The Monuments Men is technically about art, but you're not going to find an art history lesson.
George Clooney's WWII picture—and we use that old-time-y term on purpose—is an anachronistic romp that tries not to take itself too seriously while tackling a fairly serious subject. The movie has received its fair share of not totally undeserved criticism in reviews. Though you can argue that the movie's lightheartedness is a virtue—it certainly makes for pleasant viewing—the entire enterprise feels a little surface level. You never really do feel like you're watching anyone other than George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, and pals. (Perhaps the great exception to this is Cate Blanchett, playing a French spy who catalogued just what the Nazis were stealing.) Clooney plays the role, in a way, of the old movie star in a war epic, and the jaunty music by Alexandre Desplat easily transports one to the 1940s.
While various works of art are referenced, the movie mainly concerns itself with two: The Ghent Altarpiece and the Bruges Madonna. If you want to read the true story of how The Monuments Men helped find them, Robert M. Edsel's book covers you far better than Clooney's movie, which invented characters inspired by the real-life heroes. Here, however, is how to sound semi-smart about the art.
The Ghent Altarpiece
Completed in 1432, Jan van Eyck's masterpiece also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is a vital contribution to art history. It also had a busy life long before Hitler tried to steal it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the panel painting as the "defining monument of the "new realism" of Northern Renaissance art," and cites a 1495 visitor who "justly described it as encompassing the whole art of painting." Van Eyck's work was renowned for its detail and the advancements it made in realism, and in 2010 author Noah Charney, who wrote a book called Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece, told NPR: "It's the first great oil painting — it influenced oil painting for centuries to come. It's the first great panel painting of the Renaissance, a forerunner to artistic realism. The monumentality of it and the complexity of it fascinated people from the moment it was painted."
But it hasn't lived a peaceful life. Writing at The Guardian, Charney called it "the most stolen artwork of all time." He explained: "It's almost been destroyed in a fire, was nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, it's been forged, pillaged, dismembered, censored, stolen by Napoleon, hunted in the first world war, sold by a renegade cleric, then stolen repeatedly during the second world war." In fact, Edsel wrote that one of the reasons Hitler wanted it was in retribution for Germany having to give back some of the panels as war reparations under the Treaty of Versailles. Another reason Hitler wanted it, according to Charney in The Daily Beast: the supernatural. You can get a closer look at the altarpiece on this interactive website.
This Michelango Madonna and Child was the artist's only sculpture to leave Italy during his lifetime, Edsel wrote on his Monuments Men blog. He explains in his book that despite its famous artistic provenance, the Madonna was a relative obscurity. "The famous artist biographer Giorgio Vasari, writing in the mid-1500s, knew so little about the statue— the master’s only work located outside Italy during his lifetime— that he thought it was made of bronze, not white marble," he explains.
Edsel mentions that it is hard not to see this Madonna and draw connections to perhaps Michelangelo's most famous representation of the Virgin Mother and Christ, the Pietá in St. Peter's Basilica.