David Milne: Modern Painting @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

While other London galleries present yet another exhibition about Picasso or Francis Bacon, Dulwich Picture Gallery maintains its reputation for staging beautifully presented exhibitions of peripheral or little-known artists, who turn out to be deeply rewarding and beautiful.

Latest to receive the treatment is Canadian artist David Milne (1882 to 1953), famous in his own country, all but unknown over here.

New York

Milne was born in a small Ontario farming community in 1882 (the same year as Braque, Stravinsky, Joyce and Woolf). Aged 21 Milne went to New York (in 1903) and began training as a commercial artist but quickly became aware of the new styles and ideas coming from France. He learned about the achievements of Cézanne, Matisse and other modern French masters via exhibitions at Alfred Stieglitz’s famous ‘291 gallery’.

Milne gained a reputation as an interesting modernist and was invited to take part in the famous Armory Show of 1913, which first brought a comprehensive range of modern French art to an American audience.

The first room of the exhibition showcases Milne’s work from the years just before the outbreak of the Great War, showing him experimenting with a Frenchified way of treating New York’s bustling streets, emblazoned with advertising hoardings, but emphasising the presence of light, in broad expressive brushstrokes.

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

I really liked these brightly coloured images.

What’s most noticeable about seeing them in the flesh is the impasto, the extent to which you can see the swirls and splodges of oil paint sticking up from the surface.

Maybe the central insight or axiom of ‘modern’ art is the simple realisation that the painting is not, as had been believed for 400 years, a ‘window on the world’ – but an object in its own right.

His brushstrokes aren’t meant to be invisible as per the Northern Renaissance painters or the Pre-Raphaelites who copied them (as so brilliantly shown at the current Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the National Gallery). The highly visible strokes are themselves part of the aesthetic statement, as much a part as the supposed subject.

These first paintings display the mannerisms which will stick with Milne to the end of his career, namely a disinterest in realistic detail, a tendency to lay on paint in thick impasto swirls and blodges, and the habit of building the picture up through the accumulation of blocks or triangles of colour – like roughly sketched Lego pieces.

The tension is there which lasts the rest of his life between a basically figurative approach – painting the actually visible object – combined with a restless experimentation with form and media which saw him work with oils, pastels, watercolour, sketches and even photos.

Back to the country

Always a country boy at heart, Milne was uncomfortable in New York and from 1913 started taking vacations in the small town of West Saugerties, in upstate New York. In 1916 he moved permanently, along with his wife, Patsy Hegarty, to Boston Corners, a village in New York State, and lived a simple remote life.

The second room displays a series of works in which he is visibly experimenting with painting trees, woods and – an enduring subject – reflections in pools, rivers, lakes.

Bishop's Pond (Reflections) by David Milne (1916) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

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

A number of things are going on in this picture. For a start he was experimenting with the effect of leaving parts of the composition untouched, just the plain white paper. This turns out to be just right for conveying the purity of fallen snow. But it led Milne to develop the notion of what he called the ‘dazzle spot’, a blank area, devoid of colour, to which the viewer’s eye is naturally attracted. Having caught the attention, the viewer’s eye then goes on a voyage of discovery around the rest of the picture plane, exploring the subtle interplay of shapes and colours.

Speaking of colours, they’re very subdued, derived from a limited palette, but nonetheless stylised: they don’t blend or wash as in nature but appear in clusters – of umber, a kind of turquoise, a yellow-green, and a sort of purple. There is no sense of the colours shading or blending, or of the effect of light and shade which you would have in a realistic work. The line drawing of pond and trees may be entirely figurative but the colouring is completely stylised; not in the wild way of the Frenchmen he had seen, this isn’t a brash Fauvist work. He is using the discoveries of modern painting to create something gently understated and muted.

Lastly, this work shows the result of his experiments with different techniques to try and capture the effect of reflections in water. If you scroll down the exhibition web-page you can hear the commentary on this painting (given as a sample of the overall audioguide) which gives Milne’s own account of how he experimented to create this effect.

The result, the blurred greying effect of the wash in the reflected shapes, is much more striking and absorbing, much more noticeable in the flesh, than in this reproduction. It creates a shimmering, rather supernatural effect. I kept coming back to this particular painting, to look at it again and again, becoming more entranced each time.

Experiments

On the opposite wall in the same room is a selection of rather more experimental works depicting his wife, Patsy, simply sitting – but done with more intense use of blots or blobs of colour.

Sometimes the motif is almost hidden by the intensity of the blotching and blobbing – you have to stand at just the right distance to make out the actual subject – in the case of the most attractive of the set, a simple portrait of his wife reading a book with a cat on her lap. Note the use of – what shall I call them? blobs? dots? patches? – of colour, unshaded, set down pure, a kind of large-scale use of pointillism. And the very limited palette: a very particular tint of green and brown, dirty grey, with highlights of white and black.

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

A nearby work reflects the development of camouflage during the war. Milne was fascinated by the idea of abstract patterns of muted colours which blend in with natural scenery and, once the notion has been mentioned, it’s possible to see the idea of ‘camouflage’, of the concealment of pattern in natural forms, as an underlying motif of many of his landscapes.

War artist

Milne enlisted in the Army in 1918 but, what with training and delays, missed the actual fighting. Nonetheless, he lobbied hard and wangled his way across the Atlantic soon after the Armistice in the capacity of War Artist. He painted Canadian troops in their camps in Britain, and then went on to paint a series of haunting watercolours and sketches of the devastated landscape of North-East France for the Canadian War Records, only months after the fighting had finished.

In complete contrast to the paint-covered landscapes of the previous room, in all these war zone works Milne reverts to a) leaving extensive parts of the surface pure untouched white and b) using much more flighty, impressionistic flurries of pen or brushstrokes to convey shape and colour.

In terms of style it is clearly related to the use of blocks of colour in the New York works or blots of colour in the upstate landscapes, but here the blocks are disintegrated into feathery flurries as if the painter’s technique has been as splintered and dismantled as the villages, the buildings and the minds of the people who fought and suffered.

The result is, as ever, entirely figurative but at the same time somehow abstract and spare. I actively didn’t like the effect when he used it on buildings such as Amiens cathedral, but could see the appeal in a work like Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge (1919), one of Milne’s most famous war paintings. It shows the enormous hole created when the Allies detonated 24 tonnes of explosives underground, deep behind German enemy lines. Note the tiny figures on the horizon.

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

It is interesting to learn that picture postcards of the ruined towns and buildings of the war zone were swiftly produced and sold to the first ‘war tourists’, who were quick to arrive and be taken on tours of the still smouldering battlefields. Milne made a collection of these postcards ,which he kept for the rest of his life, and a selection of them is on display here.

David Milne, Self - portrait in military uniform, Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

David Milne pioneering the art of the selfie at Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

Rural retreat

Back in North America, Milne withdrew to the deep countryside and spent the winter of 1920-1 alone on the side of Alander Mountain, behind Boston Corners, partly inspired by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the great exponent of living simply and communing with nature.

He lived in a cabin he built himself and devoted himself to formal experiments in how to depict nature. The paintings in this room are among the best, showing an intense observation of unspoilt landscape combined with the contrary urge, a highly sophisticated quest to seek out the form buried beneath the subject.

You begin to see how, in a very understated way, Milne never ceased experimenting.

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

There are some really atmospheric paintings here. The commentary goes heavy on one called White, the Waterfall (1921), apparently one of Milne’s personal favourites, and a much treasured centrepiece in the National Canadian collection.

Personally, I liked the story around two other paintings, versions he painted of the big tree stump which stood just outside the front door of the cabin and which he paints covered in snow and then in thaw. I wonder if he gave it a name.

The audioguide

The audioguides to exhibitions can be variable, but I thought the one for this show was excellent. My friend didn’t bother with one and so walked through gaining only a generalised impression of the work, but I did buy one (for £3) and it forced me to stop and really focus on the 22 specific works it comments on. This pays real dividends with Milne’s art.

His use of dense and often dark ‘blocks’ of paint and colour can get a bit much if taken en masse. However, being forced to stop in front of specific works and study them closely made me, in almost every instance, come to appreciate and like them more.

So White, the Waterfall may be famous but I found myself warming more to a nearby painting of the forest, Trees in spring, done in lime green and – as the commentary explained – riffing off the abstract design of palm leaves to be found in Egyptian friezes in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A good example of the way abstract interests lurk behind almost every one of Milne’s apparently figurative works. But not aggressively or stridently. Subtly. Quietly.

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Still lifes

Subtlety and quietness are the hallmarks of the still lifes Milne painted in the later 1930s.

In this period he made himself another cabin to live in, this time at the remote Six Mile Lake. Half the paintings from this period are of the lake, displaying his lifelong interest in the shimmering of reflections in water.

But there is also a selection of wonderful, understated still lifes he did inside the cabin; specifically, a series showing water lilies in simple jugs or vases. If you compare them to the same subject as done by the French painters he venerated, such as Monet or Matisse, you immediately realise how he has pared his palette right down to basic browns and greys with only occasional highlights of green or violet or orange. It is as if the colour has been bleached out of the painting to reveal the secrets of shapes and lines. More visually dominant is the lacework of drawn lines repeatedly sketching the outlines and shapes; the colours merely highlight and define the objects.

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Last works

The final room showcases a final selection of still lifes and landscapes from the 1930s. The still lifes are recognisable as vases and flowers, but many of the landscapes have moved strongly in the direction of abstraction. There are the merest horizontal lines indicating the meeting of lake and land, or land and sky, and there are variations on the interplay of stars or moon reflected in the water which tremble on the brink of becoming pure abstract shapes.

It was only in the 1930s, as he hit 50, that Milne began to receive any recognition in his native country, through contacts with curators and artists in Ottawa and Toronto, foe example it was only in 1934 that he finally began showing his work commercially in Toronto.

The exhibition finishes with one of my favourite works, Summer Colours (1936), a final landscape which walks the line between figurative and abstraction.

It’s unlike most of the previous work in not featuring the blocky, faceted approach to building up an image. It’s much plainer, with wedges of colour representing sea, land and sky, but it is recognisably the same mind and eye that produced the New York boulevard paintings. He is unafraid of showing – in fact he deliberately highlights – big brushstrokes, crudely deployed in swathes across the surface, bringing out the textured surface of the canvas. And yet, through the strange alchemy of art and despite the fact that you can see that this object simply consists of oil paint rather bluntly smeared over a rough flat canvas surface – somehow it is also a haunting image of a faraway landscape, at once a place of your dreams, and an abstract interplay of elementary colour and design.

Magical.

Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne

Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne

Conclusion

This is another triumph for Dulwich Picture Gallery. The only thing I’d comment on is their choice of image for the posters promoting the show. They’ve chosen one of the darker, more clotted works – Reflected Forms – which initially a little put me off the exhibition. It’s a shame, because many of the other works here are lighter, more airy and poetic – and all of them reward close attention by revealing their beguiling experiments with technique, and their quiet depths…

David Milne: Modern Painting is an unexpectedly lovely, life-enhancing exhibition.

Videos

One-minute introduction by co-curator Ian Dejardin.

4’37” report on the show by Belle Donati.


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: