David Milne: Modern Painting enthrals at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Art and auctions, Exhibitions, Paintings and Sculpture — By on February 17, 2018 at 11:30 PM

Red. 1914. By David Milne.

David Milne: Modern Painting enthrals at Dulwich Picture Gallery

By James Brewer

For his voyage into modernity, the painter David Milne was in good company, his work being shown at an early stage alongside that of Matisse, Braque, Monet and Van Gogh.

Since then, he has been too little acclaimed in most of the world, although he has a special place in the galleries of his native Canada.

Dulwich Picture Gallery in London has embarked on a sterling expedition to put that right, by mounting a display of more than 90 oil and watercolour works completed by the at-times reclusive but ever prolific Canadian artist.

Billboards. c 1912.

In the first major UK exhibition devoted to Milne (1882-1953) it is plain to see why he was as a young man held in great esteem, especially once the output of radical practitioners from Western Europe hit New York, where he was based for several years.

His bold but selective palette of modern colours responded to the dynamic canvases of his illustrious contemporaries from across the Atlantic, before refining a more acute mode of expression.

Dulwich tells the full story of this quiet man of art, making splendid use of the gallery team’s typical aplomb in display and its informative and unfussy wall texts.

Bringing representative art ever closer to abstraction, David Milne produced 6,000 paintings and prints in a career spanning 50 years, in Canada, the US, in the European post-Great War battlefields, and briefly in the UK.

Curator Ian Dejardin, whose specialities include intimate knowledge of Canadian art, says that Milne is one of the most distinctive 20thcentury artists. Milne is rightly revered in Canada as “one of the country’s greatest visual poets.”

Dulwich’s powerful poster.

Fellow curator Sarah Milroy, similarly a brilliantly articulate expert on Canadian output, says that Milne’s mindful and disciplined devotion to painting and printmaking led him to become a beloved model for generations of Canadians, and “an artist beyond nationality.”

For most of his days, Milne struggled to earn a crust (he had a couple of failed attempts to run tea-rooms with his wife), but he never struggled when paper and brushes were within reach. He was in Canada when the Depression struck, and at times he was almost starving to death, but he was an obsessive painter, especially of the woods, lakes and skies of north-eastern Canada, not to mention of domestic paraphernalia.

Sarah Milroy.

David Milne: Modern Painting takes us step by eye-opening step through the splendid cascade of his art, which has a knack of reducing the familiar to its essentials. He makes of the mundane, objects of wonder, all the time experimenting.

Often working in solitude far from ‘civilisation,’ Milne developed an extraordinary panoply of landscapes. He makes it startlingly clear that in Canada, the harsh, raw, unknowable landscapes are unlike those of Europe, even in its most northern extremities.

The youngest of 10 children, Milne began his working life as a teacher in rural Ontario and decided to move to the US to become an illustrator; he described leaving home in 1903 to attend art school in New York as like “plunging into the sun.” This thrill with the Big Apple was to fade, and subsequently Milne sought the peace and solitude of a nature.

Ian Dejardin.

His initial aim in Manhattan was to gain commercial work, but the thriving vitality of the city with its many museums and galleries quickly turned his ambitions to fine art.  “He lands with both feet in the explosion of modernism,” says Sarah Milroy, noting that 1903 Monet’s Haystacks was among influential works being shown in New York.

Documenting the gaudy hoardings and busy sidewalks of the metropolis, Milne gained a reputation for his Post-Impressionist style, Billboards and Columbus Monument both from 1912 offering a record of the early history of commercial outdoor advertising.

At the apogee of international recognition, his work was exhibited alongside Matisse, Braque, Monet, Picasso, Gaugin and Van Gogh at the 1913 Armory Show that “shocked” the public. Dulwich shows us Fifth Avenue, Easter Sunday of 1912 which was included in that show. His work at the Armory was compared by one critic as equal in quality to that of Edvard Munch.

White the Waterfall. 1921.

The Armory Show, formally The International Exhibition of Modern Art, marked the dawn of avant-garde painting and sculpture in the US. Thousands of visitors crowded into temporary galleries in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue to see American and European art secured by a group of young artists. They gawped at Marcel Duchamp’s Cubist-inspired Nude Descending a Staircase and Blue Nude by Matisse, blockbusters which flew in the face of the classical output that Americans were used to.

In the spirit of those times, Milne was already fusing influences from Monet, Matisse and Cézanne into a fearless modernist language of his own. Then came his surprising turn away from urban life.

He moved with his wife, Patsy Hegarty, to Boston Corners, a village in New York State, where they pursued an austere existence. Single-mindedly devoted to painting, Milne continued to experiment in water colours with patterns and reflections of light as in Bishop’s Pond of 1916. With these studies, he begins paring back content and form.

Patsy served as a model for some of the paintings, but she is there for compositional purposes only. One wonders what she thought of that – although she must have accepted the role subservient to his artistic output, as for many years she sacrificed her wellbeing for him.

Tent in Temagami. 1929.

Mr Dejardin draws attention to the way he uses white. In the painting Red, we see white layered on so that it starkly attracts the eye. It is a dramatic painting, but one that is ‘boiled down’ in colour terms to red, brown, blue and ochre. So objective is he that he paints his then-fiancée Patsy, who is dressed in blue, with her head as a brown blob. What emerges is a flat pattern of red spiked in blue and green. The picture was painted at a vacation spot up the Hudson River as he began contemplating leaving city life for more quiet zones.

Red followed a year after Matisse’s The Red Studio of 1911 was seen at the Armory show. This  emphasis on white will be seen several times more – sometimes the white is created by leaving the paper bare.

From afar, Milne was following the course of the dreadful war and felt ready to serve. He enlisted in December 2017 in Toronto, although the armistice had been declared in November.  The conflict was formally over, but Milne was hired as an official war artist. Canada was among countries that had suffered grievous losses, and the war records office wanted to have documented the aftermath as was seen in the war-ravaged landscapes of northern France and Belgium.

Milne set about chronicling the desolate scene before him, stripping away direct narrative and refraining from editorialising.

David Milne at Six Mile Lake. Photo Douglas Duncan.

The pictorial results are stark, done in dry brush with limited colours, with the bleak use of white space bringing out the scenes of devastation and desolation. At no point is there any realism of colour, say the curators. He was fascinated by the capacity of humans for destruction, but it was a steep challenge for him psychologically.

He was fascinated by military camouflage and continued to explore the phenomenon in his paintings. He recorded the camps where Canadian troops had been based before being sent to the trenches. There is a picture of Ripon High Street which recalls his New York years in that it features bright, but in this case unrealistic, colours, with soldiers filling the road and in the background their row of tents.

The harrowing scenes he encountered during his months as an official war artist carried over into a painting style with subjects shown in simple outlines, splintered into shattered brushstrokes and areas of startling blankness. This is seen in Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge of 1919, one of his most best- known war paintings.  The crater was gouged out by 24 tonnes of explosives detonated by Allied forces underground behind German lines.

His periods of solitude deepened his explorations of the natural world and his place within it. He took to the notions of simple living advocated by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and spent the winter of 1920-21 alone on Alander Mountain, overlooking Boston Corners. He built himself a cabin in the style of the military Nissen huts he had seen in Europe and created a series of remarkable paintings including White, the Waterfall (1921) where all that is inessential has been bleached away.  This he considered one of his most important accomplishments,

Bishop’s Pond (Reflections). 1916.

In 1929, he moved to the northern Ontario mining town of Temagami. That settlement is 50 km south of the town of Cobalt, which has boomed again in the last couple of years as the focus of mineral exploitation for the latest battery technologies.

At Temagami, he studied the abandoned, flooded mineshafts in the woods nearby. Disused pits are far from conventionally beautiful, but Milne revelled in them as subject matter for a series, and the results came close to stark abstraction. Sarah Milroy likens them to inky galleries of the underworld.

The exhibition concludes with a series of elemental still-life studies and sky paintings made during six years at remote Six Mile Lake, near Georgian Bay. Again, he built himself a cabin for a solitary stay, and there his creativity was catholic, painting whatever was to hand: picked flowers, paper bags, a jar of raspberry jam. Such objects carry no meaning but become visually entrancing, a focus for meditation. Colour ranges such as burnt orange and grey with black outlines suffice. Sunsets, lightning, clouds, seize his attention. Highlights include a series of horizon pictures which represent his final surge of modernist work including Summer Colours, 1936.

In the 1930s, he for the first time enjoyed sustained contact with like-minded artists, curators and critics in Ottawa and Toronto, with whom he corresponded, and in 1934 gained deserved recognition as he began showing commercially in Toronto.

David Milne: Modern Painting follows Dulwich’s Painting Canada show in 2011, which featured work by Milne’s Canadian contemporaries Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, and in 2014 From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia. Sarah Milroy says that Emily Carr is arguably the most kindred Canadian artist to Milne.

Although he admired the work of Tom Thomson, Milne had little interest in the nationalistic approach of the Group of Seven who vividly depicted landscapes of the Canadian Shield. The Group of Seven, landscape painters who took their cue from European impressionism, originally consisted of Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, AY Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, JEH MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. Thomson (who died in a canoeing incident 1917) and Carr were closely associated with the Group of Seven.

Milne’s choice of an austere and simple life of seclusion enabled extreme concentration, says Sarah Milroy.  In the quiet of the woods he could discover the most unlikely beauty: even a tree stump outside his cabin door. She praises “the integrity of pursuing your own path with diligence and rigour,” saying that the artist had a highly-informed independence of mind, independence from nationality, dogma and ideology, the fashions of his time and the theories of art history.

His experiments with different media and changing viewpoints showed his commitment to the process of painting. “In Canada, the name David Milne evokes complete devotion to the task of making art, and a firm and unshakeable independent spirit willing to risk all in the quest to be the best artist he can be. At the same time, Milne is beloved for his ability to capture landscape in ways that are often uncanny in their inventiveness, each painting an absorbing world of its own. This is a modern artist for the ages, and one of Canada’s best kept secrets,” said Ms Milroy.

Ian Dejardin said that Milne “is an artist’s artist and unmistakeable whether painting flour bags or landscapes. In some ways he is the most cerebral of the Canadian artists.”

Asked who might be considered to have picked up the legacy of Milne, Mr Dejardin suggested Montreal-born Paterson Ewen, who died in 2002 aged 76. Ewen’s expressionistic paintings of the 1970s and 1980s attracted widespread interest, and in 1971 he began painting on plywood sheets instead of on canvas and using hand tools to gouge out images of meteorological and cosmological phenomena.

Jennifer Scott, the Sackler director of Dulwich Picture Gallery, said of Milne: “His paintings dazzle with light and colour and with an expressive intensity that reminds me of [British surrealist painter and war artist, 1889-1946] Paul Nash and anticipates the work of [the contemporary British painter] Peter Doig – it will be a revelation to many.” Ms Scott added that the exhibition was made possible by sponsorship from BMO Financial Group.

Sarah Milroy is a journalist and curator based in Toronto, and Ian Dejardin has been since 2017 executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. He was for 12 years Sackler director of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Captions in detail:

Red. 1914. Milne Family Collection. Photo Michael Cullen, Toronto. © The Estate of David Milne.

Billboards.  c 1912. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of Douglas M Duncan, Toronto, 1962. Photo NGC. © The Estate of David Milne.

White the Waterfall. 1921. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo NGC. © The Estate of David Milne.

Tent in Temagami. 1929. Collection of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario. Bequest from the Douglas M Duncan Collection, 1970. © The Estate of David Milne.

Bishop’s Pond (Reflections). 1916. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo NGC. © The Estate of David Milne.

David Milne: Modern Painting is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until May 7, 2018. It is organised by Dulwich Picture Gallery and the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art in collaboration with Vancouver Art Gallery, with the support of the National Gallery of Canada.

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