May 29, 2018
An artist recalls his work at D-Day and beyond
By the time painter Manuel Bromberg graduated from the Cleveland School of Art in 1937, he was already on his way to a truly memorable career. He worked briefly as an animator for Walt Disney, was selected by the federal government to paint murals in several post offices, and as a member of the U.S. Army was selected, in 1943, to be an official war artist. Six days after the allied invasion of Normandy, Bromberg landed on Omaha beach, where he sketched, photographed and made paintings of the war.
After the war, he continued to paint and to teach art, notably at the State University of New York in New Paltz, and eventually began to work more abstractly, making casts of cliff facings. He and his wife Jane had two daughters, Susan and Tina, and eventually settled in Woodstock, New York, where Bromberg—now 101—still lives and makes art.
In February 2018, Bromberg answered a few questions about his remarkable life and art.
What did you think you’d be doing as an artist when you were in college?
I thought I was going to be a portrait painter. In those days, there were only a few things you could be. Either you were going to be an illustrator, a portrait painter, or a craftsman, all of which were subjects they taught and emphasized at CIA.
How did you come to be selected as a Works Progress Administration mural artist?
At 20 years old, I was the youngest artist in the WPA Easel Program to be awarded a mural design. It was for a Dallas, Texas post office. And it was on the basis of that mural design for Dallas that the Section of Fine Arts—a capitalistic competitive program—awarded me a mural commission for the Tahlequah, Oklahoma Post Office (1938). This was to be the first of three juried commissions I won. The other two were the Greybull, Wyoming Post Office and Geneva, Illinois Post Office.
The Section of Fine Arts’ main function was to select high-quality art to decorate public buildings in the form of murals; it was not a relief program, but awarded commissions competitively based on artistic talent. While studying at Broadmoor Academy, I won the 48-state mural competition in 1938, which ended up being the mural I made for Greybull, Wyoming Post Office; it’s still there.
What were the pressures of being an Official War Artist?
You had to represent your country artistically and socially. At the same time, you had to decide what you were going to do stylistically in your work, how you would create the subject matter, etc.
Leading up to landing on Omaha Beach, I sketched in my hip-pocket sketchbook and photographed daily civilian life, scenes of London during the blitz, the efforts of the Army Air Force at various fighter fields, the Port of Hull, and the large forays of B-17s into France and Germany. I would do drawings (hip-pocket sketchbook) in the field and/or photograph whatever pertained to that particular assignment. Back at ETO headquarters in London or Paris, usually in a tiny space that served as a studio, I would also work on paintings.
How were you regarded by the combat troops?
Since I was a technical sergeant, I was thought of as just another GI who happened to have special skills as an artist. Nobody asked questions. Nobody cared. They were too busy being soldiers and fighting a war.
For the pre-invasion, I was attached to the 116th Regiment, 29th Division, and sent on a secret, full dress rehearsal for D-Day Omaha Beach known as “Exercise Fox,” held in Slapton Sands, England, where I was part of the live action along with documenting the event through sketches and photographs. I did everything the soldiers did. I carried ammunition. I climbed over the side of the landing boats into the water and on to land where we set up positions. And I sketched and photographed every moment of the entire top-secret event.
Beginning at Omaha Beach, I spent a 30-day stint covering the invasion with the 1st Army and points outwardly around Normandy.
And, I covered VE Day in Paris. I was decorated with a Citation for the Legion of Merit for my outstanding service in carrying out my overseas assignment. In all, I produced over 100 paintings and sketches and over 400 photographs.
In October of 1945, as master sergeant, I was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army.
What influenced the shift in your work from representational to abstract?
Being out of this country and being in Europe during the war, where the European artists were way ahead of us. In Europe, the artists were already dealing in the abstract. Besides, I was starting to see the meaninglessness of social realism. You had photography to take care of that.
What inspired the start of your cliff sculptures?
It began with my work in the 1950s when I created a 10-foot by 40-foot plaster abstract mural for the new Student Union of North Carolina State College (now University). That mural focused on strata and relief, and led to a closer observation and pursuit of making art from strata in nature. In 1967, while teaching painting at State University of New York at New Paltz, I won the distinguished fellowship, which provided the finances to fabricate my idea of replicating actual cliffs in nature.
How did you begin spending time with Georges Braque?
It was through Susanne Pannier. She was a student of Andre L’Hote and was working with the Red Cross as a French volunteer. Susanne introduced me to both Picasso and Braque.
After I first met Braque, I visited him several more times on my own. He and I would sit together, talk about the art of painting and he would show me his current work. He didn’t speak English; my French was minimal. And yet we managed to converse and enjoy each other’s company. I always brought him cigarettes as a present; he was a heavy smoker and cigarettes were like a currency and had value. Braque and I got along well. I remember there was always the smell of something cooking when you entered his house. His wife was a great cook.
What was the circumstance under which you met Picasso?I went to Picasso’s studio with the other two official war artists in the European Theater Operations, artists Olin Dows and Albert Gold. Dows was fluent in French, so he did all the talking. The artist Jean Cocteau and poet Paul Elluard were there, too.
Are you still making art?
Yes. Mostly drawings. Small works. And models for three-dimensional cliff sculptures.