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Michael Greenwood

David Milne: The Toronto Year, 1939-1940
Marlborough Godard Gallery

artscanada #204/205, April/May 1976
[ 1,390 words ]


Between July 1939 and August 1940 David Milne spent a fruitful and contented year living and working in Toronto. It was his first sojourn in a large town since leaving New York City in 1916, and it would be the only other urban interlude in a working life which, for reasons of independence and economy — certainly not unsociability, was spent almost entirely in sundry rural parts of Ontario and upper New York State.

A hardy and resourceful person who could build himself a house in the true pioneer spirit and was prepared to endure for his art's sake a way of life which for all its freedom was often dauntingly austere, Milne was by no means indifferent to the more positive advantages of city living. He thoroughly enjoyed meeting friends, visits to museums and theatres, and all the varied sights and activities of a metropolis. The dingy chaos of Toronto's waterfront district fascinated him with its muddle of grubby warehouses, weed-grown railroad tracks with their mountains of heaped-up coal, scrap yards and malodorous factories. Like Whistler before him, he saw the drab urban squalor as visual poetry; harmonious arrangements of black, grey, violet and pinkish-ochre enlivened with sprightly outlines of grey, black and sharp crimson, 'vivid and gay' as he told Vincent Massey, but 'far from realistic'. By such means he could evoke the sullen presence of a grimy Victorian Gothic church on a bleak winter's day, transfiguring the bare facts in the magic of his rendering, so that the plain old building assumes, through his eyes, the mystery and exotic splendour of a San Marco.

The fateful year that brought tragedy to the world was one of personal happiness for Milne. After lonely years of estrangement from his wife, he had recently met and decided to share his life with Kathleen Pavey, known to her family and friends as Wyb', in a relationship that proved successful and enduring. This was to be their first year together. His companion on frequent sketching trips to the Toronto suburbs and surrounding countryside, it is Wyb who appears, reading, knitting or sewing in many of the intimate, domestic interiors that Milne painted in their apartment at Homewood and Carleton streets.

It was a happy notion on the part of the Marlborough-Godard Gallery to celebrate 'the Toronto year' with an exhibition of 40 scintillating watercolours of which a number were borrowed for the occasion but the majority shown for the first time. The only three oils known to have been painted in that year were also included. One of these in particular, Chocolates and Flowers (June 1940), is suffused with a golden radiance in which the vase of anemones and mimosa, the crystal bowl and open box of chocolates are glowingly suspended like a beatific vision of the familiar world. One is reminded of Odilon Redon and his way of creating an image that is both suggestive and evanescent as well as amazingly precise. Unlike Redon, with whom he shares a delight in flowers, butterflies and things of transient beauty, Milne did not need to look further than his kitchen table to find a painter's paradise. For him the most ordinary surroundings were always a rich source of visual treasure waiting for discovery.

David Milne was possessed of a seemingly effortless control of the oil medium at this stage, a mastery that enabled him to use it with the freedom and translucency of watercolour, in addition to its inherent qualities of richness and solidity. Why, one wonders, was this otherwise productive year so strangely lacking in oils? One explanation is at least hinted at in the succinct and informative introduction written by the artist's son, David Milne, Jr, for the beautifully produced exhibition catalogue, with all 43 works illustrated, published by Marlborough-Godard. Milne tells us that in 1937 his father began again to paint in watercolours after a lapse of some 12 years, partly for the rapidity of execution and convenience of working outdoors which that medium allows, but also by working in full daylight to relieve the eye strain from which the artist was suffering at that time. Whether troublesome eyesight was still the cause of his almost exclusive use of watercolour in 1939-40 is not mentioned, though one may assume it to be a possibility. No doubt the forthcoming monograph and catalogue raisonné by David Silcox will shed some light on this matter.

It is good to hear that the aforementioned volumes are to be complemented by a selection, prepared by David Milne Jr., from his father's personal writings in the form of correspondence, diaries and notes with their accompanying diagrams and sketches in pen and ink. Hardly a day passed without Milne's committing to paper a fairly detailed commentary on the work in progress, often highly analytical and autodidactic in tone. His diaries and notes, apart from the endearing glimpses they provide into a refreshingly normal daily existence, are clearly intended to act as a critical dialogue with himself, a means of clarifying his thoughts and feelings about problems of immediate relevance to the paintings in hand. His writing was a habit doubtless born of a somewhat isolated life, with few points of contact, one gathers, apart from Clarke, Massey and Duncan, with an informed and sympathetic milieu. In any case the writings were a necessary adjunct to his work, as they were for those other introspective painters, Delacroix and Van Gogh, a way of keeping ideas and impulses in balance.

In observing a motif which attracted him, Milne would carefully note its salient features and adumbrate in advance a method for treating it:

The waterfront in the watercolours would be thin lines of blue, clear cut and vague for the sky, with some larger patches of dull red, brown and gray for tanks and coal piles with small shapes of black and colder red in the boats. I hadn't thought of it in oil until just now, but I think it would work very well with the sky area thinly and irregularly scrubbed over with blue and the clouds drawn with white, again clear cut thin lines for some and soft broad lines for other shapes . . . (April 5, 1940)

Milne's aesthetic program is constantly being formulated in his notes. Like Klee, he conceives the dynamics of a painting as something that guides the viewer through a labyrinth of passages, spaces and obstacles cunningly devised by the artist to enchant, astonish, soothe and beguile his eye on its voyage of discovery. He describes the expressive play of 'thick and thin lines' and of 'clear cut to vague' as creating 'progress', or a sense of movement 'through a picture, something like the circulation of the blood through the body', a formal function that is

one of the less evident, more subtle means that may be used in composition, that is in controlling the progress of the attention through a picture, others are changes in the black and white values, changes in hue, changes in texture, contrasts in blank and worked-over spaces. There are other uses of arrangement such as the crowding of shapes over to one side or one corner. (April 8, 1940]

Aesthetic formulations, however functionally plausible, are only justified in the result. Evidently for Milne they served as a useful mental discipline and frame of reference, since he never allowed aprioristic concepts to interfere with creativity. All his struggles with theory and process were carried on in private, as they should be. The end result as a rule betrays not a suspicion of the mental effort and profound self-questioning that preceded and accompanied it all the way from conception to birth. Milne was a typical modernist in the sense that he believed in the freedom of visual art to express a synthesis of the internal and external worlds of experience by means of formal arrangements of shapes, colours, lines and tones. But he insisted on constantly refreshing his pictorial and plastic inventiveness at the fountain of nature rather than art, knowing it to be a source of unlimited riches. Thus his work is never esoteric; it speaks to all with the spirit of enchanted discovery that seldom deserted him.

artscanada #204/205, April/May 1976


Text: © The Estate of Michael Greenwood. All rights reserved.

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