Does every picture tell a story? Is it worth a thousand words? And exactly how many dollars, Euros or, if it were the 1940s, Deutschemarks would it take to buy a work by Leonardo, Picasso or Monet?
At its core, George Clooney’s film, “The Monuments Men,” ponders the value of art. Based on a historical account of the scholars who were sent to find and secure the artworks that fell victim to Hitler’s raping of European culture, “The Monuments Men” recounts the race to rescue the art that the Nazis stole.
In bookend scenes to the film, we are witness to perhaps the most significant conversations about art of all time as George Clooney’s character, Frank Stokes, debates whether saving art is more important than saving lives. In the end, President Truman asks if the death of a colleague justified the effort. Stokes argues the importance of preserving Europe's cultural heritage above all: “If you destroy their achievements, their history, it's like they never existed.”
In this quasi-Socratic contemplation of Hitler’s attempt to steal Europe’s greatest artistic achievements, we are to believe that protecting precious art is worth the ultimate sacrifice. The idea of ars longa, vita brevis is hammered home when we see an unheralded and older Stokes (played by Mr. Clooney’s father Nick) visit the famed Michelangelo Madonna and Child in the Bruges Cathedral. The power of this culminating scene is underscored by the loss of life it took to secure the sculpture earlier in the movie.
St. Louisans need go no farther than their own Art Museum to bear witness to sacrifice suffered through human conflict and to consider Stokes’ question about the importance of art being housed in its traditional home.
In its permanent collection, the St. Louis Art Museum contains more than a small piece of this particular history in its German Expressionist Art and in the work of Max Beckmann.
A stroll through the Beckmann gallery brings us face to face with the ravages of war and conflict.
As we learn in “The Monuments Men,” the young Adolph Hitler, an aspiring painter, tried but failed to be admitted to a prestigious Viennese art school. Turning his attention to politics, Hitler would change the course of art history through his desire to create a national German museum in his native city, Linz, where he planned to display the Nazi ideal of art. To build a collection that would demonstrate his vision of artistic beauty, Hitler looted works from the museums, churches, homes, and countries of Europe as he conquered them.
At the same time that Hitler sought to display, and personally possess, ideal examples of art, he also determined to rid Europe of the art he deemed unworthy and indicative of society’s degradation. As part of his effort to instruct Germany and the world about the ills of modern culture, Hitler ordered the exhibition of “Degenerate” Art in 1937.
He took a personal role in the exhibit’s organization, determining which objects would be included and which would not. As the arbiter of artistic taste, Hitler sought to instruct the public in what was beautiful and what, in his mind, wasn’t.
And this brings us back to the St. Louis Art Museum.
Ask yourself about the power or beauty of art as you stand before Max Beckmann’s “Christ with Woman Taken in Adultery.” Displayed to the right of his “Sinking of the Titantic” (1912-13), “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” (1917) shows Beckmann moving forward from the history painting style he employed for the “lifeboats” painting, as it would later be known, to a more modern style.
Beckmann’s version of Christ protecting an adulteress is a work of power and importance. Hitler may not have seen the subject matter as appropriate; however, the scriptural story is well known and most would acknowledge Christ’s moralizing plea, “Let he who is without sin…” Indeed, the story would have resounded in pre-Nazi Germany.
But then there are the physical attributes of Christ as presented by Beckmann. The visage of Christ — with its elongated head and prominent jaw line — was so repugnant to the organizers of the “Degenerate” Art exhibition that the painting was displayed in the show’s first room along with another Beckmann work portraying the deposition of an emaciated Christ (now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). These two representations of Christ exemplified Hitler’s idea of depravity in modern art and earned Beckmann a high place on the list of degenerate artists.
It is not surprising that the artist would leave Germany, move to Amsterdam, then to America and, for a time, St. Louis where, as a professor of art at Washington University, he formed a close friendship with the collector and May Department Store chief, Morton D. May.
While George Clooney and his fictionalized Frank Stokes may believe that the ultimate victory of allied intervention in Europe was the return of cultural touchstones such as the Bruges Madonna and the Altarpiece of Ghent to their original locations, America certainly benefited from the forced displacement of Europe’s art and artists. A visit to the Beckmann gallery invites us to participate in that past conversation and decide for ourselves the value of preserving art.
The works of Max Beckmann are on view in Gallery 216 at the St. Louis Art Museum. To learn more, visit slam.org.
Bill Appleton, who is now with the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, was at the St. Louis Art Museum from 2002-13.