World War II: The Hitler Line (1944), by Charles Comfort.
In order to better understand the Canadian war effort over the course of the World War II (1939-45), our class has been tasked with studying war art of the period and presenting information on the source, the topic of the painting, its purpose, and its historical relevance. These are the answers we, as a group, proposed through the study of the painting The Hitler Line (1944) by Charles Comfort.
Collective response for both pieces of war art: Both of these pieces further our understanding of Canadian history because they show us how effective the Canadian forces were during this time. We implemented new tactics like the use of armored tanks. These tactics were able to conquer difficult defenses like the “Sugar Factory” and the village of Courcelette. Not only were they able to capture these locations, but they were able to hold off all German attacks, and counter-attacks. This showed the world that Canada was a force to be reckoned with and deserved the respect that they fought for.
Question #1: What aspect of war, or event, does this piece of art depict?
As Charles Comfort’s 1944 title suggests, this painting depicts what is know as “The Hitler Line”. The Hitler Line was a German defensive line in central Italy during the Second World War. The two major strong points of the line were found at Aquino and Piedimonte. This line was used as a fallback for the German’s Gustav line, which was situated a couple of kilometers south.
The Allies had broken the Gustav line on their way to the Italian capital of Rome. Their next objective was the Hitler line. It was on May 23, 1944 that soldiers from Canada’s Van Doos, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, Seaforth Highlanders, and Carleton and York regiments successfully attacked the Hitler line. It was the hardest part of the line to conquer, as it was a barricade of steel, concrete and barbed wire 20 feet thick. Following the penetration of the line, tanks from the Canadian Fifth Armoured Division were able to drive through and attack the awaiting German Panther tanks. The Hitler line had then officially fallen.
This painting gives insight to the total destruction with which the Canadians were faced as the fought through the Hitler line. Luckily, the destruction of the Hitler Line was followed by two weeks of rest for the Canadians.
Question #2: Who created this piece of art?
Charles F Comfort, the painter of The Hitler Line, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1900. In 1919, he moved to Canada where he acquired a Canadian citizenship as well. Throughout his life, he was an artist, painter, teacher, muralist, writer, poet, photographer, and art gallery director. (“Charles F. Comfort”)
Comfort also served in the war, beginning as a rifle instructor for the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps in 1939. Next, he became a lieutenant in the Canadian Active Service Force to serve as an official war artist from 1943 to 1946. Some of the most popular Canadian paintings of the Second World War were made by Comfort (“Charles Comfort, 1900-1994”). These include The Hitler Line, a dramatic subject based on the artist’s experiences in the Italian campaign, which hangs permanently in the Canadian War Museum (“Charles Comfort, 1900-1994”).
After the war, Charles Comfort played a significant role in Canada’s War Art program and in the establishment of the Canada Council for the Arts. He was an avid supporter of the War Art program after Canada had successfully formed such a program during WW1(“Charles F. Comfort”). From 1960 to 1965 Comfort served as the director of the National Gallery of Canada. He played a key role in insuring that there were enough funds available for the proper storage and care of the War Art collections. Charles Comfort later passed away in Ottawa in 1994.
Question #3: Where was this piece of art created?
The piece of art titled “The Hitler Line” by Charles Comfort in 1944 was created in Italy where the Allied troops, including the Canadians were trying to break through into Rome. The Germans had a line of defense across Italy which they named The Hitler Line. When the Allies landed, among them were three Canadian divisions which took part in the invasion; The Canadian 1stt Division, The 5th British Division, and The 1st Canadian Arm Tank Brigade. Italy provided difficult terrain for the Allies. The Canadians had to overcome broken up roads, mud, and mountains, which gave the enemy an advantage. They also had to watch out for land mines. Despite the difficult and dangerous conditions the Canadian divisions still managed to advance in land. The Canadians fought in
the Liri Valley in 1944 where they were ordered to apply pressure to the German line of defense. The attack on the Hitler Line occurred on May.23rd, 1944. It was a difficult battle for both sides, but the Canadians advanced ending most of the Liri Valley conflict. The purpose of the Hitler Line was to prevent the Allies from entering Rome. Rome was vital for the Germans and they did not want to lose control over it. The Hitler Line eventually collapsed after continuous fighting from both sides. Rome was then seized by the
Americans. The breakthrough of the Hitler Line was crucial for the Allies since D-Day occurred not long after. The D-Day landings made having control of Italy even more important because the Allies needed to keep the German army under control to ensure their success.
Question #4: For what purpose was this art created?
As warfare erupted on the global scene for the second time in the span of less than a generation, wartime artists once more found themselves in a situation where they would be deployed to the front lines, using their talents to capture what a camera lens simply could not, despite important technological advancements.
Much like the First World War artwork that we have already considered, Comfort sought to encapsulate the Canadian war front experience. This painting, titled The Hitler Line, captures Canadian soldiers fighting in Italy. What is absolutely captivating about this painting is not solely the content, but also the manner through which it is presented; the soldiers are weary, the war is damaging and the wreckage is immense. Comfort obviously sought, in this work of art, to summarize the war effort, as he so often did in his other paintings. The harshness of war was not glossed over. The fumes from the detonations, the ragged dirty uniforms, the tired looks on the soldiers’ faces, the broken and desolate landscape completely torn apart by new forms of artillery and war machines. There are numerous elements to this painting that speak true of the Canadian military experience during the Second World War. Comfort, in short, demonstrates the true purpose of war art: it captures, through the artists’ gaze, what a camera simply cannot. There is raw emotion in the painting that will go unnoticed in photography, especially the photography of the mid twentieth century. War artists navigated through the war in an incredibly personal way and put to canvas not only their unique perspective, but also the human outlook on the devastation and wreckage brought on by unparalleled warfare.
Question #5: What does this piece of art tell us about the experience of war?
The painting “The Hitler Line” by Charles Comfort depicts a scene from battle on the Hitler Line during the Second World War where a large gun exploded from a hit to its magazine. The painting also depicts soldiers standing with guns in front of a background filled with smoke and darkness from gunfire, setting an ominous tone that surely was felt amidst the battle as well.
In the foreground of the painting is a piece of splintered wood, setting the perspective as being the first person perspective of a soldier. This makes the painting seem more personal, since the scene is portrayed from the eyes of a soldier. It makes the image more real, as if the viewer themselves was a soldier witnessing the scene first hand, which also makes the scene that much more powerful. It is easy, through use of this perspective, to imagine seeing this scene of men in arms with smoke and debris, let alone a large exploding gun, giving the impression of an experience filled with loud noise, smoke, and explosions, which must have been quite traumatic.
The moment Comfort decided to depict in his painting says a lot about the experience of war as well, and Comfort says in his own words that the large gun sticking up from the ground from its explosion was “like a gigantic pylon memorializing the disasters of war.” Even amongst the duration of battle, Comfort was able to see the poetic side to things, and his depiction of this moment in its own way memorializes the disasters of war, mirroring the memorialisation factor to the large gun.
Question #6: How accurate is this depiction of war?
This painting could almost be said to be a picture of how the battle actually looked like in this time. It was very accurate by showing the death and suffering the troops had to endure throughout the war. It shows no actual plant life save for the dead or dying trees in the battle. Explosions and troops advancement are shown. Men helping other fellow comrades are shown caring or helping wounded soldiers. A tank is also shown looking stuck, and that is pretty accurate because back when tanks were first used they got damaged or stuck easily and were not able to function anymore. It is also pretty accurate the bi-planes that were used in battle against other enemy planes or scouting enemy lines.
Sources used by the group:
Website for painting: http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/artwar/artworks/19710261-2203_hilter-line_e.shtml
Canadian War Museum. “The Hitler Line.” Canadian Museum of History. Accessed 19 March, 2014. http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.warmuseum.ca%2 Fcwm%2Fexhibitions%2Fartwar%2Fartworks%2F19710261-2203_hilter- line_e.shtml&h=9AQE9YnqZ
Stursberg, Peter. “The Italian Campaign: Breaking the Hitler Line” Recorded May 23, 1944. CBC Radio News. CBC Digital Archives. Radio. http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/war-conflict/second-world-war/the-italian-campaign/breaking-the-hitler-line.html.
National Gallery of Canada, “Charles F. Comfort .” Accessed March 18, 2014. https://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artist.php?iartistid=1093.
Canadian War Museum , “Charles Comfort, 1900-1994.” Accessed March 18, 2014. http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/artists/comfort1eng.shtml.
“Veterans Affairs Canada” Canada-Italy 1943-1945. Minister of Supply and Service Canada. March.6th, 2014. Date accessed: March.20th, 2014 http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/second-world-war/canada-Italy-1943-to-1945
“Why do we need oil painters in a war zone?” BBC News. Accessed March 19th, 2014. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8604570.stm
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