Upon hearing the story of the men and women working in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives sections throughout World War II — aka the Monuments Men — who were fighting to reclaim art that had been stolen by the Nazis, I asked myself a series of “what if” questions.
What if the Nazis had succeeded in building a super museum, the Führermuseum, and destroyed all “degenerate” art? What if they had burned modern works by the thousands, including but not limited to German expressionist, cubist and impressionist pieces? What if the millions of works that they stole had never been recovered? Most importantly, what if the Monuments Men hadn’t risked their lives to save the thousands of pieces of artworks that they did?
It might seem a bit pointless to ask these types of questions. Perhaps it’s better to focus on what exists today. But I can’t help but wonder what the art world would have been like had any of those things become a reality.
Art mirrors culture. It reflects who we are as a society at any specific moment in time. How would we understand our past if the thousands of works the Nazis had in their possession had been destroyed?
James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, believes the art world would have survived.
“The world would be significantly lesser for the loss of such important and beautiful works of art,” Cuno wrote in an email. “That said, the surviving works of art from antiquity, say, must be a very small fraction of the total sum of works of art produced during that period of time. Thus, I am confident that the art world would have recovered if the Nazi-looted art had been lost.”
The art world constantly reinvents itself. It constantly produces new works. It surely would have been able to adapt. But because we know what exactly was at stake, I keep coming back to how great the loss would have been.
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” aka the “Ghent Altarpiece,” was nearly lost to the cultural greed that fueled the Nazis. The altarpiece — made in 1432 — is considered one of the most important European works of art.
“If it had been lost, we would lose its beauty and poetry, and the evidence of the artist’s extraordinary mastery,” Cuno said.
The altarpiece is valued both for its expert artistry and religious significance. Religion, of course, is integral to art history: Many early works came as the result of commissions from the church or its patrons, and religion is the subject of some of the most famous works in the world —consider Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment.”
I’m not a practicing Catholic, but I’m confirmed, and I recognize the importance of religious works for their artistic, academic and historical value. To me, the loss of the “Ghent Altarpiece” would be a loss of a significant piece of history.
Thankfully, the altarpiece was recovered, but I do wonder how its near-destruction has affected the way we view the piece: Has this work, and many others like it, taken on a richer meaning? Absolutely. I believe the “Ghent Altarpiece” is one of the most significant European works, in large part because it was almost lost to us.
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (George Clooney’s film adaptation The Monuments Men hits theaters today) by Robert M. Edsel details the recovery of these works of art. It opens with a quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, delivered March 17, 1941 at the dedication ceremony of the National Gallery of Art.
“Whatever these paintings may have been to men who looked at them a generation back — today they are not only works of art. Today they are the symbols of the human spirit, and of the world the freedom of the human spirit made … To accept this work today is to assert the purpose of the people of America that the freedom of the human spirit and human mind which has produced the world’s greatest art and all its science — shall not be utterly destroyed.”
Here, we see that context is everything. The works stolen and reclaimed take on new meaning. As Roosevelt said, they are more than works of art. Now, they are a source of national pride.
The risk paid off and artworks were recovered, so efforts made to save these works feel worth it. But what drove the Monuments Men to go to such extremes to preserve these works of art? Cuno has a theory.
“They must have been startled by the scale of the looting and the simple fact that the works of art they found belonged to other people and institutions,” Cuno said. “Their response to save and return the works of art to their rightful owners was honorable.”
Honorable, without a doubt, but I’m not entirely sure that I would have put my life on the line for art. And yet, I can’t imagine a world without these works either because I consider art to be that important.
“Art heightens our sensitivity to the beautiful, fragile and strange,” Cuno said. “It broadens our world and encourages our humility.”
Perhaps this is how the Monuments Men felt, and this is what drove them to do what they did. Whatever the reason, to me, the story of the Monuments Men comes down to a single, driving question: Why does art matter?
Yes, it’s a very loaded question and can’t be answered in a single column — perhaps I’ve bitten off more than I can chew — but the Monuments Men infiltrated the war because art is so significant.
My best answer is that art reflects culture, and is culture in and of itself. It is a mirror that reflects society, elicits feelings and creates experiences in its own right. When I think about the Monuments Men, it becomes more than just a story about preserving art. Rather, it is a story about preserving society.
That being said, I feel as though I better understand the motivations of the men and women fighting to save history — and to save art.
C. Molly Smith is a senior majoring in communication. Her column, “Art Garfunkel,” runs every other Friday.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to say that James Cuno was interviewed via email.