MILLER BRITTAIN at the McMichael Canadian Collection (10365 Islington, Kleinburg), to February 10. $15, stu/srs $12. 905-893-1121. Rating: NN
What makes art appear dated? Despite being products of a specific time, some works communicate an original vision that continues to resonate, while others remain chiefly of historical interest.
Unfortunately, most of the oeuvre of Miller Brittain falls into the second category.
Aside from a sojourn in New York to study figurative painting and drawing during the Depression and a tour of duty in Europe with the RCAF during World War II, Brittain spent most of his life in Saint John, New Brunswick.
His strongest paintings, Depression-era social realist depictions of stolid working people at meetings, dances and rummage sales, both celebrate and affectionately satirize their subjects.
It’s a shame that larger reproductions weren’t made of the drawings for a never-painted mural commissioned by a TB hospital, which are too fragile to travel. This magnum opus, on which the skilled draughtsman laboured before enlisting in the war, tells the story of the illness in a series of 11 monumental figure compositions.
The idea of governments hiring artists as part of the war effort now seems almost inconceivable, and I was interested in finding out more about the role Brittain and others played as war artists.
I was disappointed that the show only includes a single wartime painting, a stylized rendering of a bombing raid, and a handful of drawings.
Brittain’s attempts to process his wartime experiences produced odd results.
A large postwar mural about war and recovery features stiff, awkward figures and settings reminiscent of comic books.
His surreal, semi-abstract allegories of the 50s – thin, pointy figures in swamps illuminated by sunbursts where gloppy flowers melt on sticks – bear an unhappy resemblance to 50s design styles we now consider kitsch.
I’m all for rediscovering local artists, but where the work is uneven, as it is here, perhaps playing up the artist’s contemporaries and offering more historical context would make it more relevant to viewers.