Madonna No.1 1960-62 inscribed 'GODFREY MILLER/ "MADONNA"/ CATALOGUE C5/ D6 JH131' verso oil, pen and ink on canvas 33.5 x 23.0cm (13 3/16 x 9 1/16in).
PROVENANCE Estate of the artist Private collection, Melbourne, 1965 Private collection, Melbourne Niagara Galleries, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1996
EXHIBITED Possibly Easter 1954, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 31 March - 14 April 1954, cat. no. 17, titled Madonna and Child (unfinished) nd. Godfrey Miller, Cell Block Theatre, ESTC, Sydney, 24-25 October 1962 Godfrey Miller Memorial Exhibition, Darlinghurst Galleries, Sydney, 16 February 27 March 1965, cat. no. 5 Images of Religion in Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, December 1988 - January 1989 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. 52
LITERATURE John Henshaw (ed), Godfrey Miller, exh. cat., Darlinghurst Galleries, Sydney, 1965, pl. 31 (illus.) Alan McCulloch, Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Hutchinson of Australia, Richmond, 1968, pl. 5 (illus.) Rosemary Crumlin, Images of Religion in Australian Art, Bay Books, Sydney, 1988, pp. 82, 83 (illus.) Dr Ann Wookey, The Life and Work of Godfrey Miller 1893-1964, PhD thesis, La Trobe University, Bundoora, 1996, no. 155, pl. 84 (illus.) Deborah Edwards, et al, Godfrey Miller 1893-1964, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1996, pp. 50, 51 (illus.), 52, 125
Godfrey Miller's 'Forest' paintings, and indeed landscapes in general, can continue laterally forever: their sides are arbitrarily chosen and the subject doesn't actually finish at their edges. By contrast, still life and figure painting (Miller's other chosen genres) single out particular elements in the world and thus have clearly comprehensible, and logical, borders.
He painted a myriad of still lifes, the fruit in the stemmed bowl often given a paradoxically monumental sense of scale. By contrast, his Madonnas are few and far between - and the same goes for the crucifixions. Still life is arguably the formal artist's perfect subject: shape, form, light, balance these are the sole concern in a subject all but bereft of human and emotive content. This is clearly not the case with the Madonna and the crucifixion, both of which are heavily charged both historically and existentially the one celebrating the emergence of life, the other with its painful passing. Of the three (fully worked) Madonnas exhibited in the 1996 Miller retrospective, this is arguably the most satisfactory - as it is of the three illustrated in Henshaw.
The subject is obviously a challenge in art historical terms he is in competition with a large proportion of the greatest artists in history. And there is an inherent further difficulty: working in an openly Cezannist tradition, how to infuse a sensitive human presence into such a rigorous geometry. From the formal point of view, the oval head forms a settled centre which imparts a sense of stillness and balance. The mystery seems to lie in just how, in spite of a complex mesh of late-cubist fracturing, Miller manages to infuse his image with that sense of patient repose and watchful care that has enchanted the Western world for over a thousand years.
The matter of Miller and his mathematics: part B 1
Coming back to the artist's recourse to 'dynamic symmetry' as design tool, a reading of Madonna no 1 proves much less straight forward than Red earth forest (Lot 26). The dimensional ratio for the Madonna canvas in its fullest rectangular aspect is 0.64, one indeed that does not participate in dynamic symmetry thought. Nonetheless, the exclusion of the panel of lettering to the right brings to light that methodology's root three element, as ratio for the image panel itself. And again, this 'lesser' rectangular form comprises overlapped squares, with each 'shared' edge sitting on the other's root two break point, now on the vertical. The image surface is once more imbued with several squares and golden section rectangles.
As for the artistic meaning now impregnated, that comes down quite simply to 'life' itself, and of growth more especially, thought derived from measurements taken in the natural world commonly talked of during Miller's London days.
Tools, tools, tools. Yet a deeply symbolic skeletal framework for their purveyor, the artist.
Dr Ann Wookey
1 Part A of this discussion appends to Lot 26, Godfrey Miller, Red earth forest