Canadian art that almost melts the snow

EVERY so often I'm left confounded by the reverence and awe in which an artist's work is held by connoisseurs. There must be something wrong with me, I think, because I simply can't understand what makes this work so important. David Milne's work is a case in point. There likely has never been an artist more highly regarded by Canadian art experts, and for years I tried to fathom why.

At first I dismissed it as being more a matter of Milne's credentials than how and what he painted. He did take himself to New York and the Art Students' League in 1904 when he was 22 years of age. He was invited to exhibit in that city's Armory Show in 1913. He did become a Canadian war artist and painted in Europe in the aftermath of World War I.

He did, for five years or so, have as a patron the distinguished Canadian diplomat, Vincent Massey, who later became governor general. Milne was selected for representation in exhibitions of Canadian art in London, Paris, the Venice Biennale, Rio de Janeiro, and South Africa, as well as in the United States and Canada.

Pretty heady stuff for someone born in the small rural community of Paisley in Bruce County, Ontario, and bound to impress those who want a tangible way of measuring an artist's worth.

Was it that Milne did what were considered to be the right things -- chose astute ways in which to pursue his career -- and established himself in influential circles? That's what I was inclined to think.

Since then, however, I have abandoned that lazy and unjust way out of my confusion. The fact had to be faced that, for a person to emerge as an artist, adopting a sound route to that objective is not enough: There have to be qualities of expression that somehow break away from what is customary and expected, causing others to stop and think and perhaps wonder.

Although I still can't bring myself to the degree of appreciation expressed by the art scholar who described Milne's work as ``rigorously beautiful, amazingly constructed works of art . . . with that assurance that arises only from genius,'' I can see what I think was and remains Milne's special appeal.

It's an assemblage of characteristics quite unlike those that typified Canadian painting -- landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and so forth -- up to that time.

``Winter Carnival, Dominion Square,'' for instance, has a spontaneity, a swift inexactitude about it that, while not entirely unknown to Canadian painting in the early part of this century, was far from common. Now, too, in large measure, Canada's art favors definition: Objects are set and firm, whether representational or not; line and form tend to be paramount; color is supportively solid and positive, seldom a diffused, wandering thing but contained and unmistakable. It is an art -- to my way of thin king -- of directness and correctness.

This picture is nothing of the sort. It is loose, ``sketchy''; it looks as if it were dashed off without a care in the world -- no agonizing, no second thoughts, nothing to regret or correct.

Moreover, there is a strange electric quality in this scene. It vibrates with energy. It almost melts the winter snow. So many of Milne's works, his later watercolors particularly, are similarly charged.

``Long observation and intense creative concentration'' is what one art critic has seen in Milne. I would respectfully add unfettered vitality: It steams down his brush handles, singes the bristles, sears his surfaces, and we get the hot spontaneity of Winter Carnival -- ``Boston Corners'' (1916), ``Blue Church'' and ``The Gully'' (1920), ``Water Lilies, Temagami'' (1929), and ``White Poppy'' (1946).

The art of David Milne is revered in Canada because, I've come to think, it puts forward an approach to painting we didn't know we had; it was seen to take us out of ourselves in some measure, and it made us feel internationally attuned and acceptable. To a northern arts community trying to find its way in the world, that would have been a development of great significance.

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