Miller Brittain graduated from Saint John High School in the spring of 1930, and that fall departed for New York City to study at the Art Students’ League – an important, vibrant centre for instruction and debate about all things artistic. A cooperative society, the League was established and run by students for students, and its constitution declared freedom as its core value. Brittain studied at the League until 1932.
Harry Wickey, who taught Etching and Composition, was Brittain’s most influential teacher at the Art Students’ League. Wickey was a consummate draughtsman whose reputation rests primarily on his work as a printmaker and sculptor. His etchings and lithographs reflect the figurative tradition popularized by newspaper and magazine illustrators and by artists of the Ashcan School and the Fourteenth Street School, all of whom looked to the urban environment for subjects and themes. As a League instructor Wickey claimed that “the aim of every true artist is to project the sense of power he feels when stirred by the unpretentious reality of nature.”
Brittain developed his artistic voice under Wickey as well as the chorus of instructors preaching the values of the American scene, among them Kenneth Hayes Miller. They believed that the purpose of artistic representation was to explore life. The immediate environment - for them, the streets and shops of New York - was a fertile source of subject matter. True to the motto of the League - nulla dies sine linea (no day without a line) - Brittain drew constantly, becoming adept in several methods. The lessons he absorbed defined him as an artist, giving him the means through which he could transcribe his creative vision for the rest of his life.
When Miller Brittain returned to Saint John in late May 1932, he was short of money, and the Great Depression had taken hold. He took on many odd jobs as well as the occasional teaching assignment from the Saint John Vocational School, where he taught drawing; he was remembered as “a marvellous teacher, students liked him very much.”
The artistic community to which he returned was much livelier than the one he left. Many of his peers and friends had also returned to the city; summoned by the sirens of familiarity and comfort, they all hunkered down to wait for better economic times. In 1930, Jack Humphrey had returned to Saint John from Munich, where he had studied briefly with Hans Hofmann. Ted Campbell returned in 1933. Having trained and worked in the United States as a commercial artist, theatre designer, and artist Campbell became a catalyst in developing a vital and important community of Saint John artists.
Brittain’s portraits and satirical drawings drew the notice of Graham McInnes, an influential Canadian art writer. In April 1937, he remarked that Brittain was “doing work of more than ordinary significance … and has more right than anyone since Krieghoff to be called the Canadian Brueghel.” This characterization brought Brittain to the attention of a wide national audience. McInnes pointed out that Brittain’s strengths and promise were his capacity for “shrewd observation, and a feeling for both character and composition.”
In early 1941, Brittain’s colleague and fellow artist Pegi Nicol MacLeod called him “complicated and modern.” MacLeod recognized in Brittain’s work his affinity for the American regionalist painters and others whose work expressed social issues and polemical critique. She saw Brittain as the exemplar of a new generation of Canadian painters who did not find creative sustenance in the dominant landscape schools epitomized by the Group of Seven. “I’d like to call Brittain an artist of the people,” wrote Nicol. The label was apt; Brittain was a skilful mythologizer who lifted the particularities of place to a poetic level of shared experience.
In early 1939 Brittain was approached by his friend Dr. R.J. Collins, the medical director of the Saint John Tuberculosis Hospital, to make large-scale murals for two corridors in the hospital’s surgical wing. Brittain happily accepted the commission and soon began making full-scale preparatory drawings known as “cartoons,” which he completed in 1942.
The full, large-format cartoons comprise eleven separate drawings, each approximately nine feet square. The figures have been laid down in charcoal, crayon and chalk on the brown kraft paper so readily available from the Saint John Paper Mill. The design includes carefully measured gaps for doors, windows, and a staircase
The narrative that unfolds on the eleven sheets describes the causes of and cure for tuberculosis. Brittain’s message is clear: responsibility for the spread of tuberculosis rests with people who have unhealthy habits and those who live in squalor; with those who allow poverty and social decay to proliferate; and with the viewers, who are jolted from complacency by the recognition that the conditions of disease must be remedied through social change.
In 1942, when Brittain had completed enlarging all but one of the cartoons, Dr. Collins told him that funds were not available to complete the project. Despite what must have been a bitter disappointment, the aborted commission gave Brittain the opportunity, means, and ambition to exceed himself as an artist. The resulting drawings are masterful documents of figuration and eclipse anything he had done earlier. The drawings have survived, yet are in such fragile condition that they cannot be exhibited publicly.
Brittain’s promising artistic trajectory was interrupted when, in 1942, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force; he spent two years in training and on active service as a bomb aimer and two more years as an Official War Artist.
Brittain spent his tour in Yorkshire, England. The night missions struck him with tremendous force. On 4 November, Brittain was involved in a bombing mission over Bochum, Germany, targetting factories and rail yards. In a letter to his parents he described the mission: “… I have never seen so many searchlights as there were last night. … Jerry sends up something to scare us that is the most beautiful of all. A great red flare bursts and out of it come long streamers like some sort of enchanted tree.”
In Night Target, Germany, Brittain bears witness to such a horrific scene. This painting, his only direct reference to the terrible aspects of war, is restrained and remarkably stylized. Gone is the representation of the figure characteristic of his art up to that point; indeed, this scene bereft of humans is unprecedented in Brittain’s whole artistic practice to this point.
It is also a pivotal work as it introduces symbolic devices and motifs that he repeated and varied in many of his post-war paintings and drawings: the radiant burst, or star of light, the vertical shaft or spear that both organizes and pierces the visual plane, and the trailing plume that falls from the radiant light. In Night Target the symbols have actual referents in the searchlights, the flak, and the exploding aircraft, the smoke trailing behind as they plummet earthward evoking both the sinister beauty and the tragic outcomes of war. Following the war, these motifs recur as flowers and stems, heads and necks, sunbursts and smoke, eventually driven, at least in part, by alcohol, sanity and insanity.
By contrast, his wartime drawings have a prosaic character seemingly incongruous with the drama of the war. In style, they resemble theatre pieces: the story unfolds in a well-defined tableau framed by the paper’s edge; behind it, the characters propel the action. They communicate a disturbing sense of disengagement, as if Brittain were watching the events from the audience or the wings.
In June 1946, following his release from the RCAF as a decorated veteran, Brittain returned to Saint John, and promptly established a studio at 42 Princess Street. He began interpreting biblical stories, almost to the exclusion of all other subjects until 1951. These works are among the most forceful, expressive, and disturbing pastel drawings and paintings of their time. Brittain abandoned the air of restraint and disengagement that suffused his work as a War Artist and replaced the latent moods of satire and pathos with the stronger spirits of ecstasy, elation, euphoria, frenzy, exaltation, joy, and rapture bordering on hysteria.
Brittain also stated that his biblical pictures were responses to the experience of war, but their metaphysical dimension shows that more was at stake. Through them Brittain sought transcendence. Although figurative, at times based in objective observation of the world, their mode approached abstraction. Visual, their subjects also drew inspiration from symbolic poetry. They illustrated biblical stories yet sought to convey the enormity of spiritual experience rather than institutional religion.
Whether Brittain found redemption in his religious work is unknown. What is clear is that these works show a great change in his artistic style, a change that may have been a response to the abstract expressionists’ intention to convey the artist’s temperament unmediated by artistic or stylistic formal rules. Brittain’s artistic purpose after the war was to make formal pictorial elements function psychologically in the same way they had functioned narratively before the war.
The work of the 1950s shows Brittain developing an abstracted theatre, characterized by its enigmatic nature, its sense of devastation, its threatening vegetation, and forms that suggest humanity as a whole rather than individuals. The figures seem to be the land’s spectres, traces of memory, or the unfortunate few cast out of Eden into the wasteland of these places. Although stark and beautiful in their distillation and symbolism, the works convey a pervasive sense of foreboding, distress, and unresolved anxiety.
Canadian critics wrestled with the vexing problem of placing Brittain’s complex work in an appropriate context. As a visionary, he was compared with the metaphysical English poet, William Blake; as a figurative artist, he was weighed against the English artist, Henry Moore. Yet Brittain modelled himself after Gulley Jimson – the marginalized fictional soothsayer from Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth who fuelled his creativity with alcohol. Other critics thought Brittain wished to be a visual poet of despair. In 1953 an Ottawa critic commented that his work “… deals with the alienation not only of the individual but of inanimate objects as well; it addresses itself with anguish to the tragic awareness of the human condition so characteristic of our time [and] elevates these issues to the dignity of a primeval CRY – a deafening cry echoing from the bowels of the elements.”
After the death of his wife Connie in 1958, Brittain turned to a violently distorted manner of describing the figure through an often “wildly imaginative” tableaux of nudes. Formerly his cool figures moved serenely in an undefined pictorial field of colour or across a landscape-like stage; now, intense gesture, profound emotional depth, and an overwrought and colourful visual vocabulary characterized his highly imaginative paintings and drawings.
Trial, error, and absurdity define the work of Miller Brittain’s last decade. He continued to experiment with gesture and form, and to transform the orb and trail motif. By 1962 he was exploring its possibilities in drawing after drawing of flowers, some in pots and others in bouquets and groupings. The image that functioned as a literal reference to flowers and plants could also be highly allusive. Slipping between floral forms, human shapes, sunbursts, and explosions, Brittain held all possible meanings in a taut visual tension. In turn, the floral motif morphed into many different incarnations. It could have figurative allusions, or be intertwined with figures and other anthropomorphic forms. The “stems” could be highlighted and appear as a field of tall grass set against a featureless landscape. Or this iconography could be convenient marks through which the artist explored his esoteric form of abstraction.