Saturday, July 9th, 2011

“The Bewildering Multiplicity of Things Seen”: Landscape Paintings of Hilton Miller

This essay by noted Irish critic Aidan Dunne is taken from the catalog that accompanied the 80 year old artist’s debut exhibition  in London earlier this year, organized by the artist’s son, painter Nick Miller, at hte Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution.  Nick Miller’s own works are currently on view, meanwhile, at the Concord Art Association, Concord, Mass until August 18.

Hilton Miller, France, untitled landscape #8, 2003. Oil on board,18 x 24 inches.  Courtesy of the Artist
Hilton Miller, France, untitled landscape #8, 2003. Oil on board,18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Since the early 1970s Hilton Miller has amassed a body of work that distinguishes him as an artist of considerable ability and achievement. At the same time, if we view him strictly as a painter, his story is quite remarkable. Here is a man who was well into a career as a professional mathematician, whose diversion into painting might have amounted to nothing more than a hobby. It seems fair to say, though, that what he found in painting was the direct equivalent of what appealed to him about mathematics. This is not to say that he saw painting as a continuation of mathematics by other means. The evidence is that very quickly he came to look on it as a distinct language in itself, a language that is coherent, self-consistent, formally rich and infinitely flexible, and he applied his mind to its problems.

He has made some still-lifes and fewer figure studies. Most of his paintings, though, are landscapes, confined to just a few general locations: the immediate surroundings of a family house in the South of France, rural County Sligo in Ireland where his son Nick Miller is based with his family, and around his home in London. The paintings are absolutely true to the landscapes that feature in them, and recognisably so, but their abiding purpose doesn’t at all come across as being an expression of locality or place. Rather it’s as if each landscape is a given, and he attempts to deal with it in terms of pictorial structure and internal relationships.

It might sound odd to say it, but to judge by his work, in a real sense he is not interested in landscape as such. He is interested in landscape as a species of subject matter that offers what is to him the virtue of complexity, together with a certain sameness, albeit a sameness with the potential for endless variation. In looking at the world around us we translate and compress a perplexing mass of visual information into a coherent picture, and for him, representational painting is an extreme version of that process. He sets out to organise a picture surface in a way that echoes the way we perceive the world, to create an image that is familiar enough to be comprehensible but that yet draws us in, makes us do the work of interpreting what we are looking at, and feel that the exercise has been fruitful, pleasurable and informative. And, importantly, incomplete, in that we sense we will learn more by looking again.

In this he appeals to a distinctive strand of European painting history. He is clearly related to Paul Cézanne, not because his paintings imitate or particularly resemble Cézanne’s, but because of his choice of subject matter, its geographical location, and some shared pictorial values. What strengthens the association with Cézanne is a common affiliation with a classical tradition that long pre-dates Impressionism ?though it does intersect with it to some extent. For Miller’s work, the most relevant exemplars of this tradition, though they are not necessarily direct influences, are Camille Corot and Nicolas Poussin. It’s worth exploring why this is so.

Hilton Miller, Ireland, untitled landscape #17, 2005. Oil on board. 18 x 24 inches. .  Courtesy of the Artist
Hilton Miller, Ireland, untitled landscape #17, 2005. Oil on board. 18 x 24 inches. . Courtesy of the Artist

Writing about Corot, Anita Brookner noted that he struggled not so much with the classical tradition or contemporary artistic trends as with “the bewildering multiplicity of things seen.” On his first trip to Italy, undertaken when he was in his late 20s, a few years after he had finally abandoned the drapery business to become a painter, he found inspiration not in classical antiquity but in making plein-air paintings of the landscape in the Roman Campagna.

Hence his subsequent nomination as a precursor of the Impressionists. In a sense he certainly was that, but rather than being the work of a thwarted or early Impressionist, his Italian paintings are fully realised within their own terms. As Peter Galassi argues in his book ‘Corot in Italy’, the painter transformed but remained true to the Neoclassical tradition. In Corot’s paintings, the magnificent organisation of Poussin’s idealised landscapes meets the quotidian actuality, the world as it is.

On the one hand Corot could remark: “When one finds oneself alone confronted by nature, one extricates oneself as best one can, and naturally one invents one’s own style.” On the other, though, when faced with the riotous complexity of the visible world, he wrote: “The first two things to study are form and tonal values. For me, they are the basis of what is serious in art.” He sought out an order in the chaos of nature and attempted to represent it with an equivalent pictorial order. Together with an intuitive arrangement of masses in a compositional structure, he established a tonal scale, moving from the darkest value in 20 increments to the lightest. “Thus your study or picture is set up in orderly fashion.” Both sentiments are entirely pertinent to Miller’s way of working.

Cézanne too had an eye on classicism. He desired to make of Impressionism “something solid and lasting like the art in the museums.” In the end, perhaps being rather hard on himself, he felt he hadn’t managed “my project of doing Poussin over entirely from nature… of painting a living Poussin in the open air.” Manet disparagingly described him as “a bricklayer who paints with his trowel”, and you can see his point, not so much because Cezanne could handle paint roughly, but because each painting is visibly built from discrete brush strokes so that the end result is a solidly crafted edifice with the rhythmic stability of a brick wall.

Hilton Miller’s paintings are without doubt situated in this historical and temperamental terrain, indeed following directly on from a lineage that extends from Poussin to Corot to Cézanne. His work can be fruitfully seen, appreciated and understood in the light of their concerns and achievements. As with Poussin and Cézanne, his paintings are constructed like intricate mechanisms, with every component part contributing to a carefully calculated overall effect. More, as with their work, everything represented in his images, from solid stone to the air itself, is invested with an identical density, lending an extraordinary evenness of temper to the paintings’ surfaces and compositional rhythms, and an abiding serenity of mood.

As with Corot, he looks not to classical narratives but to the immediate fact of the landscape. Its sheer, profligate density, however, is dealt with in a highly structured way. Corot adhered to a tonal scale and Miller’s works are also precisely ordered in their tonality. But the core of his interest, and the heart of his paintings, lies in his approach to colour relationships. Each work revolves around the calculated interplay and balance of colour values, from warm to cool. He did a great deal of theoretical work exploring and calculating the relative temperature of oil colours, devising and employing diagrammatic colour wheels of daunting complexity. There is another painter who comes very much to mind in relation to his work, not a landscape painter but one who spans still life, architectonic landscape and even abstraction. That is Giorgio Morandi. The novelist Siri Hustvedt wrote about visiting a Morandi exhibition at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. She noted the disappointment of an American couple, who keep wanting to see something different, not just “more bottles.”

There are, of course, only bottles, jars and similar containers in Morandi’s paintings, but the paintings are not about bottles in the same sense that Miller’s paintings are not about rural France. For the American couple, the point of a picture, as for many people, is the things it depicts. But when you actually turn to the paintings, Hustvedt feels: “These are not bottles and vases and cups…. After looking for a while, they did not even seem like still-lifes any more. It is as if I were seeing forms that evoked idea rather than thing. The object…recedes into some larger mystery.”

That is how it is with Miller’s landscapes. They have an air of calmness about them. They offer spaces that the eye is invited to explore. But after a while, looking at a tree, one is politely encouraged to think: “This is not a tree, after all.” It is as if the eye is first engaged on the understanding that you are looking at a tree, but quite soon you are agreeably, intriguingly involved in negotiating with something else altogether, with “some larger mystery.” With, in fact, just how we see rather than what we see, with how we can actually make sense of, in Brookner’s phrase “the bewildering multiplicity of things seen.”