David Milne escapes the woods

Blast sites and battlefields: the Milne Canada no longer sees goes to the Dulwich Gallery

In the late fall of 1918, David Milne found himself in London on soldier’s leave. What to do next? The Armistice had been declared just weeks before, but his training had ended too late for him to see active duty. Another opportunity, however, was soon to present itself; while walking in Mayfair he chanced upon a presentation of paintings commissioned by the Canadian War Records office, an initiative funded by the Anglo-Canadian tycoon Lord Beaverbrook. Anxious to join the effort as an artist, he pressed his case at the War Records office, asking to be sent over to France and Belgium to record the aftermath of the war, a commission that he eventually won after some wangling.

One of the hurdles in his way, however, was the need to quickly produce a body of his work for review. Milne thus asked his best friend, James Clarke, back in New York, to send a selection of his finest works on paper. Writing to Clarke on December 9, 1918, Milne said: “…if you feel like it, would you care to loan your ‘camouflage’ one of Mrs. C. and Patsy at B.C. [Boston Corners]…I think it might interest them. They have bought some pictures of camouflaged boats.”

Interestingly, Clarke did not follow Milne’s suggestion; the work in question, a watercolour titled Relaxation, was not included in Clarke’s selection—happily, as it turns out for us, as the whole sheaf of works was lost in London after Milne received his commission. (Today Relaxation resides at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario.) Looking at the work, one can understand Clarke’s reluctance to comply. A near abstraction in orange, green, and blue punctuated by jagged wedges of black, Relaxation is a traffic jam of lines and shapes. Its subject, two seated women in the landscape, is all but indecipherable to the eye. This is Milne at his most radical extreme, pushing at the edges of abstraction, his female figures sharply faceted and uningratiating.

Before the war, Milne had been included in the famous 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, most commonly known as the Armory Show, where he had been exhibited alongside the most daring American and European modernists of his day, including Picasso, Duchamp, Picabia, Bonnard, Vuillard, and Braque. Relaxation reveals an artist emboldened by that immersion. How revealing, then, that this, and not his more endearingly ebullient New York street scenes or his placid views of the reflecting pools and rolling hillsides he had made at Boston Corners, was the work he wanted sent to London.

It is this edgier side of Milne that my colleague Ian Dejardin and I will bring to light in London, England this winter, in our exhibition David Milne: Modern Painting, which opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery on February 14, the third in the gallery’s ongoing series of Canadian exhibitions initiated by Dejardin during his tenure as director there. We like to think Milne would be pleased; after all, this was the side of his art that he preferred, though it remains the lesser known. For in Canada, where his memory is cherished, David Milne has slipped into that most dangerous zone for an artist: he has become a national treasure. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Once beloved, an artist is at risk of never really being looked at objectively again, with the carapace of consensus building around the oeuvre, tightening as the decades pass. We place our art heroes on the shelf, allowing them only a light dusting every two decades or so, if they’re lucky.

When I first came to this project, I, too, had some cobwebs to sweep aside. For years, I had admired Milne as maker of elegant and subtle renderings of the natural world. Nobody, I thought, does tranquility like Milne. But the digging and delving turned up something much more complicated and interesting. Milne was a relentless innovator, test driving his pictorial innovations in sometimes relentless series of related works, several of which we have assembled for this exhibition. He was a loner, a ravenous autodidact, and a dry wit, with a work ethic that makes him seem, on reflection, a kind of painterly equivalent to Glenn Gould. His discipline and fierce self-scrutiny command respect, as does his drive to protect the sanctity of his inner life and his undistracted experience.

Milne was a Canadian artist of a particular internationalist sort. Like many artists today—one thinks of the Vancouver-based photo-conceptualist Jeff Wall and his relationship with the Düsseldorf school of photography, or earlier Canadians like Morrice or Borduas—Milne was in conversation with the most advanced ideas in art in his time, developing in sync with international trends. In Canada, we have tended to think of Milne as a kind of sidecar to the national narrative of the Group of Seven, whose reputations eclipsed those of all other artists of the early 20th century (and still threaten to do so). But though Milne was brought up in the small Ontario villages of Burgoyne and Paisley, he decamped at age 21 for his artistic training in New York, and did not come back to Canada to live permanently until 1929, having only the slenderest contact with fellow Canadian artists such as Carl Schaefer and Paraskeva Clark after his return.

Thus the 26 prime developmental years of his professional life took place in the United States, where he had access—particularly during his New York years, from 1903 to 1916—to all that was available in that crucible of modernism. An exhibitor in the great Armory Show of 1913, Milne was an inquisitive participant in the cultural life of the city, training at the Art Students League from 1903 to 1906 and later exhibiting at Montross Gallery alongside members of the Ashcan School (which he dismissed as the “Salvation Army in paint”—not for him the trend of social do-goodism in art). Stieglitz’s gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue was more up his alley; later in life he wrote to his Canadian patrons Alice and Vincent Massey that he had never missed a show there, and he was no doubt privy to the legendary proprietor’s impassioned rants on modern art.

Milne, it seems to me, should thus more properly be re-filed alongside his American contemporaries such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove. Like Milne, these artists began their lives in close proximity to nature, migrating to New York to fulfill their artistic ambitions. (All of them, too, were drawn to the flame of 291.) But all of them, like Milne, soon withdrew from urban life, putting their newfound cosmopolitan ideas to work in describing the landscape in bold new ways. Each would develop their own idiosyncratic signature style, in each case paring down the extraneous detail. Like Milne, these artists also drew deeply from the literature of Walt Whitman and the American transcendentalists. Milne’s many hermit-like recusals from urban modern life, for example, were inspired by the writings of Thoreau.

Europe, too, contributed importantly to Milne’s artistic DNA, as it did to that of his American contemporaries; it was a rich cross-pollination. Many Canadian art lovers would be surprised to know that Milne claimed Monet as his most important influence, so moved was he by the coherence and unity of the French master’s compositions. (He attended Monet’s first U.S. exhibition at Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York in 1903, an exhibition of Monet’s haystack paintings.) Monet haunts Milne’s oeuvre from that point forward: the French painter’s exquisite command of tonal control within each work, his interest in working in series, and his fascination with reflecting pools and waterlilies, which receive a rustic, frontier re-articulation in Milne’s art. In Temagami in 1929, for example, when Milne was living in a tent alone (he had just returned to Canada penniless after decades away), we find him ruminating on Monet’s pictorial themes, but in a new register all his own. Gathering wild lilies in the nearby swamps, he thrust them into jars and made still-life studies. At the same time he recorded the flooded blast sites made by mining prospectors in the woods, reveling in the noxious colours of the leaching minerals. “To the miner it may be a disappointment,” he wrote to a friend, “but to the painter in search of colour it is a find.” Pools and lilies have never looked grittier, recalling the cultivated landscapes of Europe even as they displace them.

Milne’s willingness to look at such sites of resource extraction shows a special prescience, also setting him apart from other landscape painters at that time. His horizonless prospect-shaft pictures, for example, thrust the viewer face down into the abyss, their rough textures and charred coloration evoking industrial apocalypse. Milne had shown an interest in the industrial landscape from the start of his career, painting quarries, abandoned factories, and flooded mines, first near New York and then further upstate. He was a passionate lover of nature, but he was also curious about our human incursions into it at this pivotal modern moment. Not for him the celebration of a “virgin” nature in the manner of the Group of Seven, whose nationalistic rants he parodied. Writing in 1930 to H.O. McCurry, then the assistant director of the National Gallery of Canada, he poked fun at the posturing of tweed-clad mountaineers like Lawren Harris or A.Y. Jackson. “I am going to be quite fashionable this summer—joining the mountain painters,” he wrote. “However, since the Rockies are getting so crowded, I am going to venture into the Toronto Range—which, as you no doubt know, runs from somewhere up Yonge Street in the direction of Hamilton.” Rather than be swept up in the rhetoric of art for a new nation, Milne cocked a critical eye at the art world around him, painting his pictures for his own self-scrutinizing audience of one.

The singularity of Milne’s war art will be another of the central revelations of our exhibition. Here again his approach set him apart from the herd. His sojourn of just three months in northern France and Belgium during the spring and summer of 1919 utterly transformed his sense of the modern world, and his way of making art. Viewing the shattered battlefields, which now lay silent in the eerie aftermath of war, he responded with a new formal acerbity, breaking up the visual field into a pixilation of flecks of colour suspended in a dynamic visual tension. The dispassionate tone of his observations—stripped of bombast, patriotism, or sentimentality—makes these works some of the most arresting documents of war made by an artist from this country or any other. (His letters from this period show the same curious detachment as he inventories the residue of the conflict, including the wreckage of towns, churches, and tanks, and the scattering of still-rotting human remains.) Milne’s experimentation with this stark minimalism would inform everything that came after, underpinning his descriptions of a silent, indifferent nature in his paintings still to come. Milne’s is a landscape bereft of allegory.

One thing becomes clear the longer you look at Milne’s art, or read his writings; here was a cultivated sensory keenness perhaps without parallel in the history of Canadian art. So attuned were Milne’s senses to the natural world that he could identify a tree out of sight on a hill behind him by the sounds of the wind in its leaves. Reading his description of his days and nights on Alander Mountain, near Boston Corners, in the winter of 1920-21, one senses his hermit’s ecstasy: “Usually there was no sound except for the fire in the stove, but sometimes I could hear the wind in the tops of the hemlocks or the snow or sleet against the windows and stovepipes.” He continued: “Nearly every night and always about the same time, seven o’clock, the owls started their strange crying and screeching in the trees over my head. I often went to the door to look for them but all I ever saw was the shadow moving without sound among the trees.” Another diary entry, written in blunt pencil on little slips of recycled paper left over from his New York days, records his wonder in the orchid-like mauves and purples of his rusting iron stove top. It was both the look of the world, and the problem of seeing it afresh, that intrigued him, marking him as a modernist.

I think about Milne in his cabin at Alander Mountain, about his capacity for attention in the silence (punctuated by the sound of water dripping from the leaking roof, duly noted in his diary), and I wonder what he would think about the way we live now. His art calls us to observe our own processes of perception, as he did. With his brush, he gives us a collection of tree trunks set against granulated snow; a striated reflection in water stirred by a breeze; a plum-coloured shadow wedged beneath winter eaves; sunlight cradled in a curve of a glass. Like other Canadian artists of quieter mien—one thinks of London, Ontario’s Jack Chambers or Winnipeg’s Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald—Milne conveys a distilled attention. Today we call this mindfulness. For Milne, it was simply the most basic discipline of art.

David Milne: Modern Painting will be on view at Dulwich Picture Gallery from February 14 to May 7. The exhibition travels on to Vancouver Art Gallery (June 16 to September 16) and McMichael Canadian Art Collection (October 4 to January 13, 2019). The accompanying catalogue includes lead essays by Ian Dejardin and Sarah Milroy, as well as contributions from Katerina Atanassova, Edward Burtynsky, Katharine Lochnan, Margaret MacMillan, Anne-Marie Ninacs, John O’Brian, David Silcox, and Jane Urquhart.