Archive for Timothy O’Sullivan

Northern Exposure: The Landscapes of David Milne

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by Liz Hager

David Milne, Dark Shore Reflected, Bishop’s Pond, 1920
Watercolor on Paper, 38.8 x 55.6 cms
(Private Collection)

Feeling is the power that drives art. There doesn’t seem to be a more understandable word for it, though there are others that give something of the idea: aesthetic emotion, quickening, bringing to life. Or call it love; not love of a man or woman or home or country or any material thing, but love without an object—instransitive love.

—David B. Milne, “Feeling in Painting,” 1948

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The Titans of 19th and early-20th century landscape art were amply represented in last summer’s meaty exhibition “Expanding Horizons: Painting and Photography of American and Canadian Landscapes 1860-1918” at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  The roster of American painters and photographers was an impressive one—Frederick Church, Albert BierstadtThomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keefe,  Timothy O’Sullivan, Edward S. Curtis, Carlton Watkins, and Alfred Stieglitz were among the many whose work filled a seemingly endless array of gallery rooms.

For this American visitor, however, the most exciting discoveries in the exhibition were to be found in the ranks of the Canadian artists, a group not as well known below the border. By arranging the exhibition according to six major themes, the curators provided visual evidence of the ways in which Canadian artists were influenced by styles and events in the US over the 60 plus years covered by the exhibition.  But this organizing principle also made evident clear points of differentiation and, in doing so, highlighted the essentially Canadian approach to landscape art.

David Milne, White, the Waterfall (The White Waterfall), 1921
Oil on canvas, 45.8 x 56.3 cms
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)

Lacking the notion of Manifest Destiny, Canadian artists were never seduced by epic proportions and panoramic vistas. The talented Group of Seven, working in the first quarter of the 20th century, focused on exploring the unique quality of the Canadian landscape.  As a group, their paintings evoke intimate, understated beauty. Additionally, Emily Carr’s soul-full renditions of native peoples and nature were a lovely surprise. American painter Allen Tupper True came to mind as a kindred spirit.

David Milne (1882-1953), however, was far and away the most exhilarating find of that summer day. Present in Milne’s work are the powerful sirens created by Matisse—vibrant line work, sinuous and often voluptuous forms, as well as daring color choices. And yet Milne managed to harness these elements to produce a uniquely expressive statement; his work illuminates the remarkable beauty to be found in the ordinary corners of the natural world.

David Milne, Black and White Trees and Buildings, 1915/6
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 61.5 cm
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)

A contemporary of the Group of Seven (although not a member) Milne, was every bit as talented, but never attained commensurate public recognition in his lifetime. By choice, he led an often-solitary and financially-impoverished life. Voluminous letters make clear the extent to which Milne chose artistic expression over financial success, though he worried mightily about providing for his family.  As David P. Silcox observes in his David Milne: An Introduction to His Life and Art: for Milne “the making of art meant following a solitary track, not joining art movements or societies, even if it meant living for many years in relative obscurity.”

Milne attended The Art Students’ League in 1904.  Although he attempted a career in fine art afterward, earning an income soon necessitated full time work as a commercial illustrator.  One of only three Canadians, he exhibited five paintings in the 1913 Armory show. In 1915 he exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. These must have been rays of affirmation for the young artist.

David Milne, Side Door, Clarke’s House, c.1923
Oil on canvas, 30.5 x 40.7 cm
(Courtesy McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

Milne’s New York experience was interrupted by World War I. Having joined the Canadian army too late to see action, Milne was sent just after the Armistice to record his impressions of the French and Belgian battlefields for the Canadian War Memorials program. Upon his return to the United States the artist became increasingly more reclusive, relocating from New York to the solitude of the Berkshire and Adirondack Mountains.

Success eluded him over the ensuing decade, however, and in 1928 he moved to a series of locations both outside Toronto and in more remote, rural Ontario. The years of the Great Depression were highly productive ones for Milne. He painted a huge numbers of landscapes, the occasional interior or still life, and, beginning in the late 1930s, an increasing number of fantasy and Biblical scenes. This shift to  “spiritual” concerns corresponded with an almost exclusive return to the watercolor medium. For the remainder of his life Milne produced very few oil landscapes.

David Milne, Painting Place III, 1930
Oil on canvas, 51.3 x 66.4 cms
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Vincent Massey Bequest)

In the last years of his life, Milne was diagnosed with cancer. He sketched and painted until the end, when finally a virulent stroke took his life at the end of 1953. He is buried in an unmarked grave in a Toronto cemetery.

Fortunately, since his death, David Milne’s legacy has become better understood. After Milne’s death, art critic Clement Greenberg remarked:

To claim that Milne was arguably Canada’s ‘greatest painter’ is not extravagant. . . I would class him with such as Marin and Hopper in my own country. But he can hold his own anywhere.

(Letter to David Silcox 12/18/1991, from Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne)

Milne is remembered as the inventor of the multiple place color drypoint (a process similar to etching that does not require acid bath).  The National Gallery of Canada and other institutions have organized retrospectives since his death. The Metropolitan and British museums presented a comprehensive exhibition of Milne’s watercolors in 2005; in fact, in the last decade the British Museum began to acquire a number of Milne works.

This American hopes for more Northern exposure in the years to come.

Wider Connections

David Milne cybergallery at National Gallery of Canada
David P. Silcox—Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne
Group of Seven repository—McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Katherine Lochnan—David Milne Watercolours
Maureen Mullarkey—“Gilding the Lily” (review of the “Painting Toward Light” Milne exhibition)

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Fake Takes: Photography & the Doctoring of War

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on August 27, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Timothy O’Sullivan, Battlefield of Gettysburg—Dead Confederate sharpshooter at foot of Little Round Top, photographed 1863, printed later
Albumen print
(Courtesy Library of Congress)

During the first great flowering of the photographic medium, Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) began his career as an apprentice in Matthew Brady’s studio, capturing field images of the Civil War.  Brady is reputed to have once said, “the camera is the eye of history.”  Certainly, the public has colluded with this view, although the only one it deceives is us.   Since the invention of the camera, we have had difficulty distancing ourselves from the veracity promised by the instrument.  If a picture does not accurately portray events as they happened, we’ve been quick to label it a “fake.”  Curiously, however, photographers have held themselves to no such standard.

It is now common knowledge that O’Sullivan (and perhaps accomplices) relocated a dead Confederate soldier from where he had fallen on a battlefield to the empty cove pictured above. In death he became an actor in scene—no doubt this scene replicated many real occurrences, but it was staged for the purposes of this photograph.  What ultimately gave it away?  Apparently, O’Sullivan either didn’t know or didn’t care that the rifle he added as a prop was not a variety used by Confederate sharpshooters.

Joe Rosenthal, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, 1945 (©Joe Rosenthal/AP)

In her 2003 essay on the visual representation of violence, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Susan Sontag discusses a number staged photographs taken since the Civil War, including the above Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, possibly the most widely-reproduced war photograph. As a footnote, I must add that what is actually fake about the picture was still disputed during Rosenthal’s life. (For more on that, see linkage below.)  Sontag is quick to add that this was NOT a feature of Vietnam-era photographs, or of subsequent wars, opining that the ubiquity of  TV crews make it virtually impossible for the photographer to operate as a solitary chronicler, inventing dramatic news.

Soon she dives into the crux of the matter:

What is odd is not that so many of the iconic news photos of the past, including some of the best-remembered pictures from the Second World War, appear to have been staged. It is that we are surprised to learn that they were staged, and always disappointed. . . We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death. . .No sophisticated sense of what photography is or can be will ever weaken the satisfactions of picture of an unexpected event seized in mid-action by an alert photographer. 

Why should “fake takes” be any less evocative or important in the photographic lexicon? One might, convincingly argue that, before the advent of the camera, artists always took license with depiction of real events. Not normally on the scene at the moment of occurrance, painters created a synthesis of images to represent an event. Today, no one seriously believes that Théodore Géricault’s monumental canvas “The Raft of the Medusa” is the actual depiction of the survivors of the historic shipwreck. Further, in a contemporary world drowning in photographic images, one would argue without much opposition that image makers must resort to shock value to get the public’s attention. And shock value doesn’t always turn up under deadline. Thus, in some manner—whether through placement of elements or through the wizardry of Photoshop—it must be staged.

Despite mounting daily evidence to the contrary we persist in categorizing the camera as an instrument of veracity and dismissing outright those images that are fabricated creatively.

One thing seems certain to me—if photography is to mature as an artistic medium, it will need to convince us that embracing artistry doesn’t necessarily leave the truth behind.

Wider Connections

For more on the photography of war, see Venetian Red post “Into the Valley of Death
Susan Sontag—Regarding the Pain of Others
Joe Rosenthal’s version of the “Iwo Jima moment”

Into the Valley of Death

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Timothy O'Sullivan—Field where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg

Timothy O’Sullivan, “Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg,” 1863, albumen photograph bound into Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Some claim that the photographs attributed (and in many cases mis-attributed) to Matthew Brady are the reason the Civil War is more popular than the Revolutionary War in the American imagination. In fact, nearly 150 years later, the in situ portraits of weary-looking officers, the shots of battlefield formations, and the unvarnished records of the post-battle carnage still bring the immediacy of that war to us in a way that illustration techniques cannot.   Although many consider Brady to be the first “photo-journalist,” he wasn’t actually the first to photograph war. That distinction belongs to Roger Fenton (1819-1869), British chronicler of the Crimean War. During his short 11-year career as a photographer, Fenton photographed all kinds of subjects—portraits, landscapes, the monuments of ancient civilizations. However, it is the collection of 350 “salt-paper” photographs, taken during a brief 3-month period in and around the encampments at Balaklava, for which Fenton is best remembered.

Roger Fenton, Into the Shadow of the Valley of Death,1855, salt-paper photograph (courtesy Library of Congress). Note the cannonballs strewn in the road. This is one of two prints of the same scene—one with, one without cannonballs. Apparently, the one without was taken first. Fenton wouldn’t be the last war photographer to doctor a scene.

By the time Fenton arrived in camp in the spring of 1855, the infamous slaughter of the British cavalry brigades had already been immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his “The Charge of the Light Brigade” poem. Still, the Crimean conflict was in full swing and one imagines that Fenton had ample opportunity to record the action of battle and consequences wrought by the war. What kept him from reporting on this angle of the war?

Despite technical advances made in the wake of Louis Daguerre‘s introduction of his eponymous plate-process, by 1855, plein air photography was still no trivial matter. Transporting heavy equipment required large teams of porters. Fenton himself set sail to the Crimea with more than 30 crates of materials, as well as a portable tinker’s cart, which he used as a portable darkroom. Additionally, chemicals in the service of photography were fickle and could prove particularly ruinous in the wilderness.  (John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Grand Canyon expedition comes to mind.) Certainly Fenton would have had good technical reasons not to go out in the field. But Brady and others were using the same cumbersome equipment a half a decade later. Perhaps Brady was just a more fearless character, a man who had less qualms about the dangers of setting up shop on the battlefield. Popular legend has it that he got so close to the action at the First Battle of Bull Run he was almost captured. Even Brady, though, backed off the battlefield later in the war, sending assistants like Timothy O’Sullivan to do that more dangerous work.

Roger Fenton, Major Halford, 5th Dragoon Guards, 1855, salt-paper photograph (courtesy Library of Congress). A cavalryman not unlike those of the 4th Dragoon Guards, who met death during the infamous charge into “the Valley of Death.”

Gross military incompetence was a hallmark of the Crimean War. As a result, many thousands of soldiers died, perhaps unnecessarily. Additionally, it was the first war to make tactical use of trenches and blind artillery fire, and troops must have found themselves in horrific situations similar to those of WW1. Although the military deployed rifles with increased range, soldiers could still expect to find themselves in close conflict with the enemy. As tank technology was still to be invented, the cavalry was the primary arm of the forward thrust of military action. Fenton’s photographs depict war as if it were a gentlemanly, Victorian-era game; soldiers seem to be preparing for a dress parade.  One cavalryman after another with his steed strikes a contrived and noble pose, though surely even most experienced among them must have been struggling with mind-numbing terror, well aware that a fate similar to that of the “light brigades” might well await each of them.

It turns out that Fenton, as well as his subjects, was a pawn in the Great Game.  The photographer was sent to the Crimea by the British Government, anxious to shore up perceptions of the very unpopular war. He arrived at the military camps under the strictest of orders —”No dead bodies.”

Does the omission of the darker side of war make Fenton any less a war photographer?   Stay tuned.

Wider Connections

Roger Fenton at the Library of Congress

Charge of the Light Brigade

Crimean War

John Wesley Powell photographs

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