21 June 2018

David Milne, great or awful?

Fresh from the walls of the Dulwich Gallery in London comes the David Milne show to the Vancouver Art Gallery. David Milne is a somewhat unusual artist. He was born in Ontario, Canada from a family of Scottish immigrants and he died in Ontario but,  in between,  he set out to discover the world art currents of his day and worked restlessly at creating his own style. He developed a very recognizable style of work like many of his contemporaries, some of which have been shown at the Dulwich recently: Emily Carr and Eric Ravilious come to mind. 

The beginning. 

David Milne started with a bang, he did really well in school and when his calling towards art struck he left for New York where he studied at the Arts League  and absorbed every current that passed through the galleries in the vibrant pre-war Manhattan. From the Impressionists to Matisse he took it all in and soon created a distinct look and was exhibiting with some frequency. 

His early style is very characteristic, it almost has a paint-by-numbers feel: A great emphasis on flat colors and simple shapes, a prevalence of thick white impasto and a very sparse use of materials. It contains he ingredients for the rest of his career and,  from this point onwards,  the prevalence of one element like composition or color or sparseness will depend on circumstances without deviating too much. 

He supported himself as a commercial artist but he is quoted often as saying that  "There is a greater difference between an artist and a commercial artists than between a bishop and a burglar." Clearly he had not met enough bishops or burglars but, be it is at it may, he soon tired of his day job and the Manhattan stress where he failed to secure enough sales of his paintings to make a living. Oh, he also married a poor woman, Patsy,  that he dragged through his existence until they finally broke it off.

"Patsy reading" oil on canvas

"Union Station" watercolor

The woods: 

 He moved North to live in a more secluded area with his wife and dedicate himself to his art without so many monetary constraints as the big city demanded. He lived very frugally in Boston Corners. When money ran out he would work managing a tea house and becoming a handyman, he even built his own teahouse but sold it quickly eager to get painting. This he did to the dismay of his wife, straining an already  difficult relationship.

His paintings start to become almost like camouflage tarps. It's hard to see the figures and the tonal values are achieved more by a gathering of color cells than by any gradation or color harmony. His use of material is always sparse. He said his Scottish roots pushed him to make 'a lot with very little' or some such nonsense.  Line and composition are the dominant elements here  with everything else practically reduced to three notes: white, black and local color.

At this point in the exhibition I started to ponder why he would persist in this distinctly shattered and dry style.  I always have to second-guess myself when I see artists who despite all evidence against them -  keep in mind Milne was unknown and poor at this time with no prospects of ever 'making it' and destroying his marriage in the process -  hammer at it with such stubbornness. It is hard to fake such stubborn pursuit but does it really accomplish great art, this dogged repetition?

"Patsy reading with a cat" oil on canvas
The war: 

Milne never saw combat as he was stationed in Quebec chasing down deserters. By the time he was sent abroad the war was over. He found out about the Canadian War Memorials Fund that commissioned artists to depict the devastation of WWI  and was soon painting said desolation.
At this point my frustration with this artist reaches a high pitch. The paintings, drawings in watercolor drybrush really, are very  flat and sparse and almost decorative no matter how many times the curators try to elicit the idea that precisely such sparse emptiness is the most fitting commentary on the massacre of Vimy Ridge or Paschendale. I don't buy it.

"Ypres ruins" 1919

"The concert at the Y" 1919

"Kimmel Park Camp.Breakfast is Served" watercolor 1919

"Road to Passchendaele, German pillboxes"  1919 watercolor

"The Petite Place, Arras"  watercolor 1919

Back to the woods: 

Milne got a big boost from his war time painting and his work was shown with good reviews at the Royal Academy. He thought he was ready to break into the Canadian market but upon arriving in Toronto he found out otherwise.  Despondent and frustrated he retreated back to his cabins in the woods and kept paintingHis marriage finally collapses after several separations. During this time he focuses on his usual themes of woods and mud and reflections and boulders as well as nympheas, water lilies.  These are a million miles away from Monet's evanescent blooms,  Milne's flowers are muddy fossils in comparison.

His art now reaches its most accomplished state if we understand by accomplishment whatever Milne had in mind, not what an unaware museum visitor would consider beautiful, interesting or even shocking. The artist that most often comes to mind at this point is Morandi of all people. Like Milne, Morandi was obsessive about his still lives as if trying to extract the soul of objects through sheer economy of means.

* Lines and composition dominate, Even foliage or reflections and foam or weather  become level with the rest of the solid features of the landscape or still life by virtue of allowing no hierarchy of importance. Even his sketches are composed of ghostly lines.

* Color is reduced to notes of black, white "filler" and some local color that remains somewhat arbitrary as on a desiccated  body. There is no allowance or very little for atmosphere or gradations.

*Paint handling is so direct and economic, the canvas texture tends to dominate end the canvas itself is a big portion of the coloring as it is see through.

*The theme is always the same, rocks, mud, trunks, water and snow. He rarely lifts his eyes from the ground. His still lives are also very monotematic, variations of very few  subjects. Even things that would scream for wild coloring like maple saplings or mine shafts inundated with leeching chemicals get pummeled in muddy browns.

*Someone has pointed out already that the photos he took to help his work are more expressive than the paintings. It s true. 

I am not sure if Milne ever articulated the reasons for this muddy landscapes. Many artist have had a go at textures and earthy feel with a lot more success in my opinion. There is no environmental or higher message here that we know of so we are left to guess or move on. 

"Pond at Big Moose" oil on canvas

"waterfall white" oil on canvas

"A gentle snow" oil on canvas

"Spring thaw" oil on canvas

"Water lilies in a jar" oil on canvas

"Inundated mine shaft" oil on canvas


Milne finally got some recognition from Canadian art deities in his mid fifties. He became highly collected by patrons Vincent and Alice Massey which bought 300 paintings in one sitting at 5$ a piece which in the 30's it wasn't as bad as it sounds even if it was a bargain hunt.  His subject matter became more whimsical and poetic even when the size of his canvases diminished. These were actually my favorite paintings. Sometimes composed of only three colors but quite poetic.

Milne  married again, had a son and quite a bit of success in his later years so it all paid off somehow.  That somehow is still a mystery to me but it opens so many questions about persistence, those who never made it and the importance of good patrons/dealers when one is a bit hopeless.

"Star setting"

"Big Dipper"

"Smoke" the result of Milne culling some of his work via bonfire

"Jam jar" oil on canvas

Here is a video from the Dulwich gallery. 

In any case, if you hated Milne as some people are bound to do, you can always head upstairs to see the exhibition on "Cabin  Fever" a review of our  log cabin architectural and life style  fantasy through the last century and ours. 

03 May 2018

A brief note on composition.

    The  painting below is a watercolor painted on a rainy day at Green College in UBC. The scenery in front of us, as always, a plethora of compositional choices. Painting a landscape or anything else is not taking a photograph.  Painting requires a deliberate composition choice. It might also be created by moving things around.

"Green College" 12"x16" watercolor

Choices. Faithfulness is important but composition is paramount. 

I decided to write this brief entry after reading about the School of the Hague. It is well established that in this school's attempt to recover a quickly vanishing Dutch landscape, they went out in search of quintessential Dutch scenery. Johannes Bosboom, Jacob Maris and others  tried to be as documentary accurate as possible but they had no qualms about 'embellishing' things a bit for the sake of a good painting. Going beyond what every  good figurative landscape painter does: trying to convey a mood and bringing the viewer into a moment of light and weather, they sometimes did "cut and paste", enlarge and shrink in their pictures.

Johannes Bosboom. "View of Utrecht"

It is not because Mr. Bosboom could not be almost photographic.

Johannes Bosboom. "Communion Service" 1849

Here are 4 very quick studies done before deciding on the finished framing of my watercolor. Notice I chopped the obtrusive bushes in the front. The first step is always deciding NOT to create a static painting by avoiding middle horizons and center lines. I normally decide whether I want the ground or the sky to dominate by lowering or rising the horizon line.

Lower horizon. Crop in. Building dominates.
The building can be the main subject if interesting enough. We can "zoom into it" , eliminate the structure to the right and let it be a presence. In another case, since the sky was just a light grey and the budding light green trees created a soft beautiful screen, we might want to emphasize it.. A lower horizon would make the tree's curtain the main subject.

Low horizon, emphasis of the air above and perspective.
The path had beautiful reflections and has the power to draw the viewer inwards towards a magic place. I can lift the horizon line and shove everything away from its direction.
High horizon. The path dominates.
Or you can let the building slide across and become a wall in the back with just a thin gap of escape. The grass as inviting as the path but more abstract.
High horizon, grass and  tree. Building blends with background.
In the end I chose to lift the horizon and let the focal point be "almost" in the middle, humanized by a guy with an umbrella which stands for the viewer invited into this calm rainy day.   I clear the grass area to allow for a bit of vegetable abstraction but let the path be accurate in its position. My higher horizon allows for all this play in the ground. If it was a street scene, a high horizon would allow for cars, traffic lines, pedestrians...but few clouds. The tree background in my painting is still a "destination" but it is not the dominant part, just a suggestion. Let's not forget the tree trunk with its graceful line acting as  divisor . It is a risk but I like how it tells the viewer where the ground starts. I could probably also have framed the painting with the beams o the porch where I was standing but I wanted the viewer to get a bit wet.
Choices are important because we tend to start painting the minute we wet the brush. A little forethought about composition can save a rainy morning.

24 January 2018

A rainy day at the museum. 4 exhibitions.

I think there is an art to visiting a museum or an exhibition. It takes a bit of work but it is a lot more fun and rewarding when one's visit involves an active research and an open mind -one in tune with our gut feeling as well as the background of the art. The best kind of research one can do might actually be to ignore the curator's agenda altogether,  the accepted story, the "reasons" and "message" explicitly stated with bold decals on the walls of the museum. These days, curators are eager to sound enlightened with regards to imperialism, cultural appropriation, feminism, ecology, capitalist excess, eurocentrism...and that is just the lobby. Nothing wrong with that but on occasion it pays to not be dictated about what to think and take other opinions into account including your very own one,  educated or not.

At the Vancouver Art Gallery, a couple of shows I visited on (yet another)  rainy day: One was about artists painting  themselves.  Portrait of the Artist: An Exhibition of the Royal Collecction. I assume The Vancouver Art Gallery has limited means so it often brings shows with a single source. In this case all paintings came from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II. That alone creates a bias. Comprehensive as the Queen's collection might be, a large portion of it is bound to have a British slant.  There are some gems there, from Correggio's and Ruben's drawings of themselves to some gorgeous Dutch masterpieces,  Here is a Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1824) caricature of an artist trying to deal with family life, chamber pot and all.

Reading the captions on all the paintings, I think the curators did a good job at stating factual information. Calling Joshua Reynolds a self-promoter is probably  accurate, Saying that Hockney embraces new technology by using his iPad to paint is may be a stretch but not false.  I was quite taken by Jan Steens' "Interior of a Tavern, with Cardplayers and Violin Player" c. 1665 . It was lively and charming. Very different from what I usually gravitate to. One can feel the eagerness to tell a "story", to look at humanity with humor and a keen eye. The painter himself is in the depicted group and merrily laughing. There are some perspective problems and Jan Steen is quite known for adding ,somewhat incongruously, objects in the foreground in order to create a sense of space. I don't think that's to the painting's advantage, this filling up of every nook and cranny. Think of Vermeer who was Steen's contemporary and how incredibly different his genre scenes were, cool, glistening, collected. Vermeer was undoubtedly the better painter but Steen was brilliant in his own way.

A detail of Jean Steen. "Violin player in a tabern"

Carol Sawyer, The Natalie Brettschneider Archives.  This was a show about bored people in British Columbia during the fifties. I really don't even know what all the fuss was about but, alas, my favorite painting overall was in it. Orville Fishers's "False Creek"  is a masterpiece of valiant brushwork and light effects. The photo does no justice to the subtle pinks and greys of this city view. Today, I actually work somewhere around there but of course it is much changed. Is it progress? 

Orville Fisher. "False Creek" 1947-8

False Creek, today

Gordon Smith, The Black Paintings. Gordon Smith is darling of the Vancouver Art gallery. He is a West Vancouver resident and has been active for a long time. These paintings are a departure for him. The 6 min long video by the curator explains that much.  Gordon Smith (b, 1919 -)  participated in Operation Husky during the Second World War. He also got badly injured then. A lot of the paintings have titles that relate to this episode. The video explains that Gordon Smith likes to manipulate paint - a tenet of his love for abstraction. In this case, we are talking about mostly black paint with the odd color splatter and drip.  He also likes to add objects to his art including old pajamas, army tarpaulins and  autobiographical fragments of sorts. These paintings  do not explain themselves beyond their thick surface. Fair enough. They are solemn and beautiful.

But let's go beyond the curatorial agenda:

The title "Black Paintings" brings the image of other famous 'black" paintings, those of Goya. I dare to say these are a lot less powerful. By staying elusive, formal  and cool, the viewer has only paint to look at. In other words, it's fine if Smith wants to mention  war time memories in an oblique way but why should the viewer care IF the goal is not to open up about those memories, keep them a private affair. The Spanish painter Tapies created similar pieces without the need of autobiographical  muddying.

I found it interesting that Gordon Smith has been creating these pieces inspired by events that happened so many decades ago.

I also found it strange that nowhere was it mentioned that the western cultural association of 'black' with Death might apply here to some degree. Is it too obvious? Gordon Smith is very very old. They guy paints from a wheelchair. Couldn't these pieces bee a contemplation into the dark goodnight? A good night postponed from the time of his WWII injuries?

I thought the paintings were also timid. Too "proper". The fragments of fabric or added objects are tastefully placed. Nothing like the Rauschenbergs that Smith claims to admire.  I sense a terrible fear to step outside the canon of 'abstraction', to not do something beyond what we expect of him. A testament to  the durability of abstraction almost a hundred years after it was proposed by the Blue Reiter group.  At the same time, why change or try to rock the boat now.

True Nordic. how Scandinavia Influenced Design in Canada:  
This was a great exhibit.  More than the history of Scandinavian design ideas brought about by numerous immigrants and craftsmen from those countries and more than the pieces themselves, I was inspired by the spirit of craftmanship they brought with them. The exhibit was split in two: the original pieces made in Canada by immigrants and people of actual Scandinavian birth  and the modern Canadian designs inspired by them.

Scandinavian design was embraced  in the Northamerican continent  by an elite of people keen of gracious and streamlined living. Besides the cultural significance, the design itself with its soft lines, woodsy finishes and nature-inspired forms has a cheery bold lightness an optimism. It married industrial production with craftsmanship  in such a happy meeting that it is easy to forget it was born right after WWII.

Noteworthy  in the show was a very stiff and eerie video explaining the story of the Bostlund family and their lovely lamps.   . It really brings home the idea that craftsmanship can be a very transformative endeavor in the hands of people with artistic goals as well as a mastery of their medium. I don't think I would have been unhappy creating fabric patterns or functional furniture. Creativity, even limited by functional and industrial constraints is not diminished  here but instead blossoms into beautiful livable objects. To live surrounded by them induces a positive state of mind.

The goal of the exhibit is to show how Canadians took these ideas and ran with them. I don't think it was completely successful in this regard when looking at the modern results. However, my take away was the aforementioned respect for good thoughtful hand made designs. i will be forever jealous of those whose hands can produce useful beautiful things.

Aspect of the show. Molded plastics. A tea cozy to die for.

Aspect of the show. elegant cabinetry.

Some of the current designers do not reach that level of charm. We live in a more gobal world, we know this.  But so what. Here is a design by one Liz Eewes (b 1985). She created a design in her computer in Toronto and  sent it digitally to India to be woven with New Zealand wool. Aren't you impressed?
Me neither. The design is inspired in the Swedish tapestry rugs called  rollakans. But it is kind of a lame design in itself.  It is actually a bit too complicated  with dull use of color in isolated spots imho. Ikea has better designs.

This is a nice hanger though, Reminds one of skies piled up at the entrance or a deftly chopped tree,

More examples of current "scandinavian" Canadian design. The roll of felt is a nice touch (an cats would go bonkers for that). But the green chair, pretty as it is, conceals too much of its structure. It is not a bad design but there is very little organic or bold about it. The red chair behind it is too nostalgic and folksy. I bet it is also uncomfortable.

One piece stood out though. These chairs that form a forest by Rob Southcott. I actually think this is far from the intent of Scandinavian design even when  taking some clues from it. Cute, yes. But functional, comfortable, streamlined?  Not one bit. The whimsical nature of these chairs is lovely but it seems to be a departure, no, a rupture, with  the spirit of its progenitors. The antlers are so obvious and so useless, the seats themselves seem unusable. Art piece may be, design, no.