BEHIND ENEMY LINES
Robert Edsel’s Book Goes Hollywood
Tales of heroes used to be commonplace. They were the very foundation of material that, until recently, educated generations of Americans. Fortunately, Robert Edsel has taken matters in hand and is moving us forward by vivifying the past. He has lauded the achievements of “the greatest generation” by delivering a riveting, yet overlooked, story to the literary world. And, fortunately for us all, it doesn’t end there.
His work, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, will be in cinemas in December of this year. Actor George Clooney is joining Edsel in his quest to tell the story of how the masterworks of Western art were saved by the Monuments Men during a widespread onslaught of Nazi pillaging. However, both mean are collaborating to remind the public of what constitutes excellence. They’re urging an appreciation of one particular and concerted threat to culture—but they are also suggesting that we should carry on, in our own ways, with that same struggle. After all, culture is much like a garden. If left untended, its inevitable fate is ruin.
Both Edsel and Clooney are pulling out stops to make the world a better place. They understand the extraordinary role of artwork in that endeavor and, thus, their fascination with the Monuments Men. Consequently, in the end, this isn’t a Hollywood tale. It’s a challenge dellivered to us via books and film that makes cowards of us all if we fail to claim it for our own.
Robert Edsel’s Dallas residence is tucked away in a manicured enclave that seems vaguely Italianate by virtue of its impeccably planned landscaping. This particular visitor was met by a housekeeper who was constantly in touch with the proprietor of the premises via cell phone. She has an air of protectiveness regarding both her employer and his residence, which is sumptuously appointed with small yet strikingly gorgeous paintings of the Old Master variety. Coffee table books include topics relating to monastics and illuminated manuscripts. This, one must conclude, is a place occupied by someone both highly intelligent and deeply contemplative.
In fact, after meeting Edsel, it’s clear that it would be a miscalculation to sum him up with the aid of a singular lens—or, to be candid, via one profile piece. He’s multifaceted and his presence exudes cascading layers of mystery, all of which are trumped by an unusually high level of concentration, a palpable fullness of ambition and a willingness to put all of the above to work in the service of creating what can only be characterized as a new persona for America. No small feat. But if anyone is up to the task, it’s Edsel.
Silver-haired and lean, he is a former nationally ranked tennis player who pioneered horizontal oil drilling via his brainchild, Gemini Enterprises. He subsequently sold the company and moved to Florence. There, he took on the task of writing a series of nonfiction works about the protection of Western art during the rise of Nazism and the pillaging of Europe at the hands of Hitler and his doting acolytes.
Edsel’s passion for both art and architecture has evolved into a second career that has all the earmarks of becoming his primary life’s work. He has labored assiduously to turn a missing chapter in history into a spellbinding tale of how the sum of Western art was rescued by a small cadre of dedicated individuals dubbed the Monuments Men. When he speaks of his work, his face doesn’t soften; his gaze, in fact, becomes more direct and he deploys the word “guardian” with unusual resonance. Says he: “This is going to change the world.” By “this” he means his book and its concomitant notion that all of us are protectors, guardians, of art and culture. He adds, “After all, art can’t protect itself.” He speaks as if the great works of European museums are our shared children. And he has a point. They’re the repositories of the past—and the future.
For background purposes: When Adolph Hitler mounted his attacks on strategic points in Europe, his raids were not solely military in nature. Even as he razed cities, he would leave areas intact due to his skewed but enthusiastic appreciation of art; he destroyed work he deemed vulgar while simultaneously collecting pieces for his own cache that he found to be especially laudable. Hitler’s madness issued in the unspeakable horrors that are already widely known and despised. In fact, Edsel observes that the atrocities were so revolting that they made General Patton, known to be impervious to emotion, retch.
However, few people know that Hitler also pushed for a covetous grab of much of the greatest art that the Western world has ever produced. While Hitler’s insatiable greed was met largely with defeat due to the efforts of the Monuments Men, the means by which they managed to stop his rampage reads like a thriller. Imagine, for instance, the miles-long corridors of The Louvre being emptied (again and again) and hidden in caverns and underground repositories. Plus, the same feat was done for all the great museums on the Continent. Much of the work was accomplished by curators and devoted citizens, sometimes sequestered for such long periods that they were reduced to starvation. However, whenever and wherever possible, the Monuments Men stepped in to aid in the retrieval and preservation of Europe’s great art.
This constitutes an instance of the oft-cited theory of “equal and opposite” reactions. While Hitler was avidly ravaging Europe, enormously intricate efforts were being undertaken to thwart him. It was a form of stellar maneuvering that’s emblematic of how America behaved under what was perhaps the most egregious threat the free world has ever encountered. One story that is especially poignant is the recovery of the Ghent Altarpiece by American forces —it was retrieved from a vast trove of precious works buried in a salt mine in Austria where it had been hidden by the Germans. They had hoped to keep it for their own and would have done so had it not been for the highly educated and fiercely innovative art experts who worked as army personnel, i.e. the Monuments Men. The process was described as follows: “The second door was solid iron, and took two keys to open. Inside, silently reading a book, was van Eyck’s Virgin Mary. Next to her, on four empty cardboard boxes, were seven more panels of the Ghent Altarpiece. ‘The miraculous jewels of the Crowned Virgin seemed to attract the light from our flickering acetylene lamps,’ Kirstein later wrote. ‘Calm and beautiful, the altarpiece was, quite simply, there.’”
This is not just a story that begs to be told; it exposes a sensibility that should still be prevalent today. No one is more cognizant of this than Edsel himself. He understands that both current and coming generations will benefit from witnessing some of the more spectacular efforts of the “world’s greatest generation.” His task, ultimately, is one of education and conveying the importance of fighting fiercely for culture, for things that make us behave more nobly.
He has obviously succeeded amidst widespread acclaim. His reputation will no doubt be further enhanced by Clooney’s upcoming movie. But he has already reshaped the cultural landscape. Moreover, Edsel exhorts us to join him. In fact, on my desk is a copy of his book with a scrawling inscription urging me to spread the word about “these heroes of civilization.”
It should be noted that Edsel’s other books include Rescuing Da Vinci and the recently published Saving Italy. As the name suggests, the latter book is an impressive tome that focuses primarily the efforts made by scholar-soldiers to save Italian works such as The Last Supper from destruction. It’s a tale of spies, military maneuvers, and plots that twine to create what one critic termed a “barn-burner of a history.” Edsel is also the founder and president of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. While, of course, it’s exciting to anticipate a movie about the Monuments Men, everyone should read Edsel’s book[s]. They’re all a rare combination of a page-turner and a heartfelt reminder of what we should be about—both individually and as a country.
In fact, the book ends with the story of a Jewish Monuments Man who was photographed with a Rembrandt painting. Edsel drives home a salient point. The soldier was a German Jew beholding a painting he had never had a right to see as a boy, despite the fact that it was displayed in a museum a scant three blocks from his family’s home. Both the story of his ultimate triumph and Edsel’s telling of it make us all better. It’s a “pay it forward” moment on a grand scale. The rest is up to us.