From the Memorial’s first day of operation, the figurative sculpture that enlivens the assault tableau in Elmon T. Gray Plaza has been one of its most compelling features. The work of Kansas artist Jim Brothers, those figures are central to the sculptural program’s first stage; so is the work of Matt Kirby, another Kansan, who sculpted the hedgehogs (i.e. the obstacles in the assault tableau) and the inverted M1 Garand Rifle emplaced on Robey W. Estes Plaza.
Le Monument aux Morts, is a recasting of sculptor Edmond de Laheudrie’s original in situ outside the Church of St. Aignan at Trévières, France. The first casting was dedicated on 16 May 1921 in memory of the forty-four men of Trévières who died in World War I. The figure, a conventionally draped Nike (or Victory), also wears the utility belt and helmet of a Poilu, the French counterpart of the American Doughboy of the First World War. This Nike is thematically linked to the Romanesque church’s celebratory tympanum sculpture, which Laheudrie executed in 1903. It portrays St. Aignan (St. Anianus), the bishop who in 451 defended Orleans against Attila the Hun, and St. Exupère (St. Exuperius), a fourth-century Bishop of nearby Bayeux in attitudes of thanksgiving before Christ. The two sculptures celebrate a successful defense of French soil against “the Hun.”
A bittersweet reminder of both France’s victory in the Great War and the blood spilled to secure it, Le Monument aux Morts stood for scarcely two decades before finding itself surrounded by a new generation of invaders. Shortly after the Allies came ashore on D-Day, Germany’s 915th and 916th Infantry Regiments, 517th Mobile Battalion, and the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 352nd Division established heavily fortified positions in and around Trévières. On 9 June, the 9th and 38th Infantry Regiments and the 38th Artillery Battalion of the US 2nd Infantry Division assaulted the village, which for the two preceding days had been under fire from the 14-inch guns of the USS Texas.
The bell tower of St. Aignan sustained major damage on 8 June, probably a result of the naval gunfire. Perhaps Laheudrie’s sculpture took damage at the same time, or it may well have been damaged during the ground attack on Trévières, during which, for example, the 38th Artillery Battalion expended more that 3,600 rounds. German counter fire also may have been a factor. Whatever its source, shrapnel or a round struck the head of the figure and removed its face below the upper lip along with most of its throat.
Preserved as transformed by battle, Le Monument aux Morts, at both Trévières and the National D-Day Memorial, is a spectral testament to the destructiveness of war, evanescence of victory, and fragility of peace. Literally a part of the D-Day story the sculpture in stage one has been commissioned to tell, it is emplaced on Edward R. Stettinius Parade.
In the fall of 2008, sculptor Jim Brothers retrieved Across the Beach, the last of the Memorial’s stage-one sculpture, from the foundry. A multilayered articulation of contradictory human impulses, this dramatic piece contraposes a corpsman mid stride, face forward but turning his body away from the advancing comrade beside him. The corpsman’s lower body seems to have made a quarter turn even before he could move his head off the inland axis to look for the soldier making the voiceless cry that has arrested him: “Medic!”
The evident contrapposto in this work is less pronounced than the flamboyant postures of Jim Brothers’ Scaling the Wall, whose inspiration was the 2nd Ranger Battalion’s historic assault on Pointe du Hoc. Whether by accident or design, the contrapposto of Scaling the Wall encourages comparisons with the Hellenistic treatment of Laocoön and his sons in torment (both are shown below). Their respective backdrops, D-Day and the Trojan War, demand treatments that are epic in scope, action, and character. That the contrapposto of Across the Beach is more restrained than that of either Scaling the Wall or Laocoön paradoxically magnifies the psychological tension at the core of the newer piece. For example, the physical contrapposto of Across the Beach reverberates in the sculptor’s deft juxtaposition of stage props that emphasize the contradictions at work in the mini-drama he depicts. Abandoned on the beach between the two figures is a Garand M1 rifle that belongs to neither.
That it does not encourage any number of obvious questions about the missing soldier. The advancing trooper carries a Browning Automatic Rifle (M1918A2 BAR) whose effective rate of fire is 550 rounds a minute, many times that of the M1 Rifle; the medic, of course, has no weapon. The presentation of such contrasts also invites a range of questions, and that speaks volumes about the sculptor’s control of his subject matter as well as his skill as an artist.
Underwritten by Mr. and Mrs. E. Claiborne Robins Jr., Across the Beach was set in the assualt tableau Veterans Day 2008. Across the Beach replaced the existing dual sculpture of the same name. The first Across the Beach was moved back to its original location (shown below left), which is the large planter on Estes Plaza, and allegorically renamed Valor, Fidelity, Sacrifice. These emplacements conclude the first stage of the sculptural program.
Sculptor Jim Brothers pauses at the assualt tableau after setting Across the Beach. Foundation photograph, October 2008.