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David Milne’s terra incognito

David Milne’s terra incognito

The strikingly original Canadian used paint sparingly but to dramatic effect

The strikingly original Canadian used paint sparingly but to dramatic effect

Florence Hallett | March 2nd 2018

David Milne, a strikingly original Canadian landscape painter, is celebrated in his own country but almost unheard of outside it. A new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London should change that. Presenting a wide selection of his oil paintings, alongside watercolours, drawings and photographs, “David Milne: Modern Painting” makes the case that his bold, experimental landscapes enriched not only the Canadian canon, but also the broader narrative of modernist painting. 

A previous generation of 19th-century Canadian landscape painters had taken as their subject the raw power of nature. Like them, Milne (1882-1953) spent extended periods alone in the remote and often inhospitable wilds of New York and Canada. But while his predecessors were moved to capture the vastness and epic beauty of the wilderness, Milne, whose dispassionate eye rejected hierarchies of subject matter, found tree stumps as interesting as spectacular sunsets. His cool detachment would later result in affecting responses to the battlefields of the first world war that rivalled more obviously impassioned treatments by artists like Paul Nash and CRW Nevinson. 

Prompted by the experiments of avant-garde European painters like Monet and Matisse, whose work he familiarised himself with while living in New York, Milne was fascinated by perception. This he saw as the true purpose of his work. He sought to direct the viewer’s gaze by carefully organising colour and form on canvas. As his career progressed he subtracted details, and refined his colours, providing the viewer with just enough information to discern the subjects of his paintings. His use of colour is central to his style. He deployed it increasingly sparingly, but knew how to use just enough to create order and rhythm and to suggest a mood. For Milne, less was always more. 


“Billboards” (c.1912)

In 1903 at the age of 21, Milne left his hometown in Ontario and moved to New York. He had decided to train as a commercial illustrator, a down-to-earth ambition inspired less by pragmatism than by his parochial upbringing. But when he started going to exhibitions of work by European Impressionists, he realised what a painter might be. He started taking art classes and soon painting became his primary occupation.

His early paintings are unmistakably the work of an artist enthralled by city life. The bright but limited palette of “Billboards” revels in the man-made artificiality of the urban environment, while the integration of colour and pattern into a design structured around horizontals and verticals is surely informed by Milne’s training as a commercial artist, employing the principles of clear, eye-catching design seen in adverts. Though Milne’s subject matter would change dramatically after 1916, when he left the city for the rural isolation of Boston Corners, a village in New York state, “Billboards” contains elements that would recur throughout his career. Space has been flattened, with compositional elements distributed as a pattern across the picture. Portions of the canvas remain bare – the horse in the foreground is fleshed out by an absence of paint. 


“Red” (1914)

By 1913 Milne was sufficiently well-regarded by the New York art world that he was invited to participate in the Armory Show, an exhibition which, with its inclusion of figures like Matisse, Kandinsky and Picasso, heralded the arrival of modernism in North America. Milne’s paintings from the following year show how Matisse’s ideas helped to develop his own. For Matisse, colour was principally expressive rather than naturalistic, and he combined it with pattern and flattened perspective to create a coherent but often ambiguous scene. His use of pattern is bolder than it is in “Billboards”; the design absorbs the female figure, ostensibly the picture’s subject, who seems to appear and then recede. Colour suggests light and shade, and binds the picture into a whole, while also conveying a subtle sense of mood, implying the warmth of a domestic interior.


“Bishop’s Pond (Reflections)” (1916) 

Milne’s move to the rural tranquillity of upstate New York gave him new things to paint, but his interest in perception remained and he continued to respond directly to the work of contemporary European painters – here, Monet’s now-famous studies of water lilies. The trees themselves are barely there, their blank, ghostly shapes in contrast to the relative substance of their painted reflections. To a characteristically reduced palette of green, blue, purple and rusty red, Milne adds black, which combines with bare paper to suggest a broader range of colour and tone. One of Milne’s most significant innovations is put to use here: the “dazzle spot”. In this picture, the spot is the expanse of white foreground: it stops the eye – just as a flash of dazzling light might – before allowing it to move across the picture once it becomes apparent the spot is empty. That Milne understood not only the eye’s need to come to rest but the methods by which he could steer the gaze is testament to his precise analysis of perception. 


“Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge” (1919) 

At the end of the first world war, Milne toured the abandoned battlefields of northern France on behalf of the Canadian War Memorials Commission. Strewn with debris, from tins of food and gas masks to human remains, they retained, wrote Milne, “the sweet sickish, but not offensive smell of death.” Despite the enormity of the subject, he approached this landscape as he would any other. Milne exercises extreme economy, the expanses of blank paper, limited palette and the brittle brush marks giving this scene, the site of one of the most notorious battles of the war, a gravitas that comes from his steadfast objectivity.


“White, the Waterfall” (1921)

Returning to Boston Corners after the war, Milne spent the winter of 1920-21 in a cabin on Alander mountain, in virtual isolation. He kept a daily record of what he saw and heard. In one diary entry he notes “a sharp click from a stick in the fire”, followed by the “sharper sound of a drop falling into the tea kettle from a pole above.” In “White, the Waterfall”, he reprises the stripped-back style he developed in his work for the commission. There is just enough colour and texture on the canvas for the viewer to make sense of the image. Slight variations in tone discernible in areas of white offer some sense of the effects of light: white, far from being monotonous, serves as a mirror to reflect colour and movement. As the eye meets what are essentially blank spots, it moves on, prompted to look further and more deeply into the picture. 


“Tent in Temagami” (1929)

In 1929, Milne moved to the outskirts of Temagami, a mining town in northern Ontario. Living in a tent, he immersed himself in an industrial landscape, the disused mine-shafts and craters recalling the ravaged western front. Paintings from this period are dominated by black and punctuated by stabs of colour that suggest nature’s strange abundance in the darkness of the forest. The water lilies that grew in the forest ponds served as still-life subjects – a sideways nod to Monet, whose preoccupation with light and compositional innovations inspired by Japanese prints were a formative influence on Milne. That his interest in Monet never flagged is typical of the unity of purpose characterising his career. Milne will no doubt now be recognised outside Canada as one of the country’s great landscape painters, but his commitment to understanding the workings of human perception make him a fascinating example of an artist who doggedly sought to express his ideas in paint. 

David Milne: Modern Painting Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until May 7th