We tend to think of Godfrey Miller’s paintings as carefully structured, finely finished and relatively subdued in palette. This exhibition shows two other sides: first, a selection of still life canvases employing bold forms and active brushwork and, second, a series of watercolours - highly keyed and loosely washed - exploring the nature of colour itself.
A number of 20th century Modernists (Mondrian being the most notable) were interested in theosophy and in Miller’s case it was the related anthroposophy, founded by Rudolf Steiner in 1912, that attracted his attention. The metaphysical commitment of these philosophies to a spiritual dimension - that Miller first encountered in his reading of Indian philosophers - had religious connections that ran counter to both the prevailing secularism of Modernism and to the norms of art history and criticism in the West (both of which focus on the artists’ works, rather than on their personal lives and philosophical beliefs). So whilst acknowledged biographically, it has tended to be sidelined analytically. It had applications to art, particularly in colour theory which, as do many such theories, often see colour as both symbolic (black, connected to darkness and death; white, to life and light; green, to plant life, etc.) and as having direct impact on the mind. In, say, interior design the colours of walls and floors could affect the well-being of those in the house.
We are dating these watercolours c. 1950, the year Miller made a trip to Europe and took a three month course at the Anthroposophy Centre in Switzerland. If they seem to relate more immediately to Goethe’s colour theories, with which he was acquainted in the 1930s, this is simply explained by the fact that Steiner’s theories were influenced by Goethe who attached particular values to colours: on the spectrum, yellow to red was seen as “plus” (exciting and lively) and red to purple as “minus” (weak and unsettled) – so not far removed from the standard current terms such as “warm” and “cool”. A further influence on Miller’s colour theory was most probably Rood’s Modern Chromatics with Applications to Art and Industry which was fairly widely studied in the early 20th century. Either way, they represent an interesting aspect of his work not widely known to the general public.
The still life paintings, by contrast, are familiar to all. His subjects remained basically the human body, landscape and still life, and the works in this exhibition have been selected, as noted above, for characteristics not present in the carefully tessellated paintings of his final period. They display minimal geometric gridding and with their bolder forms, more spontaneous marks and lively palette have an intuitive and exploratory quality that gives a further insight into his working methods.
References: Ann Wookey “Godfrey Miller Chronology” and John Henshaw, “Godfrey Miller – a Life”, in
Deborah Edwards, Godfrey Miller – 1893-1964, retrospective exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1996.