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This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Adapted from Robert M. Edsel‘s best-seller The Monuments Men, the George Clooney-directed film — and Berlinale Special Screening — of the same name chronicles what has been called one of the world’s greatest treasure hunts. It also could be one of the most ambitious attempts at art fakery for art’s sake. Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman and Bill Murray star as members of World War II’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit, which was comprised of museum directors, architects, sculptors, curators and art historians. They weren’t your typical war heroes, but the group is credited with returning more than 5 million stolen objects to their rightful countries and owners.
Oscar-nominated production designer Jim Bissell had the herculean task of re-creating hundreds of iconic works of art, including Raphael‘s Portrait of a Young Man, Leonardo da Vinci‘s The Last Supper, Johannes Vermeer‘s The Astronomer and Rembrandt‘s self-portrait. “The specific pieces featured in the film are all (with the exception of the Madonna and Child) well documented digitally,” says Bissell. “We used the digital files to reproduce the work on the canvas, then Robert Blake, an artist on our painting staff, applied overglazes so that brushstrokes, palette knife marks, craquelure and other techniques particular to the work would be picked up by incident light.”
Bissell looked to another artist for inspiration when he designed the Manhattan bar where Clooney and Damon meet. Thomas Hart Benton‘s masterpiece America Today, a 10-panel mural depicting the Machine Age, was copied (with approval) for the bar’s mural, with a two-wall set constructed specifically for the backdrop of the master shot. “It was a fictitious bar in New York and my version of what a ’40s bar would look like with American art with a European influence,” Bissell says. “It was a fitting painting for the times.”
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