The title of this show might at first seem impossibly broad, but by the end it makes perfect sense: this is the story of one man struggling to figure out what the ‘modern’ world is about, and what possible place painting might have in it.
Milne arrived in New York from rural Canada at the turn of the twentieth century, intending to be a commercial artist. Under the spell of the post-impressionist work he saw there, his early paintings mash up the bold palettes and visual experimentation of Édouard Vuillard and Henri Matisse with the brashness of NY’s billboards and funfairs. The art world dug him: his work appeared in the famous 1913 Armory show alongside Van Goghs and Monets. He was all set. Then he went back to the country. Then he went to Europe.
Rather than starving in an urban garret, Milne decided to starve in a rural one. Throughout his life, he built shacks in remote bits of the countryside and lived in them, compulsively painting. His works from 1916 and 1917 are astonishing: near-abstract landscapes and details of rocks, plants and water. He leaves areas of bare canvas, dashing in lines of snow and bleak trees. He is obsessed with reflections, like he’s trying to understand what a painting might give back to the artist.
This intensity continues into Milne’s works from the former battlefields of France and Belgium in 1919. These are the landscapes of impressionism, but rather than being stylised by painting, they have been grotesquely distorted by war. Milne makes that connection. His brushwork is fractured and staccato, huge areas of the paper are left blank and there’s a rigorously severe palette, like camouflage. Now the water reflects from bomb craters. An abandoned tank sits on the paper like a slug on a tablecloth.
Milne’s struggle is a thoroughly un-macho one, despite his backwoods-loner schtick. His later works are often bold and startling: full of questions. If you’ve seen beauty, he seems to say, war is impossible to comprehend. But once you’ve seen war, everything is impossible to comprehend.