Painting Place:
The Life & Work of David B. Milne

464 pages,
ISBN: 0802040950

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Placing Place Project
by Staven Nunoda

Painting Place is the first part of a four-volume series to be published by the University of Toronto Press, which will include a two-volume catalogue raisonné of Milne's work and a volume with a selection of his writings. Rarely is this sort of intensive project attempted by a Canadian writer for a Canadian press with a Canadian visual artist as its focus. Considering the project's multi-million-dollar budget, touted in early press releases, this book's appearance is an event in Canadian publishing and is of considerable significance to the visual arts in this country. Clearly, David Silcox's work is a serious undertaking, and one that has ramifications beyond the scope of the study of one deserving Canadian artist.
Illustrated books on the work and lives of individual artists come in roughly two sorts. The first is the kind that adds something to a décor. Filled with expensive reproductions of an artist's work in full colour with a few comments on her (although usually his) life and philosophy, this type is largely intended to popularize, or to capitalize on the popularity of its subject. Painting Place, considered with its companion volumes, is of the second sort, a true monograph: a comprehensive account of an artist's career in words and pictures. As Silcox says in the preface, it is seriously intended as a record that secures an artist's place in art history, and it attempts to accomplish this through the presentation of all available pertinent information. This monograph, like many, shares some characteristics with its cousins of the less distinguished genre. It is understandably intended to popularize the artist and its author's view of the artist. The press releases stated that it is meant to be accessible-implying that it is not a strictly technical work of interest only to academics. This dual audience makes Silcox's task doubly difficult. To aid in appealing to both academics and lay-persons, it is, in trade jargon, lavishly illustrated with high-quality reproductions. These illustrations are, however, at the centre of a few technical flaws in the book which are not entirely the fault of the author.
Painting Place has been laid out so that many of the illustrations are literally marginal. There are no figure references in the text, and occasionally important works mentioned are not illustrated at all-possibly a result of difficulties in securing the rights to the images' reproduction. Nevertheless, as a tool for scholars and connoisseurs, the exhaustive research in Painting Place and the rest of the Milne Project will be invaluable for the placing of works within the context of Milne's oeuvre.
It is a convention of the genre that a monograph should tell the entire life of the artist. As the subtitle suggests, Silcox's book is first a life of David Milne. Milne is a perfect subject for this kind of treatment. He left a remarkable legacy of written documentation, including an unfinished autobiography, hundreds of personal letters, and notes on his methods and daily activities. Silcox is certainly diligent in his pursuit of Milne's story, having studied the thousands of oils, watercolours, drypoints, and papers. As Silcox writes, Milne seems to have had throughout his career a sense of posterity. This is, however, not the only reason why he suits the monograph form.
Silcox's account of Milne's life relies heavily on his papers for extensive quotations, which go far to explain his aesthetic concerns and processes and to give some glimpses into his personality. The author lays out Milne's life in painstakingly fine detail, from his infancy in a proverbial log cabin in Paisley, Ontario, through his days in New York City, where he studied, worked as a commercial artist, was first married, and had his early triumphs as one of only two Canadians included in the famous Armoury Show. He is then followed through his formative experiences as a Canadian military artist in 1918 and his subsequent aesthetic, economic, and marital struggles.
Silcox perceptively characterizes Milne's career as a succession of withdrawals from urban cultural life into sylvan isolation à la Thoreau. This pattern of periods of engagement with urban life and the art world, followed by periods of retreat, persisted right up to his later years, when his work was accorded acceptance and recognition not only by his fellow artists (who it seems had long seen its worth) but by the National Gallery, a select number of connoisseurs, and at last the Canadian art public. Finally, Silcox tells the poignant story of the settling of Milne's estate, detailing how a few people with wealth and power profited from the work which never supported him in his lifetime.
Fitting the serious tone of the book, Silcox's prose is straightforward, factual, and sometimes rather dry. He nevertheless manages to read between the lines of Milne's letters and the accounts of those close to him, to produce a good sense of the man's personality. As Silcox's narrative explains, the artist lived most of his life in poverty and obscurity, yet with a steadfast sense of the importance of his work. In devoting his life to developing his aesthetics, he isolated himself from social interaction, which made his personal relations-as well as the recognition and financial security he sought-difficult. Thankfully, Silcox does not attempt to portray Milne as a full-fledged romantic artist, but still as something of an anti-hero whose self-sacrifice borders on self-indulgence:
"Milne was a man with a large ego, which he hid behind the mask of his self-effacing Scottishness. He was doubtless not easy to live with, and as naturally self-centred as many artists are bound to be. If his muse was not diligently served, he was readily capable of being ruthless."
If it sounds as though Silcox has produced the familiar story of the modern outsider/artist, that is true only in that the reader may recognize Milne as one who put this paradigm into practice. In fact, the details of his life would seem to bear out this interpretation. This is what makes him interesting, accessible, and the perfect subject for both a biography and a monograph intended for a broad audience.
There is however a danger in artists' biographies, especially in the case of Milne, who so closely fits the myth of the modern artist and whose art, executed in a gestural and formal mode, is open to emotive interpretation. As the American critic Rosalind Krauss has pointed out (in "In the Name of Picasso", in The Originality of the Avant-Garde & Other Modernist Myths, MIT Press), there is a possibility that the individual works may be read only by their biographical context, as anecdotes in a narrative of the artist's life so that "meaning stops within the boundaries of identity." Silcox for the most part eludes this trap in his chronicle of Milne's production of his great mass of landscapes, his interiors, still lifes, and the figural fantasy paintings of his later years.
The author manages this through a geographical scheme. Passages on Milne's life are followed by passages on his art, all organized by chapter according to his places of residence. This approach may be conventional, but it is apt. It puts the life in the service of the art, just as Milne had done. Unfortunately for Silcox's text, this approach results in occasionally jarring transitions between the biographical and art-historical passages. More importantly, it acknowledges that throughout his artistic development, Milne responded emotionally and creatively to his locale, to environments conducive to concentration on his art. Even in his astute choice of a title, Silcox alludes not only to the dominant subject of Milne's work, but also to the great influence that place and changes of place had on Milne's art.
(This is not the first time this title, taken from one of Milne's paintings, has been used for a publication. In 1976 Rosemarie Tovell wrote a monograph called David Milne: Painting Place / Un coin pour peindre, to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the National Gallery in Ottawa.)
The text makes it clear that the events that caused emotional stress in Milne's life often did not directly influence the appearance of the work except in that they caused interruptions in the flow of the work's development. This pattern is, however, not without exceptions. Early in his career, he may have been much more influenced by his daily activities. A case in point is his employment as a commercial artist producing sign cards and illustrations. Silcox follows Milne's own lead in depreciating the influence of this commercial activity on his graphic use of line and a restricted palette-both were major compositional elements used throughout his career. After the fact, Milne felt that his sign cards and their lithographic reproduction only influenced his use of black in his drawings from 1915. However, his reason for rejecting illustration as a means of financial support is revealing. Hinting that he may have seen some influence of commercial art on his work, he wrote that he had quit illustrating because "it would have been too close to painting and had an effect on it."
While the subjects of Milne's paintings and prints are, with a few exceptions, his immediate surroundings, their content has more to do with his translation of visible reality into aesthetic objects. Through the title and the text, Silcox observantly highlights one group of works that act as benchmarks scattered through Milne's development, the "painting-place" images. These works are exteriors with artist's materials in the foreground, or interiors with art paraphernalia scattered within still life arrangements. Recognizing their importance, Silcox writes:
"All of Milne's paintings are comments on the human condition, in one way or another, but those which show the artist's tools and his studio are of a particular kind, because they also comment on the nature of art and its part in the drama of daily life. Milne's painting-place pictures are in a sense all self-portraits."
This reading of the works is unfortunately overstated and over-biographical. The painting-place pictures are not exactly self-portraits; they do not deal specifically with Milne's persona. They are, however, portrayals of his act of painting, which strongly suggests that he intended them to be explicit statements of his aesthetics at the time of their production. These images of painting effectively frame the gestural components of Milne's techniques, the evidence of the artist's hand and eye that are at the heart of his aesthetics.
Milne's aesthetics-modernist aesthetics-may have led to a somewhat dogmatic reference by Silcox to the human condition. In his late figural fantasy pictures dealing with social and spiritual issues, Milne did, as Silcox says, produce work specifically concerning the human condition. To say, however, that the expression of an individual's condition invariably is a comment on that of every human being is something of a modernist platitude. While this statement may have been acceptable in Milne's day, Silcox's implication that this content creeps into all of Milne's work is now an anachronism. Milne's work is largely concerned with the exploration of the formal possibilities of abstraction. Certainly there is an expressive and emotional component to this activity: he himself is quoted as having said that "feeling is the power that drives art." He also saw his painting as an aesthetic pursuit, implying that its goal was the production of objects expressing an idea, if not an ideal of beauty.
"For me sentiment has no place in paintings," he wrote. "The only feeling understandable is aesthetic feeling, no bearing on our struggle for survival."
It might be more in keeping with the artist's own statements to characterize his oeuvre as a search for an aesthetic vision, clearly expressed. This is not an uncommon goal for any modern artist (or for some postmodern ones). Milne sought to translate his unique sensibility into the formal elements of visual communication. In fact, Silcox acknowledges Milne's formalism when he notes that the 1920 watercolour "Pool and Contours" achieved aesthetic goals that would appear later in his career: "clarity, precision, and simplicity".
Silcox is at his best in his formal description of the development of Milne's subjects and techniques. He portrays Milne's artistic career as a progression of aesthetic discoveries that respond to problems set by the artist. Rather than confronting the terms of Milne's aesthetics in any great depth, the author, for the most part, allows Milne to describe his motivations and philosophy in his own words. The somewhat superficial engagement with the theoretical aspects of Milne's aesthetics may be the result of Silcox's concentration on the development of Milne's isolationist practice. It may also be a symptom of the book's conflicting aspirations to scholarship and accessibility. Nevertheless, Silcox has taken care to cite Milne's influences, from the American artist John Marin, through Monet, Cézanne, and Matisse. Having mentioned these artists, who all worked with various types of formalism based on the abstraction of natural subjects, it seems strange not to use them to link Milne's work to developments in a broader theoretical and aesthetic context of modernism. Such an examination could only promote a greater understanding of Milne's importance-his place in Canadian art history and art history in general.
The measure of this volume's value to both the general public and the critical evaluation of Milne's work is found in its exhaustive chronological narratives of the artist's biography and the evolution of his style and technique. As for its implications to publishing and the visual arts in this country, it might be well to note that Painting Place, like other large-format art-books, sits at the top of the publication food web. Monographs dwarf most other books, use up the greatest resources, involve the most research, and receive and grant the most prestige to the subject, author, and owner. Like macrophages, they may also be systemic barometers, revealing much about the environments they inhabit, although their own value to the system may at first be indiscernible. If this book increases domestic awareness of the value of Canadian art in general through the popularization of Milne, Silcox will have rendered valuable service to the visual arts communities. While it remains to be seen if there is any such long-term effect, David Silcox is certainly convincing that the art of David Milne deserves immediate attention.

Steven Nunoda is a Calgary visual artist and educator.


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