Hello everyone! I’m Althea (aka Thea/Meemaw) from Girls That Read. Cass (aka Nonna) and I met back in CEGEP, which feels like forever ago. My Guest Friend post (yay, first one!) is going to tie in art and history, so the best of both Cass’s and my world.
I first discovered art history in my first week of CEGEP. I had zero idea there was even such a thing: I knew there was art, and I knew there was history, but to put the two together just never occurred to me. I applied to study Creative Arts, Literature and Languages thinking it’d fast track me to becoming a teacher. We’ll just say I was completely and utterly wrong about what was going to happen after two years in CEGEP. BUT, I fell completely and utterly head-over-hells in l-o-v-e with art history after my first class.
It really didn’t take long to convince me. The fact that anyone could look at a painting and determine the date it was painted, even who painted it, just by one look, fascinated me. How is that even possible? And not just that, but art history encompasses so much more than the traditional paintings and sculpture. Fashion falls into art history; some professors reference novels and poetry that were written around the respective time periods we study... There are also so many movements and sub-movements that it’s mindboggling. And totally amazing. Studying history is fun, but I miss being sent to the museum for assignments and getting to stare at a painting.
That being said, I also found I craved more historical context when in art history. If I could have brought my professors from art history in CEGEP all the way through to the end of my BFA, I would’ve been set. Alas, that’s not how life works, and it’s also not to say the professors in my history department aren’t kickass either.
So where exactly am I going with this post? Despite singing the praises for the people who sparked a passion in me, I have a bone to pick with them. It’s not a huge problem, but it’s something I haven’t been able to let go.
World War II is an event that many of us never lived through, but many of us have grown up listening to stories about. In high school history, we learn about how far reaching the war was and the devastation it wrought on the world, specifically Europe. There are museums dedicated to the Holocaust, whole university courses dedicated to World War II. Yet, somehow, no one seems to ever want to mention the fact that if Hitler had won, modern art would not exist because this was deemed degenerate by Hitler (which would mean no tacky Impressionist or van Gogh canvas bags! The horror!). All the “true” art would be sitting in Nazi leaders’ houses and in Hitler’s personal museum in Austria. In 2015, we know that Hitler didn’t win, nor did the plans for his super museum come to fruition. So how exactly did the world’s art collection live to see billions more people every day? The thought had very vaguely crossed my mind, but it didn’t really take form. It never made me ask someone what happened. It was a fleeting thought and then disappeared.
Fast forward to 2014. I’ve been studying art history for six, yes, six years. George Clooney directed a movie called The Monuments Men, based on the book titled The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel. When I heard about this story, I had to pause and ask myself: “what is that?”
So I ran to the bookstore and bought the book. And lo-and-behold, there was a whole other layer to art history that I had never even thought of before. The Monuments Men and Women were a division of the Allied forces who went into Europe and assessed damage to churches/cathedrals, castles and palaces, and most importantly, took art out of museums and to find a good hiding place, among many other things. They often put themselves in danger and found themselves facing open fire. Problem was, Hitler had beat them to it in some places, and then an additional task became finding out where the Nazis were hiding the treasure. As a side note, I applaud George Clooney for turning this into a movie. It definitely brings awareness to the story of the men and women who saved a cultural heritage that is irreplaceable. But the book was better, so just go buy the book and read it.
How does this tie into my post? Well, quite frankly, I had a bunch of feelings in regards to this book. First, I was embarrassed that I had zero idea about this tiny but huge chapter in my field of study’s history. I was also amazed that the author took this upon himself to bring awareness to these courageous people, and Robert M. Edsel quickly became one of my heroes along with Beyonce and Emma Watson, to name a few. But then I got angry. Really, really angry. I could not for the life of me understand how, in all the art history courses I had taken- reminder, six years worth- and not once did any of my professors go: “oh, this was almost lost to the Nazis,” or “we almost lost this painting because Hitler tried taking it.” Nah, it’s just totally glossed over and many of us are left to wonder how art managed to be saved during World War II. Which is wrong.
How can we just ignore the fact that someone’s job was to go out and save Mona Lisa? How can art historians teach budding art historians that these pieces were somehow magically protected? Hey, at the rate I was going, for all I knew Dumbledore had cast a bunch of protective spells over the art. A year later this completely baffles me. This job- to save part of art history- is factual. It is known that there were men and women who did this every day. One of the men is still alive! Reading The Monuments Men completely changed the way I look at Europe and all the art it holds. I can’t wait to read Edsel’s other book, Saving Italy, which deals with the Monuments Men and Women in Italy and their journey.
I’ve heard time and again that “historians study the past so as not to repeat history in the future.” When I become a professor- as I have made it my duty to become one -I will be sure that my students learn about this integral piece of history.
Thank you for sticking around to read me babble on!