This past Saturday, I went to see Woman in Gold, the film that portrays the story of how Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) became the center of an art restitution battle that would challenge crucial tenets of modern Austria’s national identity. Most reviewers have noted the movie’s flaws—that it forgoes a thorough account of the legal battles and a complex portrait of the motivations of the different sides, that some of the performances and complementary elements (the score) are heavy-handed. Even if the omission of some intricate details is perhaps understandable in the name of a flowing narrative, I have no argument with these reviews, and Helen Mirren’s performance certainly proves to be the highlight of the movie. However, the oversentimentality of the movie—the deliberate pulling of heartstrings—is what interests me here. What is it about works of art, like Adele, that motivates this sentimentality on film?
I ask this question in this way because I am thinking, too, of The Monuments Men, which framed much of the relatively true story of a group of art historians and conservators aiding World War II efforts to recover art stolen by Nazi forces in relation to an emotional quest to recover the Bruges Madonna (1501-1504), reputed for its magnificent beauty. Like Adele and the distinctive gold leaf that lends the painting its texture and splendor, the Bruges Madonna boasts the distinction of being the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. In The Monuments Men, it serves as a “Holy Grail” object—after one of the men (the Earl of Grantham himself, Hugh Bonneville) dies trying to stop the Germans from removing the statue from Bruges, the prospect of delivering the statue from harm drives Frank Stokes (George Clooney) through his search and eventual discovery of it in the most unlikely place. Despite its exceptional cast, creative pedigree, and sharply political focus, The Monuments Men suffers from similar problems as Woman in Gold—casting a complex narrative about art history as one of sentimental and uplifting recovery dilutes the political power of these truly fascinating real-life occurrences.
Adele is identified in Woman in Gold, presumably as easy shorthand for her cultural significance, as the “Mona Lisa of Austria.” The Mona Lisa itself, also the subject of fantastical stories of theft and restitution, and the Bruges Madonna, in addition to Adele, demonstrate that a worthy subject of another post may indeed be the willingness to endow artistic bodies of women with allegorical significance. With regard to Nazi thefts during World War II, restitution has once again become a hot topic, especially with the discovery a year ago of 1,500 works of art in the dwellings of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi art dealer. Conferences on the subject are held on a regular basis, and dissertations and books are written by scholars claiming expertise in restitution and issues of cultural heritage. So why the sentimentality? Is sentimentality a means of “dumbing down” these issues for the masses?
Because of high profile discoveries like the Gurlitt case, these are hot button issues that crop up in mainstream media on a fairly regular basis or that echo regrettably through contemporary reports of groups like ISIS purposefully destroying cultural heritage sites in the Middle East. I would argue that dumbing down is not at issue in the adoption of sentimentality, and that perhaps it is instead a question of how our society envisions the purpose of art. Like music, art is supposed to save—many people who make their living making or studying art will tell you exactly this. Making movies that hype the potential romanticism of art-related justice aligning with the “right” side of a war—in The Monuments Men, the Allies; in Woman in Gold, the Jews of Vienna—can seem incredulous to those who totally believe in the power of art because it distorts their quiet and dignified lived purpose into a loudly epic narrative. Even if screenwriters and artists believe in art and art history’s ability to move, they don’t do any service to their cause in simplifying the tools of its modus operandi. Even if these movies enable delights like George Clooney giving an eminently quotable speech about what saving art is worth to an honorable way of life, the rest of the story needs to be constructed well enough to bear that message out. Some audiences must still be convinced to believe it.