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September 27, 2003

1000 Words: David Milne

Michael Blowhard writes:

Friedrich --

Your megafab posting on the Canadian painters known as the Group of Seven (here) reminded me of one of my favorite visual artists, the Canadian David Milne. Have you run into much of his work? He seems to be barely known in the States. Some of my artbuff friends haven't heard of him, and I know of him only because I saw some of his work at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario. I gather that in Canada he's seen as a national treasure, though even so he doesn't seem to be celebrated as proudly as, say, the Group of Seven or Emily Carr. But really, I don't know what Milne means to Canadian art fans. Perhaps a Canadian visitor can fill us in here?

Milne lived from 1882 until 1953 and was friendly with the Group of Seven -- he was a big admirer of Tom Thomson's. Unlike them, though, he was always a go-it-alone artist, and he was drawn to oddball, quiet moods. He made plenty of oil paintings, especially early on. But he liked experimenting, and he was probably more comfortable with quicker, lighterweight, let-the-materials-do-the-talking, is-it-a-drawing-or-is-it-a-painting media -- drypoint, pen and ink, watercolor.

His images are generally spare and evocative. They're tone poems, with nothing of the on-a-mission, lumberjacky quality that the Group's images sometimes had. Instead, they're caught-on-the-wing combinations of the fleeting and the sensual. They range from Bonnard-ish/Vuillard-ish interiors to icily delicate, calligraphic watercolor landscapes and townscapes. His work often has a modest, handmade, Arts-and-Craftsy out-of-it-ness -- a lucid, simple, and inquisitive attitude that shows no fear of the decorative. There was a modesty too in his use of modernist techniques and approaches. He was nothing if not an early-modernist, but he clearly saw modernism as an addition to the traditional art palette and not a replacement for it.

I really love his images. To my mind, only the kinds of people who would let importance-rankings interfere with their pleasure and enjoyment -- and I'm sure there'd be no such person among visitors to 2Blowhards -- would ever think to dismiss Milne as a "minor artist." Yet, if you can accept the word "minor" not as a judgment but as a description (and I certainly can), a minor artist is exactly what he was. He was working in minor media, and in minor modes and minor keys. But he was wonderful -- a "minor artist" in the same way that, say, Isherwood was a "minor writer."

A little bio: Milne was born in Ontario, and as a kid took some art correspondence courses. He moved as a young man to New York, where he supported himself making cards and window displays while studying at the Art Students League. Overseas during WWI, he never saw action but made a lot of images of postwar Europe; he received some English acclaim for this work. He lived in the woods in New York state and Massachusetts for a few years before moving back to Canada.

Always drawn to solitude and the countryside, and a fan of Thoreau, he spent six years in the middle 1930s living in a tar-paper cabin on a lake. He was never well-known while he was alive. His work was sometimes shown, but he had no interest in the art game and was often poor; at one point he was so desperate for cash that he asked some friends to buy his entire body of work (about a thousand paintings at that point) for five dollars each. He married twice, and had a son when he was 59.

I don't have your gift for keeping track of the dates and titles of images I've stashed on my hard drive, let alone your layout talents. So I'll just spill a handful of Milne images out here for your enjoyment. These are pop-ups, so click to see them at a larger size.

Milne is also known for having a lively way with words. I haven't read much of his writing, and so can't judge. But I had a good time gathering a few passages from the web:

Feeling is the power that drives art. There doesn't seem to be a more understandable word for it, though there are others that give something of the idea: aesthetic emotion, quickening, bringing to life. Or call it love; not love of man or woman or home or country or any material thing, but love without an object -- intransitive love ...

The most successful ones [he's speaking of his own paintings] seem to be the ones that are caught the quickest, and are farthest from the realistic. The idea is to get a strong kick from the subject, and let the putting of it on the canvas take care of itself. Have the thing strongly enough fired in your mind, then grab your brushes and just fall over the canvas ...

Art is love, but not love of man or child, or love of woman, not love of nature or love of country or of mankind. It is just love, love without an object, a spilling of the oil of love.

Hey, I think I spot some Vedanta in that attitude -- but I'm in a phase where I spot some Vedanta in almost everything I enjoy.

This book here by David Silcox is a lovely intro to Milne�s life and art. It�s also an art-book bargain: $13.97! This Ian Thom book here on Milne is a little more expensive (though still a bargain), and is also first-class.

Here's a huge Cybermuse page of Milne images.

Thanks again for raising the topic of Canadian art.


posted by Michael at September 27, 2003


We seem to be having a Post-Impressionist appreciation period here. Milne is quite a painter and a writer. From a letter of his:

"Do you like flowers? So do I, but I never paint them. I didn't even see the hepaticas. I saw, instead, an arrangement of the lines, spaces, hues, values and relations that I habitually use."

More correlation for the remark by Degas: "Artists don't paint what they see, they see what they paint."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 27, 2003 7:29 PM

P. S. Don't we have any Canadian visitors to skewer us Yanks with factual errors or objections to our (no doubt facile) interpretations of Canadian history? Or even to compliment us on our good taste in liking Canadian art?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 28, 2003 3:11 AM


My compliments on your good taste in liking Canadian art.

There. Now a quibble about your (generally excellent) gloss of Canadian history. Alberta and Saskatchewan did not "drag their feet until 1905" over the question of joining Confederation. For nearly 20 years, they bitched and whined and campaigned for provincial status before finally getting their way in 1905. (But we in Alberta aren't bitter about it any more. No, no. Not at all.)

I liked MIchael's description of the Group of Seven paintings at a museum near Toronto. (Sounds like the McMichael Collection in Kleinburg.) He found them "Adventurous, free, and modest all at the same time," and I thought "Yes, that's us. At least, that's what we want to be on our good days."

By the way, Witold Rybczynski, quoted in one of Michael's recent posts, started out in Canada, studying architecture at McGill University in Montreal.

Finally, have you looked at the work of Alex Colville? How about Christopher Pratt? They're household names in Canada, though not necessarily in every household. (Same goes for Rybczynski, though in our household we tend to call him "Witold Alphabet." )

Allan Connery

Posted by: Allan Connery on September 28, 2003 12:23 PM

Hi Allan -- The McMichael, that was it. Charming place, lovely art. Thanks for reminding me, as well as for helping us out with Canadian history, which I especially have had no luck making sense of. Canada: who can figure? Toronto's full of itself. The francophones hate the anglophones. The west resents the east. Vancouver's full of Asians and the Maritimes are poor. Group of Seven. David Milne. Robertson Davies, Alice Munro. Hmm, starting to come up short now ... And I say this as someone who visits Canada semi-regularly, and tends to feel more at home there than in the States.

Thanks too for pointing out Colville and Pratt, who I'm looking forward to checking out.

Oh, and Dany Laferriere. And Gordon Lightfoot. And ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 28, 2003 11:25 PM

And of course, Mike Myers.

Posted by: annette on September 29, 2003 4:26 PM

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