Red earth forest 1957-61 oil, pen and ink on canvas 62.2 x 100.5cm (24 1/2 x 39 9/16in).
PROVENANCE Collection of the artist F E Mendel, Canada Dr Max J Miller, Canada, 1963-64 Private collection Niagara Galleries, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1996
EXHIBITED On temporary loan to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1963 Possibly Exhibition of Three New Paintings by Godfrey Miller, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 8-12 July 1963, cat. no. 2 Godfrey Miller 1893-1964, touring exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 March 5 May 1996; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 15 May 17 June 1996, cat. no. 50 Godfrey Miller and Peter Powditch, Niagara Galleries, Melbourne, 2-20 July 1996, cat. no. 3
LITERATURE John Henshaw (ed), Godfrey Miller, Darlinghurst Galleries, Sydney, 1965, pl. 3 (illus.) Dr Ann Wookey, The Life and Work of Godfrey Miller 1893-1964, PhD thesis, La Trobe University, Bundoora, 1996, no. 175 Deborah Edwards, et al, Godfrey Miller 1893-1964, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1996, pp. 74, p. 57 (illus.), 124
Ancient Pythagoreans and modern physicists shared the view that much of our world is analysable mathematically. In the visual arts, Vitruvian proportions and the Fibonacci ratio are proffered as explanations as to why some buildings and paintings are aesthetically superior to others the answer lay in particular progressions that were mathematically demonstrable. Moving to music and poetry, rhythm clearly plays a pivotal role and can also be clearly measured. But whilst we can be shown what is happening, precisely why particular harmonies and proportions are more satisfying than others remains a mystery: it's one of those raw facts that defy further explanation. When asked "What's rhythm, Mr Armstrong?" the answer went down in history: "If you ain't got it, you don't know." Not exactly an illuminating answer, but definitely honest and definitely right.
Whilst knowing how a work of art has been made may not make us actually like it, the knowledge does deepen our understanding and on that score Ann Wookey's technical analysis should extend your appreciation of the complex and involved processes underlying Miller's paintings.
Meanwhile, in Red earth forest we can easily see intense vertical rhythms pulsating laterally back and forth across the canvas in a manner related to Fred Williams's Sherbrooke and Echuca Forest paintings c.1960-62 of which Lot 88 is a shining example. If the latter is more intuitive and painterly emphasising the physical Miller's trees have been structured with an intensity that emphasises the metaphysical. In other words, the painted surface (including the geometric grid that underpins the structure) makes manifest the essential and conceptual source. Not surprisingly, the results are more cerebral than sensual and closer to Bach than to Beethoven.
Once gridded, Miller's paintings were slowly and methodically worked employing a palette informed by his lifelong interest in Anthroposophy till the entire surface evolved into a sparkling and iridescent geometry. Their emotional restraint is often seen as symptomatic of the relatively withdrawn and solitary life Miller led and in this he has been compared with two of his contemporaries Ian Fairweather and John Passmore. The former was, famously, a rustic hermit but Passmore and Miller led the life of the urban recluse - living alone, working quietly and steadily, but punctuating their solitude with influential teaching careers.
This restraint will probably prohibit Miller's art from ever becoming popular. Intuition and spontaneity play a minimal role and many people find this difficult. To be sure, his paintings never burst into flames but they do burn long and slow, and with increasing heat as one gets to know them.
The matter of Miller and his mathematics: part A 1
Godfrey Miller called the picture Red earth and forest, writing that:
The motif of the work is the centre lands of Australia where there are in feature of landscape (dry river beds, valleys) heaped up banks of red earth: and also there is a tree population of tall straight tree trunks, of light colour. It is characterised by a bright often fierce sunlight.2
No implication of geometrically-derived rhythms here. Because, and as with the composer Debussy, the maths was but a tool. Admittedly as painter, a two-dimensional schematic one.
Popularised as 'dynamic symmetry' from the late teens, Miller's design tool moved well beyond the golden section drawn down by Debussy, into a matrix set expanded out of that same Fibonacci/ logarithmic ratio 0.618, otherwise symbolised by Ø (phi), entirety in endless return upon itself. No matter whether a whole formed as square or rectangle, the internal interplay of matrices one within the other provided for the 'divine' rhythm no less. The artist came to the approach around 1934 when at the Slade School, London, and a friend of Henry Tonks.
Of the two works presented here, Red earth forest is the more 'purely' oriented, painted as a Ø rectangle, or two squares overlapped to their Ø points along the baseline, to engender numerous Ø linear breaks and rectangles within. The weft and the warp of those pulsating rhythms that Charles recognises.
Dr Ann Wookey
1 Part B of this discussion appends to Lot 66, Godfrey Miller, Madonna no 1 1960-62 2 Letter (copy) from Godfrey Miller to Dr Max Miller, Sydney, 5 November 1963, Godfrey Clive Miller, Papers, 1919-1964, with Papers of his brother, Lewis Miller, 1916-1962, Mitchell Library, Sydney, ML MSS 1005 and Pic Acc. 109, vol. 14, p. 71