by Anmol AhujaDec 29, 2021
Since the onset of the COVID-19, the reports have frequently made comparisons between the scales of the current pandemic crisis and the physical and mental challenges as the consequences of the Second World War. UN Secretary-General António Guterres cemented the reference to the world war of the 20th century in a report released on March 31, 2020, where he says, “COVID-19 is the greatest test that we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations…” This analogical comparison may ensue a debate on what constitutes the idea of state and exclusion. On the flip side, one cannot turn a blind eye to the reality that it takes a crisis to raise a necessity to bridge the socio-economic inequality and restore our belief in creative practices for mental regeneration. Neither at the centre nor the periphery of the triumvirate block - political, social or economic - still, the phenomenology of the arts and creative minds has garnered the attention of the centre as a block to stir the society.
As we speak about the need to fruitfully channelise our anxieties during the times of uncertainty and eventuality of the lockdown, let us take a look into the cinema that has emphasised the power of art and mobilised creative force when the hardship of six-year-long Second World War has further shrouded the human tribe into the existentialist crisis. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, with its fictional setting from a 1932-replica of the Austro-Hungarian Empire state Republic of Zubrowka (on the brink of its collapse) to the conspicuous ZZ on the lapel (a parody on SS), carries the palpable hints of the rocket-rise of the Reich. The interplay of chiaroscuro effects, bright hues and the defined architecture of the movie make it a must for a cinematography pleasure.
Of the many fantastical elements in the movie, the fictional painting called the Boy With Apple, by a fictional mannerist Northern Renaissance painter Johannes van Hoytl becomes an extension of the three key protagonists in the movie: hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) and son of Madame D (Tilda Swinton), the original owner of the painting, Dmitri (Adrien Brody). A lover and patron of Gustave, Madame D as part of the inheritance, upon her death, bequeathed this painting to the concierge.
In the eyes of Dmitri, Gustave is the killer of her mother. Given the monetary value attached to the classical painting, the son believes to possess it by all means. If Gustave admires the masterpiece as a reminder of his lover, for Dmitri it also carries the filial values. The loyal and protégé of Gustave, Zero, raises a pertinent question to his master regarding the worth of the painting, “Is it very beautiful”, who inherits the painting after the demise of Gustave. Anderson refrains from sharing the aesthetical quotient added to the painting, but let Zero and the viewers draw the multifocal significance around the artwork from a subjective point of view of the characters.
In actuality, an English painter Michael Taylor makes the painting. The apple, a Judeo-Christain symbol of the fruit of seduction, on one hand, reflects the sensuality of the relationship between Gustave and Madam D, and on the other hand it signifies a fall of the postlapsarian days for Dmitri who finds himself entrapped in the web of greed. As the safeguards of the painting, Zero and his girlfriend Agatha replace the original painting with an imitation of Egon Schiele drawing Two Lesbians Masturbating, which was created by an RSID graduate Rich Pellegrino.
On the other side, the movie The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney, is based on the real story about the team called Monuments Men. It delineates with the success of the Monuments Men who eschew Adolf Hitler’s desires to hoard European art as a part of his collection at Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. The movie loosely follows the narrative trajectory given in Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s book The Monuments Men: allied heroes, Nazi thieves and the greatest treasure hunt in history. Despite the shortcomings of the movie, it opens a window to the lesser-known episodes of World War II. Not just possession of the European classics, Hitler ordered to destroy the artworks that were not aligned with the Nazi scheme of things. In doing so, Hitler’s act revoked the lines of the binary opposition that the fine art practice wanted to do away with.
The autobiography of Hitler, Mein Kampf, illustrates how his passion for paintings led him to appear for entrance examination at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. However, he could not clear it. For a brief time, he worked as a small draftsman and painter of watercolours; in his autobiography Hitler mentions, “…the German alone possessed and disseminated a truly artistic attitude. In music, architecture, sculpture, and painting, Vienna was the source supplying the entire dual monarchy in inexhaustible abundance, without ever seeming to go dry itself”. Hitler’s transition from a person who has a keen eye to appreciate aesthetic beauty to a political figure who demanded superiority of a race could be traced to the ‘idea of purity’ expounded by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant of the Age of Enlightenment.
The European art that the ‘Monument Men’ return to the museums includes Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges, Édouard Manet's In The Conservatory, The Bust of Charlemagne, Johannes Vermeer's The Astronomer, to name a few of the classics. Francis Henry Taylor (George Clooney), the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes the stock of the situation and pursue the then US President, Franklin D Roosevelt, to protect and recover the European art. In 1943, this led to the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archive. The original team of The Monuments Men comprising the art conservationist George L Stout, architect Robert K, sculptor Walker Hancock, military officer James Rorimer are given fictional names of Francis Henry Taylor, Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and James Granger (Matt Damon) respectively in the movie.
Film theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Louis Schefer and Jean Mitry have argued that even the presence of the minuscule object or a minor move on celluloid contributes to the larger narrative. To experience the same, (re) watch these movies and restore the creative force of the culture not just as capital, but also as a school of knowledge, with a promise to beat the times of isolation, and practice inclusivity and bouts of desolation with the emphasis on diversification, at any possible and available societal level.