I am one of those people who understands history through art. Partly for the classic idea that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but also because the concept of “this artist made this during this time while these things were happening” just somehow clicks with me. To me, art IS history, so I am always a bit baffled when I hear other people snicker or gripe at stories that come out about people who make heroic efforts to save a piece of artwork as if the idea that a person would put themselves in danger to save history is somehow silly. I am also one of those people who understands things by relating them to movies made in the 1980’s. And thanks to the Back to the Future Trilogy, those of us living in the twenty-first century should all now be fully aware of how saving history will also save our future.

But alas, earwax! The Back to the Future Trilogy did not exist during World War II! Can you imagine telling a Superior Officer in the military (who has no IDEA what Jan Van Eyck painted, nor what song Marty McFly sang after his parents’ first kiss) that he needs to set free a recently captured group of German Soldiers because a German Monk told you that they are the only men trained to keep a historical church from catching on fire from the bombs the Allies are still blasting at the city? Yeah, he may not take it that well…

Luckily, the small group of men and women assigned to the MFAA, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Division, understood the importance of their job even when others did not, and were able to save the history (and thus, the culture, spirit and future) of Europe from total destruction. Their story, after being forgotten for many years, is finally receiving worldwide attention thanks to the wonderful book by Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter), The Monuments Men : Allied heroes, Nazi thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History and the new movie based on Edsel’s book, Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney.

Led by George Stout, an art conservation pioneer from Iowa (and who Clooney based his fictional film character on–Learn more about George Stout here: http://bit.ly/MeLsKn), the MFAA members managed to protect historical world sites from unnecessary bombings, repair sites damaged due to necessary bombings, protect priceless cultural items from looting by both the Nazis and Allies, and track down and conduct emergency conservation efforts on millions of items stolen by the Nazis and return them to their rightful countries and owners, including those owned by Germany. And here is the super amazing part, although the MFAA would eventually include hundreds of members (still a very small amount compared to the millions who served during WWII), the Monuments Men numbered UNDER TEN MEMBERS during their most critical period to save all of the art in NORTHERN EUROPE (and unlike in the film, they were mostly working ALONE). As the brilliant Dr. Emmett Brown would say, “Great Scott!”

Robert Edsel’s book, The Monuments Men, as well as his companion books and the related documentary, The Rape of Europa, are must-sees for those interested in Art History, World History and Military History as well as anyone who likes a good treasure hunt around Europe.

There is something about the season of Autumn that makes me want to climb into a cave and paint pictures, you know? Maybe I’m feeling some ancient human safety feature that is trying to get me settled in a warm place before winter arrives. Or maybe I just think hermits and bats are cool. Most likely it is because I have seen the magical documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Humanity’s Lost Masterpiece, a Film by Werner Herzog on the fascinating Chauvet Cave paintings.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the perfect mix of history, science and art that leaves the viewer feeling an intense awareness of humanity and our connections through time. The Chauvet Cave paintings were discovered in southern France in 1994 and many are believed to have been created over 30,000 years ago. Due to the conservation problems facing the nearby Lascaux cave paintings, the Chauvet caves have been locked down with authorities only giving very limited access to scientists and art historians. Herzog shot the film with only a 4-person crew who had to use all their equipment while standing single-file on the limited, narrow walkways and with very small allotments of time. Although this prevented any grandiose, unobstructed scenes or any carefully angled close-up shots, the moving shadows and uneven light give the paintings an unnerving movement similar to what we can imagine they would look like when lit by a torch thousands of years ago.

Surprisingly, the ancient paintings are not the only fascinating subjects of Herzog’s documentary. He also features many of the cave scientists and their varied research projects related to Chauvet. For example, by studying the animals portrayed in the cave paintings, a group of scientists now believe that the ancestors to modern lions did not have manes. The scientists themselves range from former circus performers to a perfume designer who actually SNIFFS OUT CAVES! Herzog manages to celebrate the modern technology used in the cave projects without losing the ancient hum surrounding Chauvet.

I highly recommend this film to anyone interested in documentaries about the humanities or those who like films that leave them feeling a little mysterious and a little bit magical afterwards.

With the recent record-breaking amount paid for a single painting – a portrait by Pablo Picasso painted during a single day in March 1932 – which sold for a staggering $106.5 million in early May in New York, it reminded me of one of my favorite books on the artist, Life with Picasso, written by Francoise Gilot.  Gilot, who lived with Pablo Picasso for nearly a decade, is the mother of two of his children, Paloma (the fashion and jewelry designer) and Claude and she continues to have a successful art career.

Gilot initially published this memoir of their life together, which spans the years 1944 until 1953, in 1964 after their relationship ended. The two met in Paris during World War II when she was a 21 year old art student and he was 62 years old and was already a world famous artist.  Gilot found inspiration working next to Picasso while creating her own artwork. The book is a fascinating read into the  process of how Picasso created his paintings, sculptures and prints as well as how he dealt with those who were around him and part of his inner circle.

This is highly recommended not only for fans of the artist but for those who enjoy a glimpse into the biography of an legendary and talented individual told from the viewpoint of someone who was living her life next to his for many years.

Dark Water by Robert ClarkLast summer, while walking home from the University of Iowa Main Library very late in the evening, I came to a stop in front of a large truck parked in front of the Museum of Art. I stood and watched as workers and museum guards struggled to manuever a very large crate into the building–a crate that looked to be the exact size of Pollock’s Mural.. The flood was coming and the museum staff was frantically trying to get the entire university’s collection to safety. This meant not only removing the artwork from flood danger, but also going forth with a complex evacuation plan that involved secretly moving the artwork out in the middle of the night and transferring it to a secure location. Working around the clock, it still took about four days to save the Museum’s artwork (now on display at the Figge Art Museum).

In Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces, Robert Clark tells the story of the devastating flood that hit Florence, Italy on November 4, 1966. With almost no warning, the Arno River rose into the city in the early morning hours–giving the Florentines no time to save their families, their homes nor their city full of art. As soon as photos of the destruction began to surface, volunteers from around the world (nicknamed “mud angels”) rushed to Italy to help save the priceless paintings, manuscripts and architecture from the deluge of water and mud. Clark does an amazing job describing the incredible efforts to save the treasures of Florence, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, but also the lack of attention given to the actual people affected by the flood. While the world pumped money into conservation efforts, the Florentines spent weeks without food, water, and electricity bringing to light difficult ethical questions of history vs. present vs. posterity.

As one of the most enjoyable nonfiction books I have ever read, I found Dark Water both fascinating and emotional with a great combination of art, history and personal stories to which we in flood country can sympathize. This is a must read for all those who enjoy art or have ever visited the amazing city of Florence.

Those who are interested might also went to watch Restoration of Books, Florence 1968, a 40 min. documentary currently viewable online from the University of Utah.