In 1917, the expatriate Canadian artist David Milne signed up to fight at a British recruiting office in the United States, was sent to work in Quebec during the conscription crisis, and then shipped to Wales for training. He never saw active service, arriving too late for the First World War. But he stayed on in Britain and found out about the Canadian War Memorials Fund, which paid artists to document the battlefields. And so, the solitary Canadian painter finally arrived in France in 1919.
The results of that encounter with the scarred landscape of Passchendaele, wrecked tanks at Sanctuary Wood and the bombed architecture of Arras are included in David Milne: Modern Painting, the major retrospective of the artist’s work now at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont.
Milne approaches his difficult subjects with apparent objectivity, detailing the green now returning to the blasted fields and the people now walking amid the ruined buildings with a subdued technique that features multiple precise strokes in a narrow palette. Sometimes he covers the entire surface almost compulsively; mainly, he leaves large spaces of white paper. All the manic energy of his New York years, also on show in this exhibition, has disappeared from these economical works, but Milne also refuses sorrow and tragedy in watercolours where the breakdown of the painted surface into so many fine strokes can occasionally read as prettifying. Can the artist, who spoke of “the sick sweetish, but not offensive, smell of death” that still hovered all around, really have felt this dispassionate in the face of the carnage he had so narrowly missed? Or was this merely confusion?
In this exhibition, organized by McMichael director Ian Dejardin and curator Sarah Milroy, and previously shown in both London and Vancouver, the importance of the war work is mainly as the spark that ignited the bolder and more open landscapes that were to follow on his return, briefly, to upstate New York and then finally to his artistic destiny in Northern Ontario. On the occasion of a 99th Remembrance Day, 100 years after the guns stopped, Milne’s is a frustrating testament filled with a precision that seems oddly free of emotion and which leaves the impression that the artist failed to come to terms with what he saw.
Almost 100 years later, the task that Calgary artist Dianne Bos sets herself as she photographs these same fields in France and Belgium is clearer now. The emotion is so less pressing, the question becomes how to revive it, how to depict not merely the landscape as it now stands but also its importance in cultural memory. Her collection of photographs, now also showing at the McMichael, just beyond the Milne galleries, is titled The Sleeping Green; the name is taken from the 1916 poem by Isaac Rosenberg Break of Day in the Trenches in which the writer imagines the grass that will one day return to the land. Bos’s work seeks to unite the past’s future with the actual present; her job is to find the horror and the sorrow of places where grass and trees have all but eclipsed the war while human memorials stand as distant testaments.
Her first solution is to turn to the photographic technology of the period using vintage rigs including pinhole cameras as well as a great deal of chemical darkroom manipulation. She begins by photographing sites where Canadians fought and died, now mainly woods and fields. Then she marks the surfaces during the development process with orange dots or shafts of light, white splotches and lines created by placing ball bearings, stones, grass or flowers, directly on the prints, using the rayogram technique popular with the surrealists. In two instances, she even adds a map of the stars.
The effect is of ghostly overlays that can be eerily discreet or sharply evocative. The trenches preserved at Vimy in Trenches, Canadian National Vimy Memorial are simply darkened in some mysterious way. On the other hand, a clutch of red poppies (Plugstreet Poppies) is accompanied by a scattering of white shapes that suggest the flower’s very ghosts. In Field, Passchendaele, Belgium the brown mown hay twists into a black hole burned in the middle of the print as though the past would open to swallow the present; in Frezenberg Ridge, near the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Memorial, Belgium, a single sepia gash cleaves the contemporary landscape in two.
A hundred years after the armistice was signed, the war that didn’t end all wars can seem very far away. Yet, there are still many left for whom it is only at one remove, those who can recall a parent or a grandparent talking sometimes about the Great War, and so it lives in the collective memory. Bos’s photographs of the Western Front speak eloquently of that delicate dialogue with a traumatic past.
The McMichael, meanwhile, continues the conversation about war on Saturday with the opening of Aftermath, a show dedicated to Stephen Andrews’s 2003-06 project turning photographs and videos of the Iraq War into pencil crayon drawings.
David Milne: Modern Painting continues at the McMichael until Jan. 13, 2019, while Dianne Bos’s The Sleeping Green continues until Jan. 1.