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Art & Architecture Canadian artist David Milne gets his first major exhibition in his home country in 30 years

Billboards, c. 1912 oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Gift of Douglas M. Duncan, Toronto, 1962.

National Gallery of Canada

When the exhibition David Milne: Modern Painting opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London this year, it received a scathing review from an art critic at The Guardian. “One of Canada’s greatest painters? Come off it!” read the headline for the one-star review. Jonathan Jones described the work as “embarrassingly repetitive” with its “wishy-washy vagueness, depressed colours and complete lack of shock.” He called Milne “a supposedly ‘great’ Canadian artist who was unsuccessful in his own lifetime” and his work “modern art with a yawn.”

The exhibition is now on Canadian soil, having opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery in June, allowing us to see for ourselves. My experience was very different from The Guardian’s. I did in fact feel shock – and awe and a range of other emotions as I, fully awake, walked through the show. And yes, while there is a certain vagueness to his work and the liberal use of depressed colours – I admire that about Milne. As for the repetition, it is deliberate, and instructive as the exhibition traces the development of Milne’s work from his burst on the scene in New York to his move to the country to his documentation of the First World War’s aftermath to the landscape paintings for which he is probably best known.

Milne is a celebrated Canadian artist, but hardly a household name. With this show, his first major exhibition in this country in 30 years, Milne is getting his due (if not always rave reviews).

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“He’s a very different kind of Canadian artist from the Group [of Seven]. And that’s why he’s never really found his natural pre-eminence in terms of our pantheon of Canadian artists. People who know art know Milne, but too many people don’t, because he doesn’t quite fit the mould of what we think about art in this period,” the show’s co-curator Sarah Milroy says.

“They’ll either say to me ‘David Milne is my favourite Canadian artist’ and they would usually put their hands on their breastbone and make a little plaintive look – like that, like you’re doing right now.” (I was.) “’I love David Milne, he’s always been my favourite, I can’t wait to see your show.’ Or they’d say, ‘Who’s David Milne?’”

Milne was born in a log cabin in Bruce County, Ont., in 1882. In 1903, he moved to New York to study commercial illustration, but later turned his ambitions to fine art. A crucial complement to his formal education was delivered in the galleries of the city, as he was exposed to the work of serious artists, especially Monet, a vital influence. He experienced early success, submitting five paintings to the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York, which introduced modernism to North America in a major way – with work by van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp and other influential artists.

Red Pool, Temagami, 1929 oil on canvas. Private collection, Toronto.

Michael Cullen

This exhibition, co-curated by Ian Dejardin, begins in New York, where the sheer excitement of this formative exposure is evident in the brilliance of paintings such as Billboards (c. 1912) and Fifth Avenue, Easter Sunday (1912) – titled Little Figures when it was in the Armory Show. “He’s noticed in the city, he’s making the rounds, he’s seeing everyone,” says Milroy, former art critic for The Globe and Mail (and a former colleague) and the incoming chief curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, north of Toronto, where this show will travel after Vancouver (Dejardin is the McMichael’s executive director and was formerly at the Dulwich in England).

“But it’s almost as if it’s too much of a muchness for him,” Milroy continues. “He’s too stimulated, he’s kind of stressed out, he’s chronically broke, as he was throughout almost all of his life, and he’s finding the work in commercial illustration that he’s still doing to keep a roof over his head is tearing him apart. He wants to be painting full-time. The only way to do that is to get out of the city and find a way to live really, really super cheaply.”

He spends time in West Saugerties up the Hudson River and then moves further north in 1916 to Boston Corners, N.Y., with his wife, Patsy Hegarty; they married in 1912.

After the bright New York cityscapes, the Patsy paintings feel darker – interiors initially that suggest a boxed-in feeling. In Bright Curtains (1914), Patsy feels almost captive in the space, pushing up against the confines of the picture frame, framed herself by a window whose curtains call to mind the slats of a jail cell. (The marriage was difficult and ultimately unsuccessful.)

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His paintings of Patsy in the exterior become more experimental, and the landscapes from this period, many on paper, also become more abstracted. Milne often focused on reflections, such as in Reflected Forms (1917), which was selected as the cover art for the (terrific) catalogue.

In 1917, Milne enlisted, but the Armistice was declared before he saw any action. He was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to document the abandoned battlefields in northern France and Belgium. These works are stark observations; they feel like silence on paper – in empty, eerie contrast to the populated mess hall and training camp paintings elsewhere in this section.

White Trees in a Green Valley, c. 1916 oil on canvas. Collection of The Winnipeg Art Gallery. Acquired with the assistance of the Women’s Committee and The Winnipeg Foundation.

Leif Norman/Vancouver Art Gallery

“I walked by day in safety, and sightseeing was part of my job,” he later wrote. “I was the first tourist, not the last soldier.”

In the centre of this gallery are artifacts – postcards of war ruins that Milne had purchased; and two chilling things he found himself: a fragment of a field map and a prayer leaflet for soldiers.

The paintings from his return to North America, in a section of the exhibition titled “Aftermath,” have an air of peacefulness, but also melancholy. He built a cabin on Alander Mountain near Boston Corners, where he lived alone; he was very much into Thoreau’s Walden at the time. “His whole life was a quest to not be distracted,” Milroy says.

In Doorway of the Painting House (1921) you can see the one scene visible from the cabin’s doorway; a way to paint so that he (or his paints) wouldn’t freeze in the pursuit of his art. It is during this period when he paints White, The Waterfall (1921), which he considered to be his masterpiece.

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Still broke, still undiscovered, Milne moved to the remote Northern Ontario mining town of Temagami in 1929, where he painted flooded prospect shafts in the woods – the leaching chemicals turning the water all sorts of brilliant colours. “To the miner it may be a disappointment,” he wrote, “but to the painter in search of colour it is a find.”

There are elements of these landscape paintings that are reminiscent of his war art – upturned sod, rocky outcroppings: the stubborn land made striking by Milne’s hand.

The Boulder, 1916 oil on canvas Collection of The Winnipeg Art Gallery. Acquired with the assistance of the Women’s Committee and The Winnipeg Foundation.

Ernest Mayer

“They are among the toughest, grittiest works of Canadian historical art,” Milroy says. “They are really about our violent relationships to the landscape.”

At the same time, he was painting beauty, with a series of water lilies works – which Milne, who was not bilingual, called nymphéas, as Monet did.

“I find something just so incredibly moving about this extraordinary sophisticated, well-educated person [with] this very refined, sophisticated palette, starving to death in a tent in Temagami, thinking about Monet. The nearest person who had even heard of Monet was probably 500 miles away,” Milroy says. “He’s pulling the water lilies out of the swamp and putting them in a glass jar and making his own paradise. It’s not Giverny, but it’s what he’s got to work with.”

In the final section of the show, there is a feeling of liberation. He lived in Palgrave and Weston – small towns close to Toronto – where he painted the magnificent Ollie Matson’s House Is Just a Square Red Cloud (1931). He ended his marriage and left for Six Mile Lake near Port Severn, where he met Kathleen Pavey, the future mother of his child, David Milne Jr. He sold some work – 300 paintings to Alice and Vincent Massey (at $5 each). Other sales followed.

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The works from this period evoke a sophisticated joy. There is a lightness here – he paints the sky bright, he paints the stars – also bright. Milroy says these paintings are like “little clenched fists.”

Milne died in 1953 (a year after participating in the Venice Biennale), but show ends with works from the mid-1930s.

“These are paintings with a kind of cosmic charge to them. They are really big in spirit. … They are completely unlike any European landscape painting or understanding of landscape that any English audience would ever encounter,” Milroy says.

“We wanted to send people out of the exhibition in London just roaring with ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I didn’t know about this and this is the most exciting artist I’ve discovered in decades,’ which is what a lot of people said to us.”

Not Jonathan Jones at the Guardian (his roaring sounded a little different). But if you go, I have a feeling your hand, at some point, will travel to your breastbone.

David Milne: Modern Painting is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Sept. 9 (vanartgallery.bc.ca) and at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., Oct. 5-Jan. 14 (mcmichael.com).

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