“If you Destroy their Achievements — their History — it’s as if they Never Existed.”
This idea, articulated by George Clooney in the upcoming film The Monuments Men (go see it February 7!) is at the core of The Roses Underneath’s plot. It’s what drove the work of The Monuments Men, not just during the World War II, but also afterward, when the work of restituting the millions of pieces of saved art began. When I first learned about the Monuments Men, it was through the documentary The Rape of Europa, which aired on PBS in early 2008. I happened on it while flipping through channels one night in the two hours or so I could stay awake after putting my then two-year old daughter to bed.
I began researching as much as I could about the Monuments Men, fascinated by this little-known story of World War II. I had never given much thought to how the great masterpieces of western art had survived the war; it never occurred to me that they would have been in play as the spoils of war. In retrospect, this was alarmingly naïve, but there you go. But when I saw da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine at the Museum of Fine Art Houston many years ago, or visited the Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery in London, I only glimpsed what stories these paintings had to tell. Not just about power and greed, war and destruction, but about beauty and humanity, endurance and resilience. There is something profoundly moving about standing in front of a great work of art and knowing it has survived centuries and hopefully will go on long after I am gone.
As Mark Rothko said, “A painting is not about an experience, it is an experience.” I imagine the canvases of these great works as sponges that absorb our humanity and our stories, and carry them along as they endure. They are the physical remnants of our collective story. That their beauty might endure despite our never-ending capacity for human savagery gives me hope. That the Monuments Men risked their lives for the sake of art deserves our admiration and gratitude.