The recent Monuments Men movie starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, based on the book by Robert M. Edsel, is remarkably accurate for a Hollywood production. Many of the characters and locations were based on real people and places. For good research paper topics, watch the movie for the basis of the dramatic story, then consult a scholarly article on art preservation, or research some best history books on World War II operations or biographies of real Monuments Men and women.
Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives
In the last years of World War II, military reservists who were experts in art and architecture joined an organization that found paintings and statues stolen by the Nazis throughout Europe. According to Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt in her 2011 book “Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage under Vichy,” available at Questia: “[Allied military] forces took on the enormous responsibility of locating looted works of art, book collections, and archives. Within the Supreme headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), an American agency known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA) was charged with locating the storage caches, identifying works that had been sent to the Reich from the entire European continent, and organizing shipments to the countries of origin.” The MFAA was nicknamed the Monuments Men.
The MFAA operated under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. While the movie highlighted a crew of about six American, French, and British military men and a French woman, there were really about 350 people from 13 countries involved in the MFAA during World War II. “Many were museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators. Together they worked to protect monuments and other cultural treasures from the destruction of World War II. In the last year of the war, they tracked, located, and in the years that followed returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. Their role in preserving cultural treasures was without precedent,” wrote a contributor to the Monuments Men Web site.
Based on actual events
The characters in the movie were based on real people. A good research paper topic might be to compare biographies of the real Monuments Men and women who helped preserve art during the war to the depictions in the film. George Clooney portrayed George Stout, an American art conservationist instrumental in creating the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, also known as the Roberts Commission, which created the MFAA. Matt Damon played James Rorimer, a museum curator who became the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Cate Blanchett played a character based on Rose Valland, a French museum official who served as attaché at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France. Unknown to the Nazis, she understood German and spied on their looting projects. John Goodman played a real sculptor, Hugh Bonneville portrayed a British art historian who was actually killed while protecting art, and Dimitri Leonidas played Harry Ettlinger, an American German Jew and translator, who today is one of the few Monuments Men still alive.
The Alt Aussee salt mine in Austria really did house thousands of stolen art pieces. So did the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, which held thousands of statues. Two of the most famous pieces of art that were recovered, and depicted in the movie, were the Bruges Madonna statue carved by Michelangelo and the Ghent Altarpiece by Van Eyck from a cathedral in Belgium.
By the end of the war, the Allied forces recovered a total of 5 million pieces. Nevertheless, it is estimated that 20 million pieces in total had been stolen, and valuable works are still missing. There is a worldwide call for the location of works such as:
- Bernardo Bellotto’s “View of the Grand Canal in Venice”
- Sandro Botticelli’s “Portrait of a Man”
- Van Gogh’s “Vincent on His Way to Work”
- Claude Monet’s “Manet Painting in Monet’s Garden.”
There are still organizations that protect works of art during war. History vs Hollywood’s Monuments Men page explains that “Major Corine Wegener (retired) is a modern-day ‘Monuments Woman’ who served in Iraq. A curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) and a member of the Army Reserves, Wegener was called into service in 2003, shortly after the start of the Iraq War. Her job was to work with the staff of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.”
Check out Questia’s Art of Specific Countries and Peoples for information on art from many countries.
Do you think it’s important to use military resources to save art during times of war? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.