Friday, March 14, 2014

The Madonna of Bruges & the "Monuments Men"

Last night, I ventured into a movie theater to see a film that I've been anticipating almost as much as the now-delayed Grace Kelly biopic  starring Nicole Kidman- but more on that later. I guess part of the reason I was drawn to the Monuments Men was because it is one of my favorite things- a movie that not only features art but centers around it- a rare but wonderful thing for the Art of Film!
The Madonna of Bruges as it appears in the film
The Monuments Men had a lot of good things going for it- an incredible cast headed by George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett, an intriguing historical story, and a motivational message. But somehow, between all that great stuff, the delivery of the film left me feeling like I was missing out on something. George Clooney gives too many inspirational speeches about the importance and value of art, which I appreciated philosophically, but which did not exactly entertain. All that criticism aside, I actually did enjoy the film because I was intrigued by the historical truth behind the film and I thought that the actors did a phenomenal job. Perhaps the best aspect of the film was the obvious effort made to recreate the historical setting: the film seems authentically historical throughout its entirety, which I appreciated. Which is really my feelings on the film itself: The Monuments Men wasn't the most entertaining film but that didn't take away from my interest and appreciation of it.
A still from The Monuments Men (2014)
While the film was centered on the Allied attempt to preserve and regain all, or at least a large majority, of the Nazi-seized art during World War II, the film eventually shifted its focus to the saving of two specific pieces: Jan Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges. I don't want to take attention away from the other precious and valuable works of art saved, but I'm only going to focus on the Madonna of Bruges because I was really attracted by the piece and because there was a personal connection in the film to it. Both pieces, the Madonna and the Altarpiece are also high points of European artistic achievement during the Renaissance, a period which embodied the artistic spirit which the Monuments Men valued so much.
It is noted in the film that the Madonna of Bruges (1501-04) is the only sculpture of Michelangelo to reside outside of his Italian homeland. In both the film and in real life, it is located in the historic Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium. It is indeed a beautiful statue, not merely of its profound religious content but because of its serene universal subject of Mother and Child. The Madonna has both the elegant grace and impressive detail of Michelangelo's earlier and more famous statue of Mary and Jesus, The Pieta (1498-99). However, its more intimate size and its happier subject almost shift my personal preference to the lovely Madonna.
In the film, Hugh Bonneville's character, Donald Jeffries, is killed while attempting to protect the Madonna from the retreating Nazis as they fled the city of Bruges. In fact, according to "History vs. Hollywood" (see sources), while Jeffries real counterpart was actually killed, he did not die in an attempt of protection of the lovely Madonna. Nor was he poetically killed while writing a nostalgic and intellectual letter to his elderly father, as events occur rather fancifully in the film. Instead, he was killed from a bomb blast while saving an altarpiece in another European city. However, the Nazis did steal the Madonna in a very similar way: by smuggling it in a hospital stretcher as they left the city. And it was climatically saved by the Allies' Monuments Men from the Altausee Salt Mine in Austria where the Nazis had hidden scores of valuable pieces of art. And in another point very true to history, they dramatically saved it just before the Soviets marched into Altausee to occupy the area per the peace agreements. So, truthers fear not- all the drama was not fabricated; in fact, some of the best drama in the film was closely based on real events.

But, even while everything didn't really occur as it went down in the film, the point remains the same. The arts are essential to a culture's identity and a peoples' accomplishments. The preservation of the arts is, in fact, worth dying for, as Clooney's character monologues at the end. The Madonna, a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance, symbolizes the Western cultural identity that the Monuments Men worked and sacrificed to preserve. In a strange way, that gorgeous statue personified the ideals that the Monuments Men, real and fictionalized, believed in. And now the world appreciates and understands that, which makes the film very worthwhile. Just like this blog personifies the noble character of the art that appears in film. Which at least I appreciate and understand.
Smithsonian "The True Story of the Monument Men"

History vs. Hollywood: The Monuments Men

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