Opening today at the Vancouver Art Gallery, David Milne: Modern Painting documents the artistic career of Milne with almost ninety works in oil and watercolour, never-before-exhibited photographs and sketches, and memorabilia collected by Milne during his time as an official WWI war artist. The exhibit logs his career chronologically, following his development through New York City, northern France, and into solitude while documenting the changes in his style and approach to painting.
Click on the images below for more information on each work, then read on for my thoughts on the gallery as a whole!
The exhibit purposefully opens commercially, hoping to capture audiences with Milne’s bright, early pieces. Milne began his career when he moved to New York City from an incredibly small town in Ontario to work in commercial illustration. We see those elements here with the bright, colourful, and much more easily accessible pieces. From here, viewers move into the second space in the exhibit for all of Milne’s seated figure images. Although none of these were direct portraits of his new wife Patsy, they portray elements of domestic life we don’t see elsewhere in his work. After NYC Milne moved into the woods, then found a placement as a war painter, documenting the aftermath of WWI. After his return to North America, we see him move through different secluded locales, including a mining area and multiple self-built cabins.
Although I really appreciated the first room in the exhibit, centred around New York City, much of the rest of Milne’s work didn’t suit my tastes too well. It’s difficult to understand the subtitle “modern painting” in this exhibit as it felt neither modern nor as intensely dynamic as his contemporaries. The continued focus of curators Sarah Milroy and Ian A C Dejardin on Milne’s classification as the best Canadian watercolour painter felt overshot. It’s hard to reconcile their excitement over Milne when remembering the Group of Seven and Emily Carr are his contemporaries, albeit with differing styles.
Much of this exhibit has not been previously collected for a show as it is here. Milroy scoured private collections and other galleries to collect a well-representative exhibition of his work. However, I found the small collection of ephemera that was presented in the war room more interesting and illustrative of Milne’s mindset than many of his later paintings. Clearly, much research was done into Milne’s extensive letter- and diary-writing, so I wish we had more of that in the show for elaboration. Casual attendees of the exhibit likely won’t gather the same understanding of Milne that was presented by the curator herself, which is a shame as those enlightening remarks are what brought the pieces to life.
If you want to check out David Milne: Modern Painting yourself, or see the connected Site Unseen gallery, head over to the Vancouver Art Gallery now through September 9!