ArtworksDavid MilneRadio IV (Uxbridge, Ontario), 1946 (August)1882-1953Sold
Inscriptionssigned and dated, ‘David Milne Aug 1946’ (lower centre)
Galerie Godard Lefort, Montreal.
David Molson, Montreal, 1970.
Continental Galleries, Montreal;
Acquired from the above by Mitzi and Mel Dobrin in 1975.
David Silcox, Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 344.
David Milne Jr. and David P. Silcox, David B. Milne: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume 2: 1929-1953, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), no. 406.42, reproduced p. 890.
In 1940, Milne and Pavey rented a house and a nearby studio in Uxbridge, which was close to Toronto but in the countryside. It offered city access, lower rents, good cross-country skiing, and the type of domesticated landscape that Milne liked to paint. When World War II broke out, Milne – then in his later ‘50s – wrote to Vincent Massey offering his services as a war artist, a role he had played in World War I with memorable results. Nothing came of his suggestion. At least on the surface, the many works he did in Uxbridge seem remote from world events. Leading to this sense is the fact that Milne painted more indoor scenes in Uxbridge, including still lifes with flowers. Radio IV, however, despite its jubilantly painted flowers, is more than a still life.
One important context for Radio IV is the so-called ‘fantasy’ pictures that Milne had from time to time executed and which became prevalent in the 1940s. These are images derived from Milne’s vivid imagination and that frequently drew on his droll sense of humour. An example is Snow in Bethlehem, a watercolour from 1941. Milne reports that the inspiration for this famous image – it was used as a Christmas postage stamp in Canada in 1984, over 17,000,000 of which were printed – was the snow crystals themselves, which led to the series of associations with Christmas and Bethlehem that we see here. The fantasy paintings often had a religious theme that is absent from Radio. The connection is in the inescapable exuberance of all these images and their frequent exploitation of what we might call the child-like ‘enthusiasm’ of watercolour in Milne’s hands, its proclivity to challenge artistic control.
Milne completed five works with radios in 1946. He liked to work ideas out through common theme, envisioning them not so much as a formal series (as many artists did at this time) than as a family, a set of relations. As he wrote in a letter, ideally, painterly ideas “flow from one picture to another. Pictures are not entirely separate units but are closely related, like members of a family, with characteristics of one coming from some previous one.... When this stream is flowing painting is most direct, comes from within, from the painting itself, rather than from outside influences.” He composed this vibrant painting so that we would notice the radio as well as the highly coloured flowers and the ecstatic forms of the wallpaper that backs this scene. He noted in a letter to a friend that in general for him, “'The thing that makes a picture is the thing that makes dynamite – compression. It isn't a fire in the grass; it's an explosion. Everything must hit at once.” Like fireworks inside, all these elements are exploding visually, an effect of the very wet pigment soaking into the watercolour paper and exceeding Milne’s outlines. The surface is indeed compressed though also dynamic. Everything seems to compete for our attention. Milne’s challenge and triumph here is to keep all these ‘voices’ in play and thus to challenge a viewer without confusing her. This he manages with the central vase holding the flowers, another empty and clear vase to the right, and the radio, which are relatively solid and anchored in the shallow space we see.
Sometimes a radio is not just a radio. While the internal relationships among forms and colours were primary for Milne, there is frequently more to see in his work. In his case and in general, why should viewers be bound by an artist’s stated priorities, especially in Milne’s case, where he said little about the meaning of individual works? Radios were becoming a common vehicle of local and international news when Milne was in New York. Always on a tight budget, in the early 1930s Milne wrote that “someday I hope to have a radio, that will keep me from reading too much,” a habit that he knew tired his eyes for painting. Later in the ‘30s, during the Depression, after some sales, he did allow himself to buy a battery radio. He takes time in letters to note programs he listened to. In effect, as much as reading, the radio was his lifeline to current affairs while he lived in relative solitude at Six Mile Lake. In the prelude to and during World War II, Milne and Kathleen also shared radio listening time. The radio was for them, as for so many, both a potent information technology and a focus of sociality. It’s little wonder that in Radio IV, the radio was depicted with such a tactile intimacy and placed beside flowers, whose colours and shapes Milne often extolled as a source of some of his greatest aesthetic pleasures.
Mark A. Cheetham6of 16