David Milne: An Appreciation

     The problem of how to create while living in the world is always difficult, and in painting two extreme solutions of it are currently fashionable, perhaps because they are extreme. One is that of the primitive or "naive" painter who remains isolated from the world until the time comes for him to be dug out and patronized. The other is that of the "engaged" painter who is preoccupied with schools and movements and trends and isms, and whose painting is full of quotations. David Milne's solution is nearer the golden mean: he lives a very retired life, and works out all his pictorial problems by himself; but he is well away of what is going on in modern painting, and all his pictures look unaffectedly contemporary.

     Painting is a two-dimensional art, and one would normally expect it to adopt, as other arts do, the conditions of its medium, and present a two-dimensional view of reality. Yet since 1400 painting has been largely concerned with creating the illusion of three dimensions, using mechanical rules of perspective and lighting to help that illusion along. This implies that painting for the last five centuries has been from one point of view stunt-painting, an enormous refinement of the trick-perspective and peep-show pictures popular in the Renaissance. Our painting, still from this point of view, has been rather like what our music would have been if it had been all programme music, confining itself to rearranging the sounds heard in nature. It seems odd to speak of such painting in such terms, but there is a real fact [203] involved. Western painting, from Masaccio to Cézanne, has consistently illustrated the dogma of the externality of the world, a dogma which, as it has not obsessed the Orient to the same degree, has not been incorporated in its painting. Our painting normally recedes from the observer, and is often judged by critics in terms of whether it takes flight precipitately enough: whether it "goes back," as the phrase is.

     At the same time nobody wants perfectly flat painting, which still gives one an external world, though stripped of one dimension and of all the seeing in depth which is half the pleasure of using one's eyes. That is the painting world of advertisements, posters and other mentally invisible objects, and of those murals in which dead pasteboard figures glumly rehearse the progress of transportation from camel to jeep. Flat painting is tolerable only in genuinely childlike pictures, as the child's eye hardly seems to perceive in depth at all. But it is absurd to say that Oriental or medieval painting is flat in this sense, or that it has no perspective. The perspective is there all right, but it is a convex perspective which rolls up to the observer instead of running away from him. In some Oriental pictures the observer's eye seems to be at the circumference of the picture, so that it opens inward into the mind. Perspective in this kind of painting is not a mechanical handling of distance, but a proportioning of visual interest, which makes a man look smaller when further away because he is then pictorially less important.

     It is an approach to perspective something like this which gives to those landscapes of Milne that depend on vista their extraordinary soap-bubble lightness. No emphasis is laid on the mass, volume, solidity, independence or elusiveness of things "out there": all the shapes and forms are drawn toward the eye, as though the whole picture were floating in the air detached from its rectangular frame. Milne's whole aim is apparently to present a pure visual experience, detached from all the feelings which belong to the sense of separation from the object, feelings which are mainly tactile in origin. [204]

     The studies in still life, on the other hand, and the landscapes that are done inside a forest, or (as often happens) a house, are perhaps closer to Milne's immediate context in Canada. In temperament Milne is possibly closer to Morrice than to any other Canadian painter, but he comes later on the Canadian scene and is more closely linked both with it and with the traditions of painting it than the friend of Matisse was. The Group of Seven felt that they were among the first to look at Canada directly, and much of their painting was based on the principle of confronting the eye with the landscape. This made a good deal of their work approach the flat and posterish, but that was a risk they were ready to take. Jackson, Lismer and Harris all found this formula exhaustible, and have all developed away from it. Thomson and Emily Carr represent a more conscious penetration of the landscape: they seem to try to find a centre of rhythm deep within their subject and expand from there. Milne combines these techniques in a way that is apt to confuse people who look at him for the first time. The flatness in his painting is not a remote or external flatness, but an absorption of the painter's (and beholder's) eye in the subject. The beholder is at once well inside the picture, where he finds that everything is on much the same pictorial level. In other words, he finds a certain amount of camouflage or dazzle-painting (notice how hard it is to see the human figure in the untitled landscape study). Little allowance is made for the customary selective activity of the eye, and in a still life like the "Water Lilies," foreground and background seem to merge in an elaborate interlocking pattern, as substance and shadow do when trees are reflected in "The Outlet of the Pond."

     I happen to be personally more attracted by Milne's watercolours than by his oils, although his use of oil is very subtle and delicate, and in fact approximates his water-colour technique more closely than is usual with painters. (His drypoint etchings, which are of very great interest, have been discussed by himself in a recent issue of Canadian Art.) He has painted what must surely be some of the wettest [205] water colours, both in technique and in subject-matter, ever done. In fact, rain, fog, snow and mist play an important role in his work: their function is not to blur the outlines but to soften them down so as to increase the sense of a purified visual pattern. Rain, which is very difficult to paint, has the paradoxical quality of bringing objects nearer by partly veiling them: it decreases the sunlight sense of hard objective fact, not by making things look unreal, but by making them seem less conventionalized. It often plays a similar role in Oriental painting.

     In more recent years Milne has brought his painting to the point at which it has become the pictorial handwriting, so to speak, of a genuinely simple but highly civilized mind. This has enabled him to detach himself further than ever from the picturesque object and develop a free fantasy which may remind some of Chagall. One may see something of this even in the sea-gulls that flap like unwanted thoughts across the foreground of a picture where the focus of vision is on the skyline. It is more fully developed in the Noah's Ark, with its unforced humour that appeals to the child in the adult without being itself synthetically childlike. And in the very lovely "Snow over Bethlehem" the idea suggested, which we can take or leave alone, that every snowflake is a new star, and hence, if one likes, a new sign of the presence of God, floats so easily out of the picture because it is an inference from the picture and not its organizing idea. The organizing idea is simply the exploiting of the possibilities of a subject usually considered inaccessible to painting -- the crystallization of snowflakes. This expansion of meaning from the desire to paint, rather than from a desire to say something with paint, is typical of the way that Milne's art works. Few if any contemporary painters, in or outside Canada, convey better than he does the sense of painting as an emancipation of visual experience, as a training of the intelligence to see the world in a spirit of leisure and urbanity.

(1948) [206]

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