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David Milne: Modern Painting at Dulwich Picture Gallery
April 1, 2018
In 1903, David Milne (1882-1953) arrived in New York as a twenty-one-year-old pursuing a career in commercial illustration. However, captivated by the vitality of the city and its myriad galleries, he soon turned his attention to fine art and began a long career of bold experimentation with colour, line, and composition. One of the most revered and celebrated painters in Canada, he is renowned for his artistic integrity and innovation. An exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is the first major retrospective of this elusive artist in the UK and showcases more than ninety of his works, including oil paintings, watercolours, drawings, and photographs. Arranged chronologically, it reveals Milne to be a particularly perceptive artist and a unique character.
One of the most striking facets of Milne’s art is his dynamic use of colour. In the first room of the exhibition, this is manifest in vibrant representations of the city of New York which are radiant, joyful, and energetic. Using swirling brushstrokes pulsating with colour in paintings such as Fifth Avenue, Easter Sunday, (1912), he brightly expresses the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. However, in 1916 Milne spurned this urban cityscape for the wild landscapes of North America and Canada as he left New York and led an increasingly reclusive existence, often in self-constructed shelters in the middle of vast wilderness. This immersion into nature, explored in the remaining rooms of the exhibition, led to a radical application of colour, with more muted tones and an interest in abstraction, reflection, and camouflage.
In Figure on the Rocks, (1916), Milne portrays his wife Patsy sitting by a river, her body absorbed into its surroundings as repeating colours depict both human and nature. Almost pointillist in technique, it is vivid and dramatic yet simultaneously subtle and restrained. As his career progressed, Milne reduced his palette even further, using only three or four colours and a bare canvas to denote complex subject-matter. In White, The Waterfall (The White Waterfall) (1921), considered by Milne to be one of his crowning achievements, he uses both thick oil paint and thin undulating lines to represent a waterfall with threads of colour amid a mass of subtle variations of white. It is beautiful, simple, and evocative of the uncultivated world into which he was plunged.
Besides nature, two other experiences deeply influenced Milne. In 1913, during his time in New York, he exhibited alongside French Impressionists and European avant-garde painters in the notorious Armory Show. Throughout the exhibition, one is invited to draw comparisons with these artists and it is clear that they left a lasting impression upon Milne, impacting not only his early productions but also paintings produced during times of great isolation. Dazzling depictions of water lilies in the fifth room of the exhibition recall Monet while a group of still lifes in the final room reference the subtle minimalism of Giorgio Morandi. Milne not only responded to this art but actively rationalised and modernised it, applying his own voice to their themes and techniques.
The second major influence upon Milne was his experience as an official war artist in France and Belgium. Describing himself as ‘the first tourist’ to the battlefields, he produced a series of moving watercolours in 1919 documenting the visual aftermath of the First World War. These bleak and harrowing scenes, displayed in the third room of the exhibition, are formed from simple, broken lines and vast empty space. On returning to America, Milne continued to experiment with this sparse and dramatic style and chose subject-matter which recalled these desolate and massacred fields. An arresting example in the fifth room is Flooded Prospect Shaft II, 1929 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa), an abstract and overwhelmingly dark painting representing a crater left from a mine shaft. It is highly reminiscent of the detonated enemy line depicted in Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge (1919). Milne found these dystopian scenes of manmade destruction rich subject-matter, stating: ‘to the painter in search of colour it is a find.’
This is the last in a series of exhibitions at Dulwich Picture Gallery showcasing leading Canadian artists of the early twentieth century. It is a captivating exhibition, with the expressive and inventive works of a cerebral painter who engaged deeply with the world around him. Both intimate and illuminating, it exposes Milne’s unique voice as an artist and the singular aspects of his intriguing character.
Words by Amy Parrish
David Milne: Modern Painting, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until 7 May 2018