This weekend, visitors at the Yale University Art Gallery were greeted by posters of George Clooney.
A Saturday event in the YUAG auditorium featured Robert M. Edsel, author of the book “The Monuments Men,” as well as co-writer of the screenplay for the eponymous upcoming film starring Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett, among other big Hollywood names.
Edsel and YUAG Director Jock Reynolds discussed the story of the Monuments Men — a group of approximately 345 artists, art historians, curators and other art experts who enlisted in the Allied forces’ “Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives” program with the goal of recovering and protecting cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis or at risk of destruction during World War II. Fourteen of these volunteers studied or worked at Yale — some for the University, some in the Gallery and some in the Yale Center for British Art.
“It’s an epic part of World War II that the public doesn’t have in [its] lexicon; [the filmmakers] had to explain in one film what no other World War II films have done,” Edsel said.
Edsel noted that the Monuments Men recovered approximately 3 million books and 5 thousand church bells among numerous artifacts including paintings, stained glass and torahs.
Edsel presented four clips from the upcoming movie and placed each in its historical context. One scene illustrated the way in which the volunteers — most of them academics with no military training — were chosen, and another showed the premeditated looting of citizens’ belongings. A third video captured the difficulty of tracking down treasures and removing them from the places where the Nazis had hidden them, such as salt mines.
One clip featured Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” on the wall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, which was bombed and reduced to rubble. However, the Monuments Men had built a structure filled with sandbags to brace the mural, which survived the explosion.
Leonard Everett Fisher BFA ’49, MFA ’56, who attended Saturday’s event, served as a non-commissioned officer during WWII, making the ground maps the Monuments Men used in their campaigns. Fisher, who is now 89 years old, said he was close friends with Monuments Men member Deane Keller ’23, BFA ’26, who taught at Yale for forty years.
Reynolds explained that many of Yale’s Monuments Men have been hesitant to speak about their work in “Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives” after returning to their lives in New Haven.
“All this is percolating now; it makes me glad I came home alive,” Fischer responded when asked about his thoughts on the recent publicity surrounding the work of the Monuments Men.
Yale and Harvard were the best-represented institutions in the MFAA — a fact Reynolds attributed to the two universities having educated a great number of artists and art historians.
Edsel has written two books about preserving and rescuing European cultural treasures during WWII in addition to “The Monuments Men:” “Rescuing Da Vinci,” which he spoke about at the YUAG in 2007, and “Saving Italy,” which Edsel said he anticipates will also become a film.
He explained that he intended for “The Monuments Men” to become a major motion picture, adding that a feature film can reach a broader audience than a book — particularly a film that George Clooney has produced, co-written and starred in.
Edsel is also the founder and chairman of the board of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, an organization that works to honor the Monuments Men and their legacies, as well as to facilitate the restoration of missing cultural items to their rightful owners. Edsel said he hopes the film will encourage those with leads on or in possession of objects still missing from the war to come forward.
“Most of us were brought up well,” Edsel said. “If something’s stolen, you should give it back.”
“The Monuments Men” opens in theaters on Feb. 7.