On D-Day in World War II, a French painter came ashore with the Allied armies. His art would be forever changed because of it.
Last week was the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landings in the north of France during World War II that led to the invasion of Germany. The trauma, sacrifice and the individual stories of that day were ably recorded by Cornelius Ryan in his classic 1959 book The Longest Day. In doing research, Ryan talked to hundreds of veterans of that day whose experiences stayed with them their entire lives.
Americans are most familiar with Omaha Beach and Utah Beach where US infantry divisions came ashore. But down the coast there were other beaches codenamed Gold, Juno, and at the extreme eastern end of the invasion area, Sword Beach. This is where a French Commando unit attached to the British Army went into action. One of the men in that unit was Guy de Montlaur, who after the war left traces of his wartime experiences on canvas as one of France’s most notable painters.
Montlaur was born in 1918, and in the 1930s studied art at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris. He joined the French Army in 1938 and when the war began took part in several daring raids behind enemy lines. After the fall of France, he made his way to London where he joined up with the Free French Forces based there. He returned to his home country on the morning of June 6, 1944. He received seven citations for valor including the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor.
After the war, he came to the United States to study at the famous Art Students League of New York whose roster of teachers and alumni includes pretty much every luminary of the twentieth century. He returned to France in 1948 and worked his way through different styles beginning with vivid and powerful cubism. He had his first solo show in Paris in March 1949, from which the Paris Museum of Modern Art purchased one of his paintings.
He rarely spoke about his experiences in the war. His daughter said that “it was just better for him to express it in painting, rather than in conversations,” Because he often painted in abstractions, she said, “he could pretty much protect the viewer from what (was) actually happening.” To him, however, his paintings were clear. “I don’t understand why they can’t guess at all the distress here, right in front of them, as it was during the war.”
He died in 1977 and is buried at Ranville Cemetery in Normandy alongside several of his countrymen who were killed in action on that Longest Day.
Right now through October 20, there’s an exhibit of his art up at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It’s entitled “In Memory of What I Cannot Say,” and includes powerful works ranging from tumultuous abstractions to revealing self-portraits. It’s a wonderful way to commemorate those who fought in the war and to understand in a vivid way the price of valor. It’s not to be missed.