Normandy Summer 1944


Normandy Summer, 1944: D-Day and after in Canadian Art

by Laura Brandon

Canadian Military History Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 1994), 26-32.

Canada sent twelve official war artists to France, more than one third of the thirty- two that were ultimately commissioned. They served with all three services, and as a result of their labour Canada has a remarkably complete artistic record of the Normandy campaign from the preparation stages through to the drive towards Germany. This collection is housed at the Canadian War Museum and certain paintings from it form part of the permanent displays at the Museum, while others are on loan to museums in Normandy and are used in special exhibitions in Canada. This year twenty-six of the oils will be on display at the Museum in a commemorative show, Normandy Summer. Several of the watercolours are also in 50th Anniversary loan exhibits both in Canada and across the Atlantic. The intent of this article is to act as a guide to a cross-section of the artists of the Normandy campaign by focusing on works that will be on view at the Canadian War Museum over the coming year. Reference will also be made to the watercolours that form the bulk of the Museum's artistic record of the events of 1944.

The art of the Normandy campaign exemplifies three issues that influenced the creation of the works that form the Canadian War Records. The first was the requirement of the programme, as expressed in the Canadian War Artists' Committee's "Instructions for War Artists," for the work produced to be accurate "in delineation and presentation of clothing, equipment, weapons, vehicles and craft."* The second was the growing interest in modern art within the Canadian artistic community in the decades preceding the outbreak of war. The third was the ideas that were doubtless current in the Canadian artistic community of the time as to what war art should be. Many future war artists would have been familiar with a 1942 editorial by a noted art historian at Acadia University, Walter Abell, who, in the widely read Maritime Art (later to become Canadian Art), wrote, "It is well to recognize that the more formal and official war art becomes the less significant as art it is likely to be."*2

D-Day - The Assaultspacer

The work of all the artists of the Normandy campaign was affected by one or more of these concerns. For example, two of these issues, that of accuracy and significance, find expression in one of the better-known depictions of D-Day, Orville Fisher's D-Day--The Assault (CWM 12469) . It shows a number of Canadian soldiers struggling to shore, waist deep in the cold, breaking waves of the English Channel. German beach defences loom threateningly beside them, and in the background, exploding shells churn up the water mixing spray with the smoke and cloud. Intriguingly, the purposeful determination of the Canadian soldiers to reach dry land is reinforced by the powerful presence of the enemy's cross-like beach obstacles. Through another subtle contrast, the potential for failure on both sides is expressed through the use of the broken wooden stakes of the Germans, which find an echo in the dead body of the Canadian in the shallows.

In D-Day--The Assault, Fisher provides the viewer with an accurate depiction of one particular landing--that of the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade at Courseulles. At the same time he uses his subject matter to comment on war in general. By contrasting certain specific elements, such as the dead body and the broken stakes, he highlights the ambiguous consequences of conflict by demonstrating that both sides share in victory and loss. In so doing, Fisher underlines the important characteristic of much of the Canadian Second World War art--that it was not only true to what was observed, but also capable of expressing fundamental truths about the nature of war.

The way the official war art programme was set up was a contributing factor to the artist's ability to address a number of issues in their work. From the beginning, Canadian painters who participated in the Canadian War Records lived and worked closely with the armed forces and spent a great deal of time close to the front lines. Wherever they found themselves, they were expected to produce accurate images of fighting men, machinery and the landscape of war. This they did by sketching in the field and later developing the sketches in watercolour or pastel. Only when they returned to their headquarters in London, or, after the war, to Canada, did they compose their studio works--the oils on canvas. While these were also expected to be true to events, for many artists, these larger paintings provided them with an opportunity to explore more significant issues, and to experiment with more modern forms of art.

A work by Will Ogilvie is a case in point. In July 1944 he was in Caen, witnessing first hand the destruction of that city. In three watercolours completed on site he captured the eerie silence of the deserted and destroyed medieval city. One, Bombed City (CWM 13250), he later repainted in oil. This he titled Dead City, Caen (CWM 13314). While the two paintings remain very similar in terms of composition, Ogilvie has simplified the forms and colours of the oil in order to emphasize its geometric qualities. Shadows and concavities have been reduced to patterns. What is essentially a view of broken walls and bomb craters in the watercolour, becomes in the oil a chilling and surreal composition in the manner of a metaphysical composition by the early twentieth century Italian artist, De Chirico. In the watercolour, two medieval statues on a left-hand wall blend into the composition. In the oil these figures contrast sharply with the brutalized buildings to become the only evidence of humanity in the scene. As such they increase the viewer's awareness of the inhumane results of battle. The change of title confirms the artist's altered intentions in the works. The title of the watercolour, Bombed City, is descriptive, while the title, Dead City carries with it a host of complex associations.

Similar concerns are at the heart of Eric Aldwinkle's Invasion Pattern (CWM 10679), one of the more adventurous depictions of the D-Day landings as seen from the air. In it, a Mustang of No.39 (Reconnaissance) Wing, RCAF, flies over the beach at Graye-sur-Mer. Below the aircraft, landing craft disgorge men and equipment onto a shoreline striated by the activities of earlier assaults. The aircraft is identified as Allied by the black and white stripes on its wings and fuselage. The artist, however, has also chosen to focus on the patterns formed on the beach by the movement of men and arms. Thus, in this work, both artistry and accuracy are addressed. The Mustang is clearly recognizable for what it is, but the portrayal of the scene below demonstrates the artist's interest in the abstract forms and shapes of battle as seen from above. The title itself, Invasion Pattern also makes reference to both the military use of pattern for identification purposes and the artist's own interpretation of the scene as a pattern.

Another watercolour by Aldwinkle from the same period, Air Battle (CWM 10627), is a quite lyrical depiction of an ultimately doomed conflict in the sky. Against an intensely blue background, a burning aircraft descends through a cat's cradle of vapour trails interspersed with bursts of flak. What has fascinated the artist is the beauty and drama of the scene, which he has presented in a swiftly delineated watercolour sketch. In the heat of airborne battle there is no time for accurate observation for the action is fast and soon over. It is this atmosphere of intense and short-lived activity which has been caught by the artist in a synthesis of abstract forms. In this work Aldwinkle has heeded Walter Abell's injunction and recognized the limitations of the "formal and official" to create a powerful and evocative image of aerial combat.

Above Falaisespacer

Above Falaise (CWM 14439) by Robert S. Hyndman provides a significant contrast to Air Battle in many ways. In it Spitfires engage in a dogfight with Messerschmitt 109s over Normandy. Unlike Aldwinkle, Hyndman had flown a tour with No . 411 Squadron, RCAF, before becoming an official war artist. He was therefore familiar with the progress of such encounters and less caught up in the visual beauty of his material. Based on personal experience he is able to capture the details of the combatants while at the same time expressing on canvas the speed at which events took place. The tension of the moment is created by compositional means, particularly in the way the aircraft fly towards each other, their noses almost touching in the centre of the painting. This strong horizontal movement is offset by the burning plane whose trail of smoke provides a diametrically opposite vertical emphasis.

Watercolour studies driven by much the same ethos were painted by another war artist attached to the air force, Paul Goranson. Dogfight over the Beachhead (CWM 11355) is one example. Another artist, George Broomfield, elected to remain a serving officer in the air force rather than become an official war artist but sketched under special arrangements. A watercolour and chalk study of a camouflaged Typhoon in the midst of harvest time entitled July, Normandy, 1944 (Hun Recce Plans above) (CWM 14396) is typical of his work. Everyday life is contrasted with the realities of a war which is represented by the vapour trails in the sky.

D-Dayspacer The war artists who were present in Normandy were not to know how the campaign would develop. As a result, their work captures the changing feelings of the participants as the battle continued. The tremendous relief that must have been felt when the D-Day assault actually commenced is captured in a work by Tom Wood, who served with the Navy. In D-Day (CWM 10558) the atmosphere is almost festive as landing craft of the 262nd Canadian Flotilla bring infantry into Bernières-sur-Mer, their signal flags flapping gaily in the breeze. In the distance, a horizontal cloud of smoke and the tiny shapes of other landing craft interspersed with shell-fire, provide minimal evidence of the death and destruction the landing could entail. Nevertheless, that same day, Harold Beament witnessed the consequences of the assault. In Embarking Casualties on D-Day, HMCS Prince David (CWM 10024) he depicts the bringing on board of a wounded serviceman. The artist exploits the high viewpoint afforded him by his presence on the converted Canadian National Steamship. He contrasts the safety and security of the larger area of the heavily populated ship with the tiny empty LCT on the grey waves below.

Survivors, Normandy, Off Le HavrespacerIn Survivors, Normandy, off Le Havre (CWM 1 03 1 0), Anthony Law describes another tragic incident where sailors are rescued after their motor torpedo boat was severely damaged by enemy gunfire and caught fire. As a serving officer at the time (and not an official war artist) Law was only able to make brief sketches after the incident. In this composition the artist exploits colour to intensify the drama. The blue and orange shades contrast quite violently with each other and underline the seriousness of the original action and its consequences. As the artist later commented, "It's a product of my vivid imagination."*3

Three other artists depicted the Canadian Navy during the Normandy campaign: Leonard Brooks, Michael Forster and Jack Nichols. Forster produced the most modernist works of all the war artists. His Vestiges of Mulberry, Arromanches (CWM 10229) is one of a number of mixed media compositions which show his indebtedness to the newer art styles which emerged in Britain in the 1930s and found expression in their war art programme in the work of artists like Paul Nash. Nichols, too, was stimulated by artistic precedents but absorbed his influences to create powerful paintings and drawings focusing on human suffering and confusion in wartime. In Normandy Scene, Beach in Gold Area (CWM 10523), the soldiers' faces express their emotions on encountering the dislocation and misery of local families in the aftermath of battle. A piece of bleached, skeletal driftwood to the lower right evokes the presence of death.

T.R. MacDonald was attached to the Army but never painted in Normandy. Nevertheless, his portrait of General Crerar (CWM 13151), who commanded the First Canadian Army in 1944, contributes to the visual history of the period and place. George Pepper was another artist attached to the Army, and his Tanks Moving Up for the Breakthrough (CWM 13795) commemorates the events of August 8 when Sherman tanks supporting the 2nd Canadian Division prepared for Operation "Totalize," an all-out attack that was intended to cut off the retreat of German forces near Falaise. The silhouette of the tanks against the brilliantly coloured sunset evokes the drama of the impending action. In this composition, historical accuracy and artistic vision are effectively combined.

The Canadian War Artists' Committee's "Instructions to War Artists" was sensitive to artistic vision when it stated that war artists were "to record and interpret vividly and veraciously according to [their] artistic sense." Their works were further expected to "be worthy of Canada's highest cultural traditions, doing justice to History." Unlike the British programme, and indeed Canada's own First World War programme, the Canadian War Memorials, there seems to have been no underlying political agenda other than to record. The elements of propaganda and commemoration in the other programmes do not appear to have any counterpart in the Canadian project. The result is a body of work, particularly in the case of the Normandy campaign, whose legacy is a fair and accurate record of events, gently coloured by a sensitivity to freedom of style and opinion.


* Canadian War Artists' Committee, Instructions for War Artists, March, 1943, Mark Schaefer, Ontario.

*2 Walter Abell, "Canada at War," Maritime Art, February/March 1942, p.75.

*3 Joan Murray, Canadian Artists of the Second World War, Oshawa: The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 1981, p.74. (Exhibition catalogue).

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Laura Brandon is the Curator of War Art at the Canadian War Museum. She studied Canadian Art History at Queen's University.

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