New Brunswicks Miller Brittain (1912-1968) burst upon the Canadian art scene with masterful emotion-filled drawings and paintings of the human form at a time when landscapes by the Group of Seven held sway. Today, the National Gallery of Canada presents "Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears", an exhibition that celebrates Brittains artistic legacy and provides a fresh insight into his diverse body of work, from the dynamic social realism depictions of his native Saint John, to his surrealist-inspired compositions.
Organized and circulated by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the exhibition includes 70 works and is on view until January 3, 2010 in the Special Exhibition Galleries. Admission fees apply, but access is free to members of the National Gallery of Canada
Miller Brittains art explores the complexity of being human in desperate times, said NGC Director Marc Mayer. While his early narratives continue to stir our emotions, his later post-war abstractions still intrigue our psyches. The National Gallery is pleased to present this important exhibition of one of Canadas most talented artists and congratulates the Beaverbrook Art Gallery for organizing such an intelligent and beautiful representation of Brittains entire career.
"Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears" charts the life of an artist, soldier, husband, father, and champion of William Blakes poetry, from which the exhibitions subtitle draws inspiration. Ordinary urban narratives, New Testament parables, figurative abstractions and variations on organic metaphors all contribute to the iconographic lexicon of an artist who constantly pushed himself into new, perhaps dangerous, creative territory, writes guest curator Tom Smart in the accompanying catalogue. The exhibition provides a magnificent overview of his life and work and is organized chronologicaly.
Art Students League
The exhibition begins with a look at Millers training at the Art Students League in New York City, a vibrant center of instruction and debate, established and run by students for students. Here, Brittain developed his artistic voice and practiced his skills on a daily basis, true to the leagues motto nulla dies sine linea (no day without a line). His etching "Art Students" (c. 1931) is a testimony of his attention to line, composition and form the elements of art he would come to master.
Joining the core of the Saint John studio crowd
Like many of his contemporaries, the Great Depression of the 1930s would see Brittain return to the familiarity and comforts of home. A studio on Saint Johns waterfront became an oasis for a close-knit creative community who argued, debated, sang, fell in love. It was here where Brittain met his future wife, the gifted pianist Caroline Starr. Many of Brittains earliest surviving works, such as "Head of a Man" (1932) from the NGCs collection, are figurative drawings from these studio sessions. The portrait was drawn on kraft paper, a strong brown wrapping paper produced by the local paper mill that became a popular material for artists in hard times. His satirical drawings such as "Lecturer" (1937) and his genre paintings such as "The Rummage Sale" (1940) and "Longshoremen Off Work" (1938) would draw the attention of the critics of the day who recognized Brittains extraordinary talents and called him the Canadian Brueghel.
World War II
Brittains promising career was interrupted by the Second World War, when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, serving as a bomb aimer before becoming an official war artist. During this time he produced the painting "Night Target", Germany (1946), a pivotal work in Brittains career. The work is his only direct reference to the terrible aspects of war. Gone are the representations of the human figure, unprecedented in Brittains whole artistic practice to this point.
Lastly, the exhibition demonstrates Brittains crucial connection to the poet and engraver William Blake, whose mystical poetry inspired his post-war art. The recurring motif of the star and spear entered Brittains expressive vocabulary. First used to describe aircraft falling from the sky in the painting described above, it came to represent flowers and stems, heads and necks, sunbursts and smoke, sanity and insanity.