(An Essay about a Painting, Modernism and Change)
In The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes asserts that the dramatically accelerated rate of change associated with scientific and technical advances of early modernity created such a disturbance that “from now on the rules would quaver, the fixed canons of knowledge fail, under the pressure of new experience and the demand for new forms to contain it” (Hughes, 1991). Arguably the production of art has always been motivated by people’s desire to cause, resist or otherwise cope with change: love, politics, war, death; these are constant and recurring themes (Jaffe, 1964). There is a dramatic shift, however, around the turn of the 20th century in the form artworks begin to take. This palpable sense of flux and the search for new forms to express and embody it is clearly at work in Woman in Brown, Painting II, painted in 1916 by David Brown Milne. Its high degree of abstraction, ambiguity of meaning and symbolic use of colour express changing and oscillating experiences of perception, identity and the creation of meaning.
Woman in Brown is a very modestly sized oil painting on canvas currently on display in the David Milne Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is an early Modernist painting by Milne, a Canadian who moved to New York in 1903 from rural Ontario to study art (Silcox, 1996). Supporting himself financially by painting commercial signs, a high point in his artistic career was his inclusion in the Armory Show of 1913. The show was the first to introduce Modern art to a large North-American audience and included many of Europe’s leading Modernist painters like Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, and Paul Cézanne (Wilkin, 2006, 51). Milne’s experience of city life seems to have taken its toll, however; he moved with his wife to the countryside of rural Boston Corners, New York, in 1916 (Tovell, 1998, 74). This is the same year he painted Woman in Brown.
Milne constructs this painting’s composition by breaking the landscape down into a series of intersecting, simplified planes using a restricted palette of black, white, green and brown. These planes are rendered in emotive, jagged but economically placed diagonal strokes of flat colour over areas of bare or thinly primed canvas that generate rhythm and movement (Wilkin, 2006, 53). Black and white oscillate between foreground and background. Exposed canvas represents neither positive nor negative space but rather seems to flow through and be a unifying force behind the landscape, the woman and her work. Thin black lines indicate the presence of an underlying skeletal structure, one that exists to guide rather than constrict the forms it supports. Tension between the emergence and engulfment of the woman in the landscape is reinforced by the simultaneous energy and economy of Milne’s diagonal brushwork that communicates both feeling and information, which would seem to be contradictory.
Milne’s creative process is expressed in both form and content in the tension between opposites, the interchangeable abstraction of landscape and figure, and the exposed skeletal structure of the underpainting. The work’s unity of design and meaning conform to the Modernist mandate for form to follow function, and indicate a desire for the unity and progress of humanity and nature. It also indicates here, in its focus on process, the emergence of a new form of spirituality in the artistic experience of being enveloped and nearly overcome by natural or subconscious forces in the creative act (O’Kane, 2012).
Likely influences on Milne’s thinking about spirituality and the artistic process include Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and American Naturalism (Tovell, 1998), and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the prominence of scientific biology and biocentrism (Botar, 2013). Taking both of these influences into account, nature could be perceived both romantically and rationally as a catalyst for good in generating human improvement or evolution. The interaction between nature and artist as depicted in Woman in Brown can be interpreted as a harmonic and productive state of flux with a subtle, rational structure (O’Kane, 2012). Like the woman whose form suddenly becomes apparent, Milne seems to present us with an obvious-in-hindsight solution to the opposition of man-made versus natural forms: human creations, like humanity, are expressions of nature itself. It seems relevant that Milne made this painting shortly after leaving New York, as it attempts to reconcile his rational and Modernist with religious and rural roots (Tovell, 1998).
However, a darker and unsettling aspect of nature is also implied, throwing off a straightforwardly optimistic reading. A black cross-shaped plane comes to a point at the woman’s back as if the dark, unwatched and unseen content of the forest is poised to pounce on her in the very next moment. And a strange, curved mass at the bottom right seems to have green eyes that watch her with mixed feelings. Seen this way, Milne’s woman in brown is endangered and transformed at once from a modern “new woman,” a heroic plein-aire participant in the new creation of Modernity, into a vulnerable object of desire, fragile beauty threatened by chaos and in need of rescue (DuPlessis, 2002). This is the old story of traditional hierarchy reasserting itself in Modernism’s conflicted attitude towards gender and the “other.” On the one hand, the feminine is idealized and larger than life, an embodiment of hope and Nature’s pure forces; on the other, she and her work are discounted as naive, insubstantial and dangerously weak (Kalha, 2000).
Further complicating the issue of gender, it is unclear whether the viewer is intended to identify with the woman or to observe her and relate to her as an object of contemplation. We look down at her from an elevated position and consider her, rather than her work. We aren’t invited to see what she sees or how it looks to her; we see her. Her vulnerable position inspires a protective emotional response, and implies the assumed masculinity of artist and viewer. And yet, Milne is expressing the sublime, spiritual creative act being performed by a woman. Is this a new form of femininity, or an old reinvented one? It is hard to decide, perhaps because Milne is unsure himself. Or is he making us wonder for a reason? His woman in brown works actively and independently – except for the inspiration of nature, naturally – at a modern activity, with her skirt pulled up to her knees in a way that is only accidentally seductive. Her femininity oscillates between revolutionary and conservative, and expresses the uncertain and changing relationship between gender and modern identity (Armstrong, 1998).
The woman’s identity raises more interesting issues of uncertainty of meaning in the work, and demonstrates Milne’s lack of interest in literal representations and meanings (Wilkin, 2006, 53). Presumably she is Milne’s wife, Frances May (Silcox, 1996). However, the painting’s title does not identify her by name, and her depiction is lacking all realistic portraiture detail. Instead she is abstracted and painted with an objective kind of tenderness in the privileged and symbolic colour by which she is identified. Does the colour brown signify her earthiness, or some other quality? By naming her “Woman in Brown,” he playfully calls her by one of his own names. Does he mean to identify himself with her personally, a kind of self-portrait of his anima, or is he identifying her as his wife or another muse (Jung, 1964)? Furthermore, does the second half of the title, “Painting II,” signify that this is his second painting of her, or that she is working on her second painting? Or is he making a play on words and pointing out that she paints “also”? Creating tension between the idealized feminine form and the real woman or experience that inspired her while inferring that there is or was one, and the different possible real meanings behind colours and the painting’s title, are unusual moves that seem to threaten the actual existence of one single true interpretation of the work. Although he asserts the ultimate unknowability of “truth” in this way, he also engages us in a search for it and establishes the role of language and art in simultaneously revealing and concealing a potential ultimate reality and meaning behind things (Charles, 2012).
Painted the same year as Milne’s retreat from New York city to rural Boston Corners, still a Canadian in the United States, Woman in Brown, Painting II seems to be responding to the challenge of integrating successes and failures of modern urban life with mixed feelings about returning not-quite-home to rural living. Beyond this, fixing the painting’s true meaning is playfully frustrated by contradictions and symbolic uses of form, colour and even language. Through its deceptively modest depiction of a woman making work in a landscape, Milne’s Woman in Brown depicts traditional understandings of spirituality, gender, and truth in flux.
– August 2 2013
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