David Milne retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery makes for brilliant tribute

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      David Milne: Modern Painting
      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 9

      In February of this year, when David Milne: Modern Painting opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, England, it was met with many laudatory reviews in the British press. One critic, however, dismissed Milne’s work as mediocre and repetitive, causing outrage and indignation among Canadian art lovers. How could anyone­—anyone—denigrate the work of such a singular and innovative Canadian artist? Unthinkable.

      Recently landed at the Vancouver Art Gallery, this multi-institutional retrospective was curated by Sarah Milroy, a long-time freelancer recently appointed chief curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and Ian A.C. Dejardin, executive director of the McMichael since 2017 and previously director at the Dulwich. The two also worked together on acclaimed exhibitions of Emily Carr and Vanessa Bell.

      Billboards by David Milne, circa 1912.

      Eclipsed in his time by the Group of Seven, Milne is now recognized as one of our nation’s leading 20th-century painters. Between his birth in Bruce County, Ontario, in 1882 and his death in Bancroft, Ontario, in 1953, he honed an utterly individual approach to both art and life (the latter influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden). Milne led, by choice, a rural, frugal, and often isolated existence. Which is not to say that he distanced himself from the leading edge of modern art. During his learning years in New York City, 1903 to 1913, he was exposed to the avant-garde painting of both Europe and the United States. His 1912-1913 street scenes, such as Fifth Avenue, Easter Sunday, suggest he was looking keenly at Maurice Prendergast while juxtaposing jewellike particles of colour with broad passages of brilliant white. The Pantry, an interior in which figure and ground merge in a flat field of reddish brown, is clearly influenced by Henri Matisse.

      Milne developed his own distinctive brand of modernism while living in the small Upstate New York community of Boston Corners between 1916 and 1920; his painting further evolved to the tough and startlingly abstract landscapes he produced at Six Mile Lake in northern Ontario in the mid-1930s. (The show ends with these works, although Milne continued to paint, mostly in watercolour, until a year before his death.) The curators also draw our attention to the extraordinary watercolours of abandoned First World War battlefields he produced in 1919, his “shattered” brushstrokes echoing the blasted landscapes around Ypres, Passchendaele, and Vimy Ridge.

      David Milne's Reflected Forms, painted in 1917.
      Stephen Topfer, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

      As many art historians have observed, Milne’s true subject was painting itself, although it seems he still needed a figure, landscape, or still-life arrangement on which to hang his experiments in line, form, colour, and tonality. One of the most distinctive aspects of his painting style, as seen in Gentle Snowfall, is the thin, dry-brush application of his medium, by which he weaves passages of bare canvas into the overall composition. Another distinctive element is his startling use of nonnaturalistic colours, such as the matte black that predominates in both the water and foliage of Reflected Forms. Yet another characteristic of his art is his X-ray–vision depiction of trees, their skeletal trunks and branches brightly articulated within the flattened and generalized body of foliage. Parallel to his innovations in oil, Milne also developed an individualistic approach to watercolour, varying from dry brush to wash, sometimes within the same work, such as Bishop’s Pond in Sunlight.

      Arriving 33 years after the last major Milne retrospective, this exhibition is a fine tribute to the artist, serving to introduce him to a new generation of Canadian viewers as well as to the wider world. As for any snooty, colonialist naysayers lurking out there, well, open your eyes and minds. Brilliance resides here.