The emotional and physical stress endured by soldiers on the battlefield is often hard for combat veterans to process once they return home. A new exhibit at The National WWII Museum features the artwork of painter and French commando Guy de Montlaur, offering a glimpse into the artist’s personal battles during the war and how he coped with the aftermath of combat fatigue.
"In Memory of What I Cannot Say: The Art of Guy de Montlaur" opens March 28, and features a mixed media installation anchored by roughly two dozen paintings of the late artist’s work.
Arranged in chronological sequence, the artworks trace Montlaur’s trajectory throughout the years, from immediately prior to and after the war to his later years, shortly before he passed away in 1977 at the age of 58.
A resistance fighter in the French army, Montlaur fought against the Nazis on several battlegrounds, including the outset of World War II and the Battle of Normandy and later in Sword Beach with the Free French Commandos. In November 1944, during the amphibious invasion of the German-fortified Dutch island of Walcheren, Montlaur suffered shrapnel wounds to his face during an attack that killed several of his comrades, eventually bringing an end to his wartime service.
In the years that followed, Montlaur suffered from physical ailments like headaches and sinus pain, but his paintings provide a closer look into the deep emotional trauma he endured.
For Montlaur’s daughter, Dauphine Sloan, a senior professor at Tulane University, the paintings have become a way for her to not only remember her father but for her husband and children to know him.
“I’ve lived with those paintings all my life, so they’re part of me,” said Sloan. "For me, these paintings are him — his personality.”
Though the artworks point to the harrowing experience of combat, Sloan said her father rarely, if ever, spoke about the war with her.
“It was just better for him to express it in painting, rather than in conversations,” she said. “And the abstract painting helped him because he could pretty much protect the viewer from what (was) actually happening.”
The abstract and bold nature of the images are indicative of several styles that influenced Montlaur’s paintings, from the cubist-inspired images he painted in the years immediately after the war to the abstract expressionism visible in his later work.
Supplementing the paintings are guns, pistols and hand grenades, a naval uniform of Montlaur’s dating to the 1960s, and profiles of men who served with him accompanied by archival war photographs and text panels. Punctuating the exhibit is a video wall displaying segments of John Huston’s 1946 documentary “Let There Be Light,” which shows a string of interviews with WWII veterans suffering from issues like stress, anxiety — even amnesia — after they returned home from the war.
Larry Decuers, the exhibit’s curator, said including the film provides background on the damage that combat can wreak on the human psyche.
“The film itself gives you a visual of combat fatigue and the effects of it. Those were guys who were so damaged on the battlefield that they couldn’t even be rehabilitated … to be brought back into the fights.”
Throughout the paintings one can almost trace Montlaur’s experience with the trauma induced by war, including a few works he painted following a traffic accident in 1966, which triggered some of his wartime memories.
“I think there’s a real change in the work — it looks much more chaotic,” Decuers said of those paintings. “But towards the end of his life it seems like it softens again,” he said, referring to the last painting in the collection, which shows a colorful bird of paradise that visited Montlaur’s studio window in Paris during the final year of his life.
“You would like to think that he had it all sorted out by the end.”
Montlaur’s paintings are part of several special exhibits and events in an ongoing commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day at the museum. "In Memory of What I Cannot Say" will be on display through Oct. 20 in the Joe W. and Dorothy D. Brown Foundation Special Exhibit Gallery in the Louisiana Memorial Pavillion. An opening reception will be held on Thursday, March 28, at 5 p.m.