I had never heard of the 2008 documentary The Rape of Europa until one of my supervisors stopped by my desk one day, handed me the DVD, and said simply, “I think you’ll like this.” (He knows I’m writing my thesis on Schiele.) So I said, “Sure!”—not realizing then just how harrowing and dramatic and riveting the story is, and how well these filmmakers tell it. It’s based on the book by Lynn H. Nicholas.
“The Winged Victory, which looks so solid, is really made of hundreds of pieces,” says Frédérique Hébrard, a French novelist and the daughter of two Louvre curators. “Bringing her down the stairs that she reigns over was a terrifying job because she could shatter into a thousand pieces.”
An eyewitness later recalled, “The statue rocked onto an inclined wooden ramp. We were all terrified, and the silence was total as the Victory rolled slowly forward, her stone wings trembling slightly. The curator of sculpture sank down on the steps, murmuring, ‘I will not see her return.'”
Picturing those wings trembling amid the hush as the Victory is eased down those steps still leaves my heart in my throat. A marvel of Greek sculpture from the 2nd century B.C. just shattering all over the Daru staircase!
As for other Louvre masterpieces, those were evacuated to castles and abbeys in southern France and, according to the film, periodically moved throughout the war. Curators lived in these castles and abbeys safeguarding the artworks. Hébrard recalls how her parents were entrusted with the Mona Lisa, which was kept in a wooden case: “We would open it, and there, in red satin, she was smiling.” Can you imagine tiptoeing up to that room and peeling back the satin to peer at the great lady?
The thefts, heroism, continuing legal disputes over looted art, and unknown fate of still-missing pieces pack more emotional wallop than the recent announcement that George Clooney is set to direct and star in a new big-budget movie about the Monuments Men, members of an Allied task force who helped save the great art and cultural heritage of Europe from the Nazis, and who figure in the documentary as well.
Update: The BBC series Fake or Fortune? may pique your interest if investigating the mysteries of paintings intrigues you. And Anne-Marie O’Connor’s book The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer takes a fascinating story touched on in The Rape of Europa and expands the back story behind the single image of “Austria’s Mona Lisa.”