The Monuments Men puts Flanders’ art centre stage


George Clooney’s new Hollywood blockbuster The Monuments Men, which opens in cinemas tomorrow, puts Flanders’ art treasures in the spotlight and could spark a new wave of tourism to the region

Bruges’ Madonna and Ghent’s Mystic Lamb stars of new Hollywood film

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times for The Monuments Men. With the recent news in the headlines that many Belgian museums are in possession of previously privately owned art stolen by the Nazis and later returned to the country, it would seem that the timing is perfect for a film about how that art was recovered. And yet both Flanders’ precious art objects featured in the film are in the midst of restorative works.

Michelangelo’s sculpture “Madonna and Child”, which attracts two million visitors a year, is on view in Bruges’ Church of our Lady, though the church itself is undergoing restoration. It looks a bit of a mess, and the admission price has been brought down to a mere €2.

Likewise, several panels from Jan van Eyck’s “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” – otherwise known, and referred to in the film, as the Ghent Altarpiece – are not in their place in Sint-Baaf’s Cathedral but are undergoing restoration in the city’s Fine Arts Museum several kilometres away.

None of that might seem like a big problem, but the truth is these works aren’t just part of the film – they are the stars of the film. If ever Flanders was going to get worldwide publicity for its artistic gems, this is it.

The opening scene of The Monuments Men, which hits cinemas across Belgium tomorrow, finds priests frantically crating up the Ghent Altarpiece, hoping to hide it from the Nazis. We find out later that it was to no avail when Bill Murray’s character exclaims with surprise: “They took the Ghent Altarpiece?”

It’s a defining moment in the film, as it finally dawns on him just how big this German looting operation really is.

The Nazis didn’t just take a few key masterpieces off museum walls: During the Second World War, they marched into homes, churches, town halls and anywhere else they needed to in order to confiscate every valuable (or semi-valuable) piece of art in Europe. By the end of the war, they had acquired by theft or forced sale more than five million cultural objects.

Casualties of war

The Monuments Men is based on the 2009 book of the same name by American Robert M Edsel, who has published several books and co-produced a documentary on the Nazi pillage of Europe’s cultural artefacts. He details the work of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, set up towards the end of the war to monitor both the theft of works by the Germans but also the destruction of ancient architecture and monuments across Europe – casualties of war.

The number of Monuments Men in the field numbered 15 – for all of Europe. They were mostly soldiers who had seen no combat. Some of them were not soldiers at all; they were art curators, historians, architects – sent to stop the Allied troops from shooting down church towers and to find millions of pieces of art skilfully stolen and hidden by the enemy.

Many people don’t realise that Michelangelo’s ‘Madonna and Child’ is in Bruges

- Renaat Landuyt, mayor of Bruges

It was, in essence, an impossible mission. And yet, as the book and the film illustrate, they were remarkably successful.

It’s a wonderful story of integrity, adventure and a desperate need to stop the destruction of thousands of years of culture. Because the Monuments Men weren’t just tasked with finding the works of art – works that included such masterpieces as Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and “Lady with an Ermine”, Monet’s “In the Winter Garden”, Vermeer’s “The Astronomer” and the original manuscript of Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 – they were also under the gun, so to speak. Hitler had ordered works to be systematically destroyed if Germany fell to the Allies. And while the Monuments Men were searching, Germany was falling.

And yet, it’s the Ghent Altarpiece and Bruges’ Madonna that are singled out by both Edsel and film director George Clooney as the centrepieces of the struggle. Some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities – Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray and more – spend two hours intent on finding specifically these two pieces of art.

Though the critics – for good reason – have not been kind to Clooney’s film, I don’t mind telling you it’s rather a thrill to see Flanders’ art taking the leading role. It is possibly the best international advertisement Flanders has ever known.

Both Bruges and Ghent are planning for an influx of tourists spurred on by The Monuments Men. “Many people don’t realise that Michelangelo’s ‘Madonna and Child’ is in Bruges,” says Bruges mayor Renaat Landuyt. “So it’s good that the world will be made aware of this.”

More to offer than Mona

What Dan Brown did for the “Mona Lisa”, it is hoped, Clooney will do for the Madonna and the Ghent Altarpiece.

Although, let’s face it, the “Mona Lisa” didn’t really need any help. Landuyt touches on an interesting point: Americans – and many other viewers outside of the low countries – watching The Monuments Men will know nothing about these iconic artworks.

You can bet that the majority of Americans will have never seen nor heard of the Ghent Altarpiece. Nor will they recognise Michelangelo’s Madonna, despite it being a unique and arresting version of the iconic image and its fame as the only work by the Renaissance master to have left Italy during his lifetime.

If you say ‘Ghent Altarpiece’, no one gets an image in their heads

- Bart Devolder, conservator

“I think when Americans see the film they will think ‘why do I knot know about this? Why do I not recognise it?’,” says Bart Devolder of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage. He’s referring to the Ghent Altarpiece, and no one knows the painting better than he.

Devolder is the on-site co-ordinator of the restoration project, which finds several of the painting’s panels in Ghent’s Fine Arts Museum at any given time, behind glass so the public can view the restorers at work.

“If you say ‘Ghent Altarpiece’, no one gets an image in their heads like they do with iconic paintings like ‘American Gothic’ or the ‘Mona Lisa’,” Devolder continues. “But it’s a far better painting than the ‘Mona Lisa’.”

The reason behind the piece’s lack of fame, he thinks is twofold: First, that famous reserve of the Belgians. “They don’t brag about what they’ve got. They don’t use the promise of works by Jan Van Eyck to boast about the city of Ghent.”

The second reason is perhaps even more profound: The altarpiece is one difficult work. “Van Eyck was very well educated, but it’s believed that he had one or more advisors in order to create this sophisticated of an iconographical schema,” notes Devolder. “There are so many discussions about what role all the people in the piece play, and I think that is what is frustrating about this painting – and why it’s not more famous. It’s complicated.”

It’s also not just one painting, it’s 24, including the panels on the back side, which are seen if the piece is closed up. “It might be too much for people to take in, and maybe that’s why it’s so difficult for them to like it,” says Devolder “You can’t just say something cute about the eyes to spark people’s interest.”

Images from the past

Why Edsel – and later Clooney – chose to focus on these two pieces is anyone’s guess. But Till-Holger Borchert, the chief curator at Bruges’ Groeningemuseum, has a simple answer. “I’ve heard that Mr Edsel has a keen interest in Flemish art,” he tells me.

And it’s also possible, notes Borchert, that he was simply influenced by historical photography. Several photos still exist of Monuments Men – and the enlisted men who assisted them – holding up paintings outside of the mines where they had just found them. (It was the Monuments Men who discovered that most of the artefacts were stored underground in salt and copper mines across Germany and Austria.)

The most significant photos that emerged were of the Madonna and the Ghent Altarpiece

- Till-Holger Borchert, curator

“When I think back on the photographs that emerged of these people, the most significant photos are of the Madonna and the Ghent Altarpiece,” says Borchert. “Those were actually taken inside the mines, and we make a connection with them especially for that; they are concerned with getting them out of that place.”

Despite Flanders’ starring role in The Monuments Men, you won’t actually see any of Flanders in the movie: It was filmed on location in the UK and Germany. Although one of the men sneaks into an occupied Bruges in the dead of night to make his way to the church in an attempt to protect the Madonna, it’s not really Bruges, the Church of Our Lady – or the Madonna. It’s filmed elsewhere, and the Madonna is a copy.

“That’s the weakest point in the film,” says mayor Landuyt. “Bruges is much more beautiful than that. At least visitors who come to the city after seeing the film will be pleasantly surprised.”

As for that, there are positive spins to be put on all those renovations for prospective tourists. The city of Ghent is contemplating a triple-ticket to see the Ghent Altarpiece in Sint-Baaf’s, the panels being restored in the Fine Arts Museum and the exhibitions about the work in the Caermersklooster. That will take tourists all around the city, where they can also be led to other works by Van Eyck.

As for Bruges, when tourists swoon in awe at the face of Michelangelo’s serene Madonna, they might be inclined to open their pocket books to help fund the renovations of the church.