The Radical and the Experimental in the Art of David Milne
Canadian artist David Milne (1882-1953) is being featured in a major European exhibition dedicated entirely to his work. David Milne: Modern Painting, on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, U.K., traces Milne’s various influences, exploring the process by which he established himself as a radical and experimental artist.
“David Milne has become a national treasure in Canada,” says Sarah Milroy, who organized the exhibition with Ian Dejardin, Executive Director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. “We follow him to the brink of abstraction in this exhibition, uncovering the almost monastic discipline that has made him an exemplar for generations of Canadian artists.”
Born in Burgoyne, Ontario, in 1882, Milne travelled to the United States, Europe, and back to Canada and the U.S. again on a lifelong pursuit of art. The exhibition follows his international travels, presenting a sequence of key moments along the path of his life's work.
The exhibition opens with New York, where Milne discovered his interest in fine art among the crowded streets and colourful advertisements of the bustling city. In Billboards (1912), for example, Milne sets a horse-drawn carriage against a vibrant backdrop of pedestrians, sidewalk stands, window shops and street signs. One of the works on loan from the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), the oil on canvas sets the stage for his early exploration of modern art.
In 1917, Milne enlisted in the Canadian Army and, after arriving in Europe towards the end of the First World War, he produced impressive watercolours of the destruction the war had left behind. “At this time, the war had just ended, and Milne was surrounded by wrecked machinery, blast holes, craters and human remains,” says Milroy. “He was fascinated by the human imprint on the land and how cataclysmic that could be.” This experience marked a pivotal moment in Milne’s career, leading him to become one of the first Canadian artists to look carefully at the industrial landscape. “These sights of rupture intrigued him,” says Milroy. On view are several scenes from his war period, including Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge (1919), also on loan from the National Gallery of Canada.
As visitors continue through the exhibition, they encounter Milne’s return to the United States, followed by his retreat into the Canadian wilderness in pursuit of fresh subject matter for his art. Here, Milne painted scenes in and around Temagami in northeastern Ontario. Of particular interest are the artist’s prospect shaft paintings, depicting “rough and tough,” horizon-less images of flooded shafts in the woods of Temagami. “We’ve set up the exhibition in such a way that people can hear the echo between the bomb craters in Europe and the prospect shafts in Temagami,” says Milroy.
Culminating in the 1930s with Milne’s time at Six Mile Lake, the exhibition as a whole offers visitors a glimpse into a radical and recluse Milne, a figure at odds with the sophisticated and spiritually sensitive artist that audiences generally know.
For the National Gallery of Canada, the exhibition was an opportunity to share exceptional works from Canada’s collection with audiences abroad. “When the National Gallery of Canada acquired Milne’s paintings, a major investment was made into what was, at that time, radical contemporary art,” concludes Milroy. “We couldn’t have done our best work on this exhibition without the support of the Gallery, who displayed such loyalty for the artist and his legacy.”
David Milne: Modern Painting is on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, U.K. until May 7, 2018. It then travels to the Vancouver Art Gallery from June 16 to September 16, 2018 and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection from October 14, 2018 to January 13, 2019.