Miller Brittain was born on November 12, 1912 in Saint John, New Brunswick. Following initial studies with Saint John artist Elizabeth Holt, he left for New York at the age of 17 to study at the New York Art Students League where his teachers included John Sloan, Kenneth Hayes Miller and Harry Wickey, all artists known for their depiction of urban life. Returning to Saint John in May 1932, Brittain turned his attention to the street life of a city caught in the midst of the Depression. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in July 1942 and in 1944-1945 took part in bombing raids over the industrial Ruhr region of Germany, receiving the RAF’s Distinguished Flying Cross “for great gallantry in the performance of duty” on 20 July 1945. By this time he had been appointed an official artist for the Canadian War Records. He returned to Saint John in July 1946 and resumed his pre-war themes but soon turned to dramatic religious subjects. In 1951 he married Connie Starr and a daughter was born the following year. Devastated by the death of his wife in 1958, Brittain expressed his emotions in his paintings and drawings. He died in Saint John on January 21, 1968.
Brittain was seen as a forceful and talented painter both in Canada and the United States. His artistic project was the “problem of good and evil”; he meant to represent the inner conflict and the abstract emotions of love, despair, and terror that are “the inevitable experience of everyman.” His purpose in representing the most sublime human passions was to “purge” them, to cast them out. Though he stated this intention in the third person – “So if the artist feels despair and makes a picture of it, it means he has faced his despair and turned it into a work of art, which is a labour of love, and his mind is purged of despair” – Brittain was speaking of himself. By representing his own “strong passions,” his deep-seated despair and terror, he sought to draw them from his unconscious, render them visible, and eradicate them from his psyche – or perhaps, at the very least, subdue them.
For Brittain, art, humanity, and psychology were never estranged. He saw the modernist trend of separating form from subject as an aberration, and pure formalism, divorced from a human subject, was, he felt, “obscene.” Abstraction needed the counterbalance of figuration and a human narrative to convey meaning accurately. Realism became allegory.
By Anita Lahey
This article is featured in the fall 2009 issue of Vernissage, the magazine of the National Gallery of Canada, which is available at the National Gallery of Canada at the bookstore. You can also subscribe to this quarterly magazine by calling 613-990-1936 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Martha Collins Schleit, the subject of a portrait painted by Miller Brittain in 1939, once spoke of the shift in Brittain’s style after the Second World War. “His art changed tremendously afterwards,” said Schleit. “It was almost as though they were two different people.” This sentiment has been echoed by critics, scholars and curators for decades. In the 1930s and 1940s Brittain built a modest reputation as a supremely talented figurative artist. He was credited as a superb draughtsman who achieved “great human insight” through his Renaissance-inspired social realist paintings. Globe and Mail art critic Sarah Milroy recently described his work from this time as “landmark accomplishments, rightly treasured in the Canadian canon.”
But Brittain never attained the renown of other against-the-grain realists, such as Alex Colville, who like Brittain served as a war artist, bucked the landscape trend and worked in the Atlantic provinces. Possibly this was due to Brittain’s dramatic artistic shift after the war — his style became increasingly esoteric, concerned with colour and form and what he described as an effort to “incorporate into my work such abstract qualities as love, despair, terror, and so on, since they are the inevitable expression of Everyman.” His work fared well in New York during this period, but met bewilderment, hostility and indifference in Canada. “The critics were brutal towards this work, and the public was unreceptive,” wrote Brittain’s friend and colleague L.S. Loomer in the Atlantic Advocate shortly after the painter’s death in 1968. “They did not know what it meant. Published interpretation ranged from the vicious to the absurd.”
The full trajectory of Brittain’s career is revisited in the exhibition Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears, a collection of 70 paintings, drawings and murals dating from 1930 to 1968. The exhibition is curated by Tom Smart, executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. Smart has re-examined our understanding of Brittain’s post-war shift, which he characterizes as the progression of an artist “courageously following the path to self-annihilation,” in the process, “declaring that path to be the destiny of mid-twentieth-century man.”
Miller Brittain was born in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1912, and began studying art at the age of 10. At 17, he moved to New York City to study at The Art Students League. Back in Saint John in the thick of the Depression, Brittain began to carve out his own artistic vision. His satirical drawings, including the acerbic Little Theatre Rehearsal (1936), inspired the critic Graham McInnes to write in Saturday Night that Brittain “has more right than anyone since Krieghoff to be called the Canadian Brueghel.” Brittain’s genre scenes from this period stand as lasting depictions of the grim struggle of the 1930s. These include The Rummage Sale and Longshoremen, two luminous 1940 group portraits (both now in the NGC’s collection) that lend to their weary subjects the quality of myth. Smart writes: “He had the rare gift of seeing the universal in the ordinary, the eternal in the quotidian, and beauty in the banal.”
As recognition of his talent grew, he became a voice in an artistic movement — which included Jack Humphrey and Pegi Nicol MacLeod — pushing the value of art in Canadian society and the public realm. He worked on mural projects in Saint John, the most famous of these an unfinished 11-panel project for the Saint John Tuberculosis Hospital that identifies the causes of the disease in social ills, poverty and a stratified society. The nine-foot-square cartoons (274 cm2), now too fragile to travel, would have been one of the “most significant murals in Canadian history,” according to Peter Laroque, a curator at the New Brunswick Museum, where the cartoons now await restoration.
After the mural project was cancelled by the hospital (due to funding issues), Brittain joined the air force, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross before being appointed an official war artist. The only such artist to have served in active duty in the Second World War, he completed a series of works depicting life on the sidelines of war, such as the deeply affecting drawing of a crew in barracks titled G. George Didn’t Come Back (1945). He then broke sharply from this pattern to paint Night Target, Germany (1946), a haunting image of criss-crossing searchlights interspersed with bright flak, red bombs, black aircraft and fiery clouds. “It’s a remarkable image of war,” says Charles Hill, the National Gallery’s curator of Canadian art. “While most of the other war paintings deal with landscape or figures, here we deal with machines and their potential for destruction. It’s the only Canadian painting I know of whose subject is the lived experience of aerial bombardment.”
Brittain’s first work entirely devoid of human figures, Night Target, Germany is, Smart asserts, his pivotal work, in which he first brings together the three motifs of the star, spear and trailing plume, which will recur in his work and increasingly form its philosophical core. “It is as if he returned again and again to the moment represented in this painting, using the same symbols over and over in his unending attempt to purge himself of it.”
After the war, Brittain married and had a daughter, but his wife died young of cancer, and he was hospitalized several times for alcoholism. During this time, he completed an extensive series of dramatic biblical scenes and portraits, and sought inspiration in the poetry of William Blake. His paintings of the 1950s and 1960s have been variously described as visionary, surrealist, ugly, derivative, ecstatic, excruciating, esoteric, spiritual and original — an indication of the struggle viewers have had in coming to terms with such works as And Then God Made Two Great Lights (1950), in which a partly translucent loincloth-clad male figure is surrounded by coloured discs and spears and a bristling ball of shooting light. Fellow painter Lawren S. Harris described him as “deeply imaginative,” and the journalist and critic Robert Fulford wrote, “Brittain manages to be that very rare individual, a genuinely original painter. He shuns schools, avoids trends and makes no concessions of any sort. Consequently, his paintings are shocking.”
Brittain would probably have said he was simply trying to be honest. He alluded to Lewis Carroll’s famous book to describe his practice: “The important thing about the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland was the grin. In my pictures I wish to pay more attention to the grin and less to the cat.”