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Friday, 4 April 2008

R.I.P. Milton George, 1939-2008

The National Gallery of Jamaica has issued an obituary of the Jamaican artist Milton George, who died on Monday 31 March:

Milton George (nĂ© George Oliver) was born in Asia, Manchester, in 1939 but lived in Kingston and Braeton for most of his life. While he attended part-time classes at what was then the Jamaica School of Art and Craft, he was in essence self-taught and developed a pictorial language which reflected his awareness of modernist expressionism but was uniquely his own. He was aptly described by Dr David Boxer, Chief Curator of the National Gallery, as “a born painter, who quickly understood the emotive power of line and colour when freed from the conventions of academia.”

George was indeed the ultimate expressionist, who freely used colour, paint application and imagery to appeal to the emotions and the senses. While he also commented on social and political issues -- perhaps most memorably in his hilarious The PM Speaks at 8 pm of 1987 -- most of his works were autobiographical and he often stated that all his paintings were self-portraits. Veerle Poupeye, Research Fellow and Curator at the Edna Manley College, wrote in 2007 that George’s “paintings convey feelings, moods and situations by means of an instinctive, poetic visual and verbal language -- and his titles are important -- that is not easily translated into rational terms but nonetheless speaks eloquently to those who are willing to listen. Milton's themes usually draw from his turbulent personal life but we can easily identify with what he is talking about: our most private and vulnerable moments, which are filled with tenderness or exhilaration but also with anxiety and aggression, and our bewilderment and impotence at the tragicomic spectacle of the private and public worlds we inhabit. In that sense his paintings are not only self-portraits but about all of us, about the human condition.”

George’s work evolved significantly over the years. In the 1970s, he was best known for his quiet, delicately coloured semi-abstract portrayals of women, although his Opening Night (1978), an irreverent send-up of the pretensions of the art world, revealed a more unruly, satirical eye that later came to dominate his work. By the early 1980s, George was at the peak of his artistic powers, with paintings and pastel drawings that expressed raging emotions, a wicked sense of humour and, in many instances, a raw sexuality. Some were hilariously funny, such as his Fourteen Pages from my Diary (1983), which depict the “battle of the sexes” in George’s own, rather turbulent private life, but even his most carnal and humorous images were always infused by a deep sense of anguish. His most haunting works dealt overtly with these anxieties, such as Journey (1984) and The Ascenscion (1993), two meditations on the subject of death. George had in recent years become less visibly present in the artistic community, because of lingering health problems, but continued working and exhibiting, among others in the National Biennial. In 2007, he had his last solo exhibition at the Mutual Gallery, in which he represented a new body of work in oil and watercolour paint, which exuded a gentle wariness that reminded of his work of the 1970s, thus bringing his work full circle.

George’s work has been widely exhibited in Jamaica and abroad, among others in Jamaican Art 1922-1982 (1983-86), which toured in the USA, Caribbean Art Now (1987), and New World Imagery (1995), which were shown in England, and has represented Jamaica in the Havana and Santo Domingo biennials. His awards include the Silver Musgrave Medal in 1987 and a gold medal at the 1994 Santo Domingo Biennial. His work is represented in major local and regional collections, such as the National of Jamaica, where his Opening Night is on permanent view, and the private collections of Wallace Campbell, David Boxer, Guy McIntosh and Herman van Asbroeck in Jamaica, and Mervyn Awon in Barbados. One of Milton’s children, Beverley Oliver, has recently also gained acclaim as a painter and shown her work at the National Gallery and Harmony Hall.

Milton George passed away on Monday, March 31. The National Gallery extends its condolences to his family and many friends.

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