World War II

"Night Target, Germany" Miller Brittain

Painting Source: http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/artwar/artworks/19710261-1436_night-target_e.shtml

1) What aspect of war, or event, does this piece of art depict?

This piece depicts the scene of an aviation battle from the perspective of a British pilot. The fighting in the air is reminiscent of a firework show, but of course the reality of the situation is much darker. During WWII Britain, and later the United States, began a bombing campaign against Germany in retaliation for the bombings of London and its surrounding areas. The goal of the raids was to effectively de-house one third of the German population and break their morale. But much like German air raids over Britain, this allied bombing offense only rallied the Germans and made them fight back harder. They used a complex spotlight system, AA guns, and faster fighter planes to take out the slower bombers. In attempting to achieve this goal the allies bombed many German towns and killed about five hundred thousand German civilians. 3500 Canadian soldiers also died in the air war. This raised profound ethical questions. Many criticized it claiming it did not slow German industry at all. Many of the pilots, like the artist of “Night target, Germany” Miller Brittain, did not even know what they were bombing until after the fact. Keeping this in mind we can kind of see this painting as a metaphor. The romanticized war in the air is all colours and flashing lights for the greater good. Meanwhile, on the ground out of view we see what could be a civilian center engulfed in smoke.[1]

2) Who created this piece of art?

The artist who created “Night Target, Germany” was Miller Brittain. Brittain was born in Saint John, New Brunswick on November 12th, 1912. He began studying art at age 11 in Saint John with E.R. Holt and then he moved onto the big city of New York where he studied under Henry Wickey. He was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force where he flew thirty-seven missions as an air bomber before he accepted the position as the official war artist during the Second World War. Before he served in the war, his main focuses on paintings were scenes of everyday life and realistic city settings, but after the war he took a turn and focused on surreal aspects. He painted abstract figures, nudes and flowers, to name a few. Brittain was also a founding member of the Federation of Canadian Artists, which was created in 1941, during World War II. In 1951, Brittain married Connie Starr, but she passed away 7 years later due to cancer. Brittain then suffered from alcoholism and died 10 years later in 1968 at the age of 54. His collections are held in a number of galleries across Canada, such as the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Canadian War Museum and the National Gallery of Canada.

3) Where was this piece of art created?

Miller Brittain conceived this painting while serving as a bomb aimer in World War II. He had put his art career on hold in 1942 to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force, eventually seeing active duty in the final years of the war in Europe. From 1944 to 1945, Brittain participated in the bombing raids over the Ruhr industrial region of Germany. He was profoundly affected by these experiences and used his artwork to express his emotions. Night Target, Germany is thus a first-person account of warfare in the night sky. The painting is from the perspective of a bomb aimer in the heat of battle. Smart holds that Brittain’s portrait “puts the viewer in his own place, witnessing a bombing mission from the aimer’s seat.” Given the artists’ personal involvement in aerial warfare during the Second World War, it clear where his inspiration for Night Target, Germany originated. It was completed after the war in 1946, when Brittain was working as an official war artist for the Canadian War Records.

4) For what purpose was this art created?

Bomb aimer Brittain wrote to his parents in 1944: “The night attacks although they are deadly are very beautiful from our point of view. The target is like an enormous lighted Christmas tree twenty miles away but straight beneath one looks like pictures I have seen of the mouth of hell.” In a 1946 letter to his parents he assessed this painting critically: “My target picture looks like the real thing they say, but I don’t like it yet as a picture. In fact at the moment, I feel like putting my foot though it.” With this being said, it was created to depict his time and experiences during the Second World War. It was as if he wanted people to live through what he did through his art. This art was a way for him to deal with the traumatic events we witnessed, and he was able to express relieve his stress though his artwork.

5) What does this piece of art tell us about the experiences of war?

This painting in its mass of bright criss-crossing lights and the many indistinct planes that look like black shadows in the sky suggests that the war experience was chaotic and dangerous; however, the mix of colours used also implies an element of beauty.  This notion is reinforced with the artist’s comment, “the night attacks although they are deadly are very beautiful from our point of view.  Both the painting and the artist’s comment expresses an element of disconnect between soldiers and what they were required to do in the line of duty.  This disconnect is also evident in the following description of conditions in the trenches: “Sleep-deprived and in a chronic state of shock, most troops fought in a numb, zombie-like state.”[2]  Furthermore, this painting informs us that Canadians had an important role in overseas warfare.  This painting depicts bomber planes and Canadian pilots were recognized for their missions in bomber planes as opposed to fighter planes.[3]  Although most Canadian pilots joined British units Canada sent 43 squadrons overseas throughout the course of the war. [4]

6) How accurate is this depiction of war?

I would have to suggest that this depiction of war is very accurate because of the fact that it was painted from the memory of a Canadian soldier in the Royal Canadian Air Force who experienced on of these night battles first hand. We cannot assume that the piece of art is 100 percent accurate because of the bias spin the artist could have put onto the painting on order to increase the viewing appeal.

7) How does your piece of art further our understanding of Canadian history?

This painting gives us an understanding of Canada’s contribution to air warfare during World War II.  At the outbreak of World War II, the RCAF consisted of 4,061 men.  The painting depicts bombers targeting Germany which is significant as Canadian pilots became known for their work in bomber planes.  Furthermore, air warfare is one of the ways in which Canadians gained recognition by their allies as they were viewed to have a natural talent in that area of warfare.  This aids in understanding why the British Commonwealth Air Training plan emerged which entailed Canadians training British pilots.  The BCATP is another example of Britain’s disinterest in Canada forming their own independent units, although Canada did eventually send several of its own overseas.  Canada’s air contribution was also significant at a political level as Prime Minister Mackenzie King used it to his advantage to temporarily avoid the issue of conscription.  In addition, this painting depicts a tendency by some to romanticize the idea of war.  The element of beauty in the painting is recognized by the artist himself, when he comments on the contradiction between the beauty created by the lights from the pilots’ perspectives as compared to the destruction created below.  In conclusion, the painting explains the role that air warfare played in World War II as well as Canada’s strengths in this area of warfare

Sources

Bumsted, J.M. The Peoples of Canada: A Post-Confederation History. 4th ed. ON: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Canadian War Museum . http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/artwar/artworks/19710261-1436_night-target_e.shtml (accessed March 16, 2014

“Gallery 78: Fine Art” last modified March 19th, 2014. http://www.gallery78.com/gallery.htm.

Smart, Tom. Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2007.

http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/artwar/artworks/19710261-1436_night-target_e.shtml


[1] Doerr, Paul. “The Air War.” Lecture, World War Two, Acadia University, March 17th, 2014.

[2] J.M, Bumsted, The Peoples of Canada: A Post-Confederation History. 4th ed. (Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2014), 204.

[3] Ibid, 293.

[4]Ibid, 293.

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Posted on March 20, 2014, in Uncategorized, War Art: WWII. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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