Gilding the Lily
David Milne watercolors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“PAINTING TOWARD THE LIGHT” is a cooperative attempt to revive interest in Canadian painter David Milne (1882-1953). Watercolors from Canadian and American collections went on tour to the British Museum this past summer. They are now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, returning afterward to the Art Gallery of Ontario. In July, one London paper described Milne as a artist who lost his talent. The Metropolitan introduces him as a “forgotten visionary.”

"Ski Jump, Lake Placid" 1929

Milne lived in the United States from 1903 to 1929, the heyday of American modernism. The first 15 years were spent in in New York City where he studied at the Art Students League and experimented with a cheerful, post-impressionist brand of modernism. This was his most engaging and fertile period, winning him inclusion in New York’s 1913 Armory Show and the 1915 International Exposition in San Francisco, each time represented by his watercolors. Comparisons of this bright beginning to Maurice Prendergast and John Marin are well deserved.

World War I intruded. From 1918 to 1919, just after the Armistice, he worked for the Canadian War Memorials program recording European battlefields. He returned to New York intermittently between 1920 and 1929, becoming increasingly reclusive and retreating from both the art world and the sources that nourished his youthful work. Several watercolors on view record impressions of the Berkshire, Catskill and Adirondack Mountains where he painted prior to returning permanently to Canada in 1929.

He remained in Ontario until his death, no longer painting from observation but drifting into formlessness and idiosyncrasy. This last period was equal in length to the years of lively promise and, consequently, is a significant part of the basis for judgment of his career. The Metropolitan slants our understanding of Milne by loading up on work from his initial years and heavily pruning, almost censoring, the second quarter century. (“Resurrection III,” 1943, is a typically vaporous apparition of his later period.)While Milne worked in oil—producing 445 canvases between 1929 and 1937—and made prints, only his watercolors are considered of interest. Of these, it is primarily the earliest that warrant revisiting.

They are undeniably appealing. “Black and White I” and “II,” both from 1911, “Round Tree” (1912) and “Three Hansoms” (c.1912) have an irresistible Parisian lilt to them. Air flows through the compositions, built from separate touches of bold color separated by reserves of white paper. His New York scenes—some likely viewed from his studio near the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue—are charming, Nabi-like urban idylls. “Cobalt Trees” (1913) and several 1916 views of Bishop’s Pond are delightful., their expressive color gleaned from Fauvism and the decorative patterning of the page from Vuillard and the lithographs of Bonnard. But delight ended soon.

Milne described himself as “a group of one,” a reference to Canada’s renowned Group of Seven, his contemporaries who painted Ontario’s wilderness. Milne’s own landscapes scenes are pleasing but do not carry the graphic power of the Seven. His modernist vitality withered and his originality emerges more a weakness than a strength. Milne is most himself in a juiceless drybrush technique that robs watercolor of its reason for being. “Porch by the Lake” (1921) is a drawing with arid color thinly dragged over pencil lines. Parched color reinforces pencil lines that have no beauty of their own. Watercolor becomes compensation for a limited graphic vocabulary. And the creeping substitution of uninflected black for his earlier expressive color could be deadly. Rejection of color in works like “In the Cabin on the Mountain I” (1921) was an abandonment of the very influences that animated his gifts. Instead of maturing, he contracted.

Milne was a war artist who did not see combat. He was sent to Ypres, Belgium, in 1919, two years after the terrible battles had ended. The time lag, together with aridity of technique, lends his memorial art a strange detachment. “Courcellete from the Cemetery” (1919), in the Somme, is drawn with the same overall dispassion and unconcern for emphasis as a 1923 view of the Glenmore Hotel. (Van Gogh wrests more anguish from bare trees in a garden than Milne finds on a slaying field.) The raspy linearity of these works makes no distinction between the essential and the obvious.

Highly selective curating seeks to justify museum billing as one of Canada’s “most original and influential artists.” In reality, Milne’s watercolors would suit a low key gallery exhibition, one that did not hanker after “an international spotlight” based on inflated claims. But on the walls of the Metropolitan, with every publicist’s stop pulled out (the press preview, the catalog, exhibition design by X, lighting by Y and Z, gallery talks, plus a welter of educational exertions for adults and children), presentation gilds the lily.

Milne’s resuscitation is timed to ride the coat tails of Van Gogh. The chat label on the wall states: “While Milne’s considerable body of work received little attention during his lifetime, his talents have been appreciated posthumously by Canadian collectors, museums and scholars.” Once past the pathos of postmortem appreciation, we come to the unspoken message: A cache of potential assets is languishing in flat files between here and Ottawa.

Not every effort to revive forgotten reputations is a disinterested act of connoisseurship. Often it is a means to enhance the pedigree and value of work held by well-placed collectors, including other art institutions. The foreplay of deaccession is subtle. And strategic exposure, ennobled by scholarship, is a customary prelude to the auction block. Any bets on how long before Milne shows up at Sotheby’s?


“David Milne: Painting toward the Light” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avene, 212-570-3951).

This review first appeared in The New York Sun, November 10, 2005.

Copyright 2005, Maureen Mullarkey

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