Here at The Post, the critical response to the new George Clooney-directed film “The Monuments Men” has been mixed, inspiring a halfhearted embrace from reviewer Ann Hornaday and outright loathing from art critic Philip Kennicott. The fact-based drama was inspired by the World War II exploits of a group of art experts recruited by the Allies under the banner of the military’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section to rescue art treasures from the Nazis. Whether you love it or hate it, the movie may be intriguing enough in its details to inspire curiosity about the real-life Monuments Men, as these art nerds in uniform became known.
A good place to learn more is the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, where the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art is displaying a collection of photographs, letters and other documents laying out what AAA director Kate Haw calls “the story behind the story.” In conjunction with other Monuments Men-themed programming at the National Gallery of Art and the National Archives, the exhibition “Monuments Men: On the Frontline to Save Europe’s Art, 1942-1946” offers a fascinating glimpse of the history that inspired Hollywood. According to Haw, Clooney’s production team visited the Smithsonian’s archives to study some of the very material that is in this show.
The film opens with a scene of Nazi leader Hermann Goering “shopping” in occupied Paris for paintings for his personal collection. In the Smithsonian exhibition, you’ll find evidence of that: a 71-page, U.S. government inventory itemizing what the Monuments Men found among Goering’s (largely stolen) art collection in 1945. The list includes, among more than 1,000 works, several canvases by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens.
Also on view is the 1943 field manual drafted to guide the work of the Monuments Men, whose mission evolved from saving significant buildings from being bombed to finding and repatriating millions of pieces of stolen art. One particularly chilling chapter in that manual concerns not theft but “defilement and contemptuous treatment.”
In case you’re wondering what that means, there’s a scene in the movie showing a heap of incinerated picture frames — including one labeled “Picasso” — left behind by Nazis fleeing Allied troops. Yes, Hitler may have wanted Europe’s masterpieces to stock his never-realized “Fuhrer Museum,” but the fear that his henchmen would destroy their loot rather than relinquish it was very real. It was a case of “if I can’t have it, no one will,” says Smithsonian archivist Barbara Aikens, who helped organize the show.
Other true-life tidbits that made their way into the film include the discovery — documented in the exhibition — that the Nazis had hidden a large cache of art in a salt mine in the Austrian town of Altaussee. According to the papers of James Rorimer (the real-life curator from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art who is played by Matt Damon, under the name James Granger), the mine’s temperature and humidity were surprisingly conducive to art storage, suggesting that the Nazis had at least some appreciation, however perverse, for art.
One scene, featured prominently in the trailer, shows Damon’s character in distress after stepping on an unexploded land mine while searching for art. It’s certainly true that some of the Monuments Men were killed in action, as the film makes clear, but Aikens says there’s no evidence in any of the Smithsonian material that the Altaussee mine was boobytrapped, despite rumors to that effect.
It’s not surprising that Clooney, who wrote the script with Grant Heslov and who plays a character inspired by conservator George Stout, a leader of the Monuments Men, would juice up the story. What is surprising, from a close look at the source material, is that the story doesn’t need it.
One of the most interesting artifacts in the exhibition is a black-and-white photo of Neuschwanstein Castle, where the Nazis stashed much of their stolen art. According to both the movie and the exhibition, the picture was given to James Rorimer by Rose Valland, a Parisian art historian who surreptitiously recorded where the Nazis were concealing their war booty. The photo is creased, suggesting that Rorimer carried it in his pocket as a visual reference. (This may seem a little weird, since the highly distinctive building, commissioned by “mad” King Ludwig of Bavaria, was the architectural inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle and resembles nothing else in the world.)
There’s a great story about how Valland, portrayed by Kate Blanchett as Claire Simone in the movie, was able to learn where the Nazis were hiding the stolen art: A curator at the Jeu de Paume museum, Valland was kept around by the Nazis for her expertise as they processed thousands of stolen paintings through her museum. Unbeknown to the occupying troops, however, Valland spoke German and was thus able to eavesdrop on conversations everyone else thought were private.
Sadly, that delicious detail is not in the movie, perhaps because it seems too good to be true.
— Michael O'Sullivan