An exhibit of original sketches from the D-Day invasion of Normandy, some drawn on the spot by a Newark-born American soldier, are now on display in a unique exhibit at Gaelen Gallery West on the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
The battlefield art — accompanied by abstract works also created by the late Ugo Giannini — are on loan to the Holocaust Council of MetroWest from his widow, Maxine Yellin Giannini, who lives in West Orange.
Along with the 27 sketches on display are a number of abstract pastel drawings that Giannini created.
As she walked proudly and wistfully through the exhibit of her late husband’s artwork on Feb. 12, Yellin Giannini explained that he was in one of the first waves of American troops to land on Omaha Beach in June 1944.
“He took a tablet of paper and some crayons and water colors, and he would draw whenever he could,” she said. “When he got to the beach that morning it was a disaster. In the first 10 minutes, out of 37 men in his platoon, six were left. He took shelter in a bomb crater and sketched the only known contemporaneous sketches of the invasion.”
The drawings on display include a self-portrait of the artist in a bomb crater, seeking shelter from Nazi bombardment, and a depiction of American soldiers rounding up German prisoners of war.
Years later, using pastels, Giannini would recreate those memories as abstract drawings. One, Requiem for the Fallen, represents the blood of Omaha Beach, with a nail forming the symbol of crucifixion driven into one of the obstacles on the sand. The artist saw war “as a crucifixion of man,” said Yellin Giannini.
Although he was born Catholic and she was born Jewish, Yellin Giannini said, “we were soul mates. We were both spiritual, but not religious. But he was still haunted by the image of the cross, and architecturally, visually, the shape was fascinating to him and represented the cruelty, the evil, in the heart of man. That broke his heart,” she said.
Between the exhibit’s official opening on Feb. 14 and its close on March 5, the artwork will stand as stark representation of the close link between the Allied victory in World War II and the end of the Nazi Holocaust.
“The Holocaust was a war within the framework of the Second World War,” explained council director Barbara Wind, and the one war where Hitler actually succeeded. “Without the Americans and the Brits coming in, the war could easily have turned the other way, and the Jews remaining in Europe would have been totally annihilated.”
Giannini was among the many American GIs who spoke very little in the years following the war about the horrors they had witnessed. “They tried to forget about it,” said Yellin Giannini. “Almost to a man they were silent about the war.”
She had seen some of her husband’s artwork over the years, she said, but did not grasp its meaning.
In the early ’90s, when Giannini was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, he told his wife that when he died, she should wait six months before going into his studio. “He said it would be too upsetting for me,” she said.
He died in January of 1993 at age 74, and she obeyed his wishes. When she did enter his workspace in June of that year, she discovered a treasure trove of his art, much of it representing the nightmare images born of the combat he had seen decades earlier.
The last of his works she found was “H-Hour,” which, she said, “completely stunned me. It is totally symbolic and represents the obstacles on the beach that the American forces had to overcome.”
The artist’s widow said the works on display on the Aidekman campus are the crowning achievements of a man considered a “child prodigy.” He studied at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts before the outbreak of World War II, when he was drafted to serve in the Military Police.
Following the war, Giannini went to Paris to study under the GI Bill with famed Cubist painter Fernand Léger. A year later he returned to the United States, began teaching art at Caldwell College, and married Maxine Yellin in 1955.
Her discovery of his hidden treasures has turned Giannini’s widow — a music teacher and classical pianist — into what she calls an “accidental historian” who is now well-versed in the battles of World War II.
“I think I was fated to find these works and bring them forward because they are profound works of an artist and meant to be seen. Without D-Day and men like Ugo, things would still be pretty terrible in Europe,” she said.
The exhibition is made possible through the generosity of the Darivoff Family Foundation.