Dulwich Picture Gallery, London From the glitz of New York’s gilded age to the horror of the trenches, Milne had plenty to work with. So why does our critic prefer his photos?
This exhibition of a supposedly “great” Canadian artist who was unsuccessful in his own lifetime and is little-known outside his own country today is called David Milne: Modern Painting. I don’t know what definition of modern painting they used, but it isn’t in any of my books. Milne’s paintings are only modern if by that you mean a wishy-washy vagueness, depressed colours and complete lack of shock. This is the cough of the new, modern art with a yawn.
There is very little sign of development in Milne’s art, and as you navigate his backwoods the monotony of his subdued palette of russets, pale greens, blacks and muddy browns becomes embarrassingly repetitive.
Milne, born in Ontario in 1882, started his career in gilded age New York – already the art capital of the Americas by the 1900s. He painted softly toned scenes of city life that make Manhattan look like a corner of Edwardian Bloomsbury. His dappled studies of women in big hats, people milling about in the Public Library, a couple of cars and some sedate hoardings are timid imitations of the likes of Matisse and Bonnard. Compared with the paintings of George Bellows or photographs of Alfred Stieglitz from the same era, with their powerful sense of a great urban society, Milne’s perceptions of New York are tediously genteel.
He obviously did not feel at home in the metropolis and in 1916 – suffering from what he described as a “nervous heart” – moved to the first of a series of hideaways in the mountains of New York State, before eventually returning to Canada in 1929. From 1916 onwards, the exhibition is dominated by woodland landscapes. In his 1916 watercolour Bishop’s Pond (Reflections), he finds a mirror of his melancholy in the glassy surface of a woodland pool. White, snowy trees become blurred forms of reflected sadness. Yet the exhibition’s attempt to compare his love of reflections with Monet’s waterlilies reveals a loss of perspective. One of Milne’s landscapes might be touching; together, they pall. He seems unable to take his imagination outside a very limited repertoire. In 1929, for instance, he is still brooding miserably on woodland water in the appropriately titled Gray Pool.
When Milne visited the western front in 1919 as an official Canadian artist, the first world war was over and its eerie potholes and trenches gave him plenty of mud and rainwater to brood on. He himself said he was merely a “tourist” among these haunted landscapes. His war art is not especially powerful. Milne was a misery before he visited the trenches and a misery afterwards. Obviously any image of those landscapes of horror is distressing. Yet it is hard to see what Milne’s dappled renditions add to the photographs of the same scenes that are displayed for comparison. The photographs are brutally real, the paintings almost decorative.
That same contrast between the raw reality of the camera and the gentle artifice of Milne’s brush recurs when the woodland photographs he took as part of his research are shown beside his pastoral scenes. I prefer the photos. I have never thought that about a painter before.
This venerable gallery – with its wonderful architecture by John Soane and collection of masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt and Poussin – is a beautiful place, yet its exhibition programme is turning into an orgy of the second rate. It’s time Dulwich celebrated what it is, an art-historical treasure house, instead of trying to be “modern” and getting lost in some very dreary woods.
Renewed interest in philosopher fires celebrations of 200 years since his birth on 5 May 1818
A spectre is haunting Europe in 2018 – to borrow from one of his catchier one-liners – the spectre of Karl Marx himself. Two hundred years after the philosopher’s birth, a small industry is gathering pace, from plans for major events in Trier, the city on the Moselle where he was born, to a new tour of the Manchester streets that he and Friedrich Engels walked as they discussed the condition of the city’s emerging working class. The bicentenary on 5 May will be marked with exhibitions, lectures, conferences, histories and novels.
The books are starting to pile up. Last month saw a new edition of Marxism – a Graphic Guide, a collaboration by philosophy lecturer Rupert Woodfin and comic book artist Oscar Zárate, while titles by heavyweight specialists on Marxism are on the way. They include a reprint of literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s bestselling Why Marx Was Right, along with a new edition of The Communist Manifesto – which starts with the “spectre” quotation – including an introduction by the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.
Marx’s ideas, running through the Russian revolution to the present day, will be the focus of Marx and Marxism, a new book by one of Britain’s foremost historians of socialism, Gregory Claeys. The influence of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn – as well as factors such as reduced employment prospects and a desire to challenge austerity – are credited by Claeys as helping to engender a renewed interest in Marx, particularly among the young.
“Marx’s prose may seem somewhat obtuse to modern readers,” Claeys said. “But Marx’s central premise – that the most obvious and extreme forms of oppression and exploitation can be removed from everyday life – retains a robustness and daring paralleled by no other thinkers in the modern period.”
Fact is accompanied by fiction. The Murder of Warren Street by Oxford university historian Marc Mulholland, published at the end of May, promises to tell the story of villain Emmanuel Barthélemy (“the man who wanted to kill Marx”).
Marx Returns, due out on 23 February and written by Jason Barker, is billed as combining historical fiction, psychological mystery, philosophy and extracts from Marx’s and Engels’s collected works to reimagine the life and times of Marx.
Among a plethora of gatherings and conferences being organised by the various families of the left, one of the most eagerly awaited is Marx 200, a major conference due to take place at Soas University of London and organised by the Marx Memorial Library.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell – arguably Britain’s best-known Marxist – will speak on the theme of “Into the 21st century: Marxism as a force for change today” alongside guests from around the world, including Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the Communist party of India (Marxist), and Luo Wendong, a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Meirian Jump, archivist at the memorial library, said interest had increased in Marxism in the past couple of years, while numbers attending lectures on Marxism and conducting research in the library’s reading room have risen in recent months.
“In the autumn our venue reached capacity and we had to turn people away from our lectures celebrating 150 years since the publication of Das Kapital,” Jump said. “It was noticeable that a large number of those queuing outside Marx House were young people and students.”
Away from the political calls to arms or Marxist think-ins, exhibitions include the Karl and Eleanor Marx Treasures Gallery, from May to early August at the British Library. The display aims to explore the role that the British Museum reading room, a predecessor institution of the British Library, played in the life and work of Marx and his daughter, a writer and political activist in her own right.
Items on display will include correspondence by Marx, his family and Friedrich Engels, covering both personal and political affairs, as well as rare copies of first editions of Marx’s writings, several of which he donated to the library. Among these is a copy of the first French translation of Das Kapital, believed to feature annotations in Marx’s own hand.
To the likely chagrin of committed Marxists and eurosceptics, the distinctly un-Marxist figure of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker will open a series of exhibitions in Trier. Visitors will be able to view a new permanent exhibition at the Karl-Marx-Haus Museum, and a bronze figure of Marx donated by China.
Those unable to make the trip might instead consider the Marx 200th birthday walking tour in Manchester, where Engels lived on and off for almost 30 years and was visited by Marx.
“We’ve been doing Marx-themed walks for a while. He and Engels were great drinkers so we did one based on the pubs they used to go to, and there was a great response,” said Ed Glinert of New Manchester Walks.
“You get a real range of people. I took the Chinese consul around one time, for example. We don’t get too many Americans, though.”
As for what Marx would make of it all, Claeys asserted he had “a fine, robust sense of humour” and would certainly have mocked many who have taken up his name over the past 150 years.
“He would, I think, be a ‘deep green’ thinker who would advocate sustainable development, an end to planned obsolescence and production based on the profit rather than global human need,” he said.