men. They were not soldiers, but professionals who joined the army and were thrown into combat. They were also a very small group (approx. 10 at any given time) tasked with trying to save the art located in all of Wester Europe. It wasn't easy to say the least, and they got themselves into a lot of predicaments. This was a very serious time and the military commanders were usually more concerned with surviving the next battle or surge than saving the art. The stories told by the members of the MFAA were actually quite comical.
In addition to preserving art and architecture during the fighting of WWII, they also literally went on a treasure hunt to recover the art that had been stolen by the Nazis. Hitler had stolen art and artifacts from the Jews and the museums in those cities that Germany had occupied. He hoarded that plundered art for his planned Fuhrer Museum in Linz, Austria. He also intended to destroy the "degenerate" art created by Jews and modern artists.
Although a lot of people might say that they don't care about the art during a war or that our armies shouldn't be concerned about it while engaged in combat. But without these men and women an entire culture would have been destroyed. By the end of the war, the hoarded art was set to be blown up in various underground mines in Germany and Austria. Some of the world's most famous art (DaVinci's "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper", van Eyck's "Ghent Altarpiece", Michelangelo's "Madonna of Bruges", Vermeer's "The Astronomer", and Manets and Rembrandts, and the list goes on and on) was saved before that happened. Can you imagine an art history class without the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper? I can't.
While reading this book I was also listening to Daniel Silva's "The English Assassin". Silva writes spy novels, and this one is the second book of the Gabriel Allon series. Allon is an art restorer/Mossad intelligence agent. This particular book was about a former Swiss banker who had been in cahoots with the Nazis during WWII and had several stolen works of art in his collection. Growing old, the banker had many regrets about his involvement and decided to return the works of art, but he was killed before he could do so. It was fun and relevant to read the two book at the same time. The history made for a more meaningful read of a personal (albeit fictional) account of the Jewish families whose art had been stolen and then recovered.
If you have the time, I highly recommend the book. The movie is also entertaining and gives the gist of the operation. That period of time fascinates me, and this particular "story" has increased that fascination.
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