Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears
Ottawa (Ontario) - October 21, 2009
At the National Gallery of Canada
October 23, 2009 to January 3, 2010
A fresh insight into the work of master Canadian artist Miller Brittain
New Brunswick’s Miller Brittain (1912-1968) burst upon the Canadian art scene with masterful emotion-filled drawings and paintings of the human form at a time when landscapes by the Group of Seven held sway. Today, the National Gallery of Canada presents Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears, an exhibition that celebrates Brittain’s artistic legacy and provides a fresh insight into his diverse body of work, from the dynamic social realism depictions of his native Saint John, to his surrealist-inspired compositions.
Organized and circulated by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the exhibition includes 70 works and is on view until January 3, 2010 in the Special Exhibition Galleries. Admission fees apply, but access is free to members of the NGC. To find out more about the exhibition, visit www.gallery.ca/brittain.
“Miller Brittain’s art explores the complexity of being human in desperate times,” said NGC director Marc Mayer. “While his early narratives continue to stir our emotions, his later post-war abstractions still intrigue our psyches. The National Gallery is pleased to present this important exhibition of one of Canada’s most talented artists and congratulates the Beaverbrook Art Gallery for organizing such an intelligent and beautiful representation of Brittain’s entire career.”
Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears charts the life of an artist, soldier, husband, father, and champion of William Blake’s poetry, from which the exhibition’s subtitle draws inspiration. “Ordinary urban narratives, New Testament parables, figurative abstractions and variations on organic metaphors all contribute to the iconographic lexicon of an artist who constantly pushed himself into new, perhaps dangerous, creative territory,” writes guest curator Tom Smart in the accompanying catalogue. The exhibition provides a magnificent overview of his life and work and is organized chronologically.
Art Students League
The exhibition begins with a look at Miller’s training at the Art Students League in New York City, a vibrant centre of instruction and debate, established and run by students for students. Here, Brittain developed his artistic voice and practiced his skills on a daily basis, true to the league’s motto – nulla dies sine linea (no day without a line). His etching Art Students (c. 1931) is a testimony of his attention to line, composition and form – the elements of art he would come to master.
Joining the core of the Saint John studio crowd
Like many of his contemporaries, the Great Depression of the 1930s would see Brittain return to the familiarity and comforts of home. A studio on Saint John’s waterfront became an oasis for a close-knit creative community who argued, debated, sang, fell in love. It was here where Brittain met his future wife, the gifted pianist Caroline Starr. Many of Brittain’s earliest surviving works, such as Head of a Man (1932) from the NGC’s collection, are figurative drawings from these studio sessions. The portrait was drawn on kraft paper, a strong brown wrapping paper produced by the local paper mill that became a popular material for artists in hard times. His satirical drawings such as Lecturer (1937) and his genre paintings such as The Rummage Sale (1940) and Longshoremen Off Work (1938) would draw the attention of the critics of the day who recognized Brittain’s extraordinary talents and called him the “Canadian Brueghel.”
World War II
Brittain’s promising career was interrupted by the Second World War, when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, serving as a bomb aimer before becoming an official war artist. During this time he produced the painting Night Target, Germany (1946), a pivotal work in Brittain’s career. The work is his only direct reference to the terrible aspects of war. Gone are the representations of the human figure, unprecedented in Brittain’s whole artistic practice to this point.
Lastly, the exhibition demonstrates Brittain’s crucial connection to the poet and engraver William Blake, whose mystical poetry inspired his post-war art. The recurring motif of the star and spear entered Brittain’s expressive vocabulary. First used to describe aircraft falling from the sky in the painting described above, it came to represent flowers and stems, heads and necks, sunbursts and smoke, sanity and insanity.
About the curator
Tom Smart is the Executive Director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Previously, he was Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Frick Art and Historical Center, Pittsburgh, and Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Mellon University. His curatorial and gallery-management career also includes serving as Acting Director and Chief Curator of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Curator of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, and Curator/Manager of the Samuel E. Weir Collection and Library of Art near Niagara-on-the-Lake. He is the author of numerous books on Canadian art, including Alex Colville: Return and The Art of Mary Pratt: The Substance of Light.
Lecture in conjunction with the exhibition
Sunday November 8, at 2 pm, in the Auditorium – Miller Brittain, by Tom Smart, curator of the exhibition. Cost: adults $5, seniors and full-time students $4, members $3. Gallery admission not included.
A catalogue written by the exhibition curator, Tom Smart, and comprising an essay by writer, philosopher, and art critic Allen Bentley, professor of English at St. Thomas University (Fredericton, New Brunswick), accompanies the exhibition. The 180-page fully-illustrated hardcover catalogue is available for $65 plus taxes at the NGC’s Bookstore or online at http://www.shopngc.ca/.
About the National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is home to the most important collections of historical and contemporary Canadian art in the world. In addition, it has pre-eminent collections of Indigenous, Western and European Art from the 14th to the 21st century, American and Asian Art as well as drawings and photography. Created in 1880, it is among the oldest of Canada’s national, cultural institutions. As part of its mandate to make Canadian art accessible across the country, the NGC has one of the largest touring exhibition programs in the world.
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