STOP THE PRESSES. This is like, woah!
Ok, let me back up a little bit.
Perhaps the timing is serendipitous, but a mere six weeks ago, I didn’t know who the Monuments Men were. A chance encounter put them on my radar while chatting with some very nice men at the Eisenhower Site. Only a few days later, I saw the first theatrical trailer for the Monuments Men movie coming out in February featuring an all-star cast. And then suddenly, BOOM. The powers-that-be discovered a trove of art looted by Hitler.
This has to be more than coincidence.
This past Saturday I was at the library, looking for Robert Edsel’s book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, but the one copy at my library had 68 holds on it. (This book inspired the forthcoming movie. Also, Edsel doesn’t believe in the Oxford comma.) Because I didn’t want to wait for 68 other people to finish the book first, I checked out his other book, Rescuing da Vinci, which tells an abridged version of the Monuments Men, but with pictures. He is a very good writer – I recommend him.
Anyway, so that was Saturday.
Then on Sunday the art world gets turned upside down because they discovered an almost literal ton of art. But this isn’t the “good” art. This is the art that Hitler classified “degenerate”, the stuff he wanted destroyed. The man in charge of destroying this art, Hildebrandt Gurlitt, was fortunately a Modernist, so he lied and said the work had been destroyed by a bomb. His son came into possession of this massive collection, where it was discovered in the son’s apartment.
Ok, I can see how Hitler would consider some of that art “degenerate”. A few images are here and here. But if he had gone to art school, he would have learned about Modern art. Actually, he wouldn’t have because it didn’t exist then. Fortunately, I have been studying Modern art and can state that Modernism is the beginning of artists feeling the need to repeatedly create art from scratch. Things like context, the aesthetic, and emotional response needed to be original every time. They were looking for the aesthetic truth – take away each individual’s memories and ideas in relation to a work and everyone should be at the same place from which to judge a piece. The only ways to really evaluate a piece, then, are on the essence of the medium – properties of color, shape/size, brushstroke, etc. To put it another way: Modern art tries to get at the emotional aesthetic response produced by art but without the classical attributes of “art” (people, history, culture), like how Plato tries to get at the essence of an object, like “chair-ness” without the attributes of a chair because the attributes are specific and not universal.
Back to the topic on hand … Hitler is reputed to have said something to the effect of, “If a person paints the sky blue and the ground purple, he should be locked away.” I don’t think this man had an imagination. Interestingly, Edsel has manage to frame the entirety of World War II quite convincingly as Hitler’s quest to personally curate the best art gallery in all of history, by force if necessary. Several members of the council that rejected him from art school were Jewish.
I am doing a poor job expressing my excitement for this find. It seems unreal that just last night, I was reading about how Monuments Men worked until the early 1950s researching and returning the stolen art from all across Europe. Now we have a modern day find and authorities want to return the pieces to their pre-war owners. It’s the exact same thing! Except, you know, without being shot at or risking your life spying on the Germans. Perhaps my excitement comes from my background in art. Whatever it is, once the Monuments Men story gets disseminated more (propelled almost singlehandedly by Edsel, with an assist from George Clooney), art history teachers need to include this in their curriculum because the whole reason we have art history is because a bunch of nerds took their derring-do to the front lines. This art cache in Munich just adds to the still-unfinished story.
One of the “degenerate” artists is Marc Chagall. But if Chagall is good enough for Spock, Chagall is good enough for everyone else.