The world of Alex Colville

Gillian MacKay August 1 1983

The world of Alex Colville

Gillian MacKay August 1 1983

The world of Alex Colville


Gillian MacKay

In August, 1945, young Canadian war artist Alex Colville spent a day’s leave at the Louvre in Paris. The war had ended and so had what he jokingly called his “Guggenheim fellowship in art”: the daily pen and watercolor sketching of battle-fields, blackened villages and, finally, the mass graves at the Belsen death camp that haunted his nights for years afterward. Colville wandered in delight through the palatial halls of the Louvre, marvelling that while Europe lay in ruins those masterpieces of civilization had survived.

Although he had never visited a great museum before, the confident 25year-old was encouraged rather than overwhelmed by the experience. “What I wanted to know was, is it possible to make great art?” Colville recalls. “So I went to the Louvre and saw that, yes, it was.”

Haunting: Since then Colville has aimed to create the kind of art that could hang on those hallowed walls. And last week a major retrospective of his work opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario, proving conclusively that in Canada, at least, his artistic immortality is now assured.

During the 38 years since the war, he has spent his time enriching a national culture which he found empty and primitive. His haunting, razorsharp images of family life—from the towheaded child skipping rope in a bleak schoolyard in 1958 to the middleaged couple getting a night snack from the refrigerator in 1977—have become emblems of existence for a young nation growing up. Not since the heyday of the Group of Seven has an artist’s vision permeated so deeply the lives of Canadians: his elegant designs for the Centennial coins have jingled in the pockets of the nation, and his famous image of a dark horse heading on a collision course

with a train graced the cover of a bestselling record album by Bruce Cockburn. Says Toronto gallery owner Mira Godard, who represents some of the most celebrated names in contemporary art: “He is Canada’s most important artist.” But since 1967, when the prestigious Marlborough-Fine Art Gallery in London became the exclusive dealer for Colville’s minutely detailed acrylic paintings, Canadian art lovers have had

little opportunity to see his work except in reproduction. Now, the retrospective of 57 paintings, seven prints and 96 preparatory drawings .will put Colville squarely back in the public domain as it travels throughout Canada and to Germany during the next 13 months. In addition, an exhibition of 50 prints and drawings, which opened at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto last week, will travel across Canada and on to England, Germany, Italy and Switzerland until the end of 1985.

In the world of art, a retrospective is often seen as the kiss of death, a clear indication that a painter’s best years are over. But neither age nor the weight of his own legend sit heavily on Alex Colville. At 62, he is in his prime, a trim, vigorous man who leads a charmed existence with his wife, Rhoda, in Wolfville, N.S. That, too, is the world of his art, although Colville’s essentially tragic view takes his paintings far beyond the realm of sentimental snapshots from the family album. Through a range of now familiar techniques—frozen motion, heightened realism, eerie lighting, cropped heads and dramatic compositions—he can instil an ordinary event, such as his family getting into their car in Family and Rainstorm (1955), with the menacing air of a Hitchcock film. Even a gentler work like Refrigerator (1977) is charged with an ambivalent mood of celebration and lament for a precious moment that must pass.

‘Obsession’: Colville’s sources of inspiration have remained close to home, but they have not lost their power. His recent paintings, such as the 1980 self-portrait Target Pistol and Man, are among his best and reflect a subtle transition from the cool, depersonalized classicism of the early work to a more sensuous and specific romanticism. In the self-portrait, the artist, who for years appeared in his own paintings hidden behind his wife, his dog or sunglasses, finally shows his face. In the foreground is the pistol, a symbol of his preoccupation with evil and with the existential view that man must confront his own mortality in order to appreciate the fullness of life. The gun, Colville feels, is the most striking icon of our era. As Toronto art critic Michael Greenwood put it, “He has an obsession, and it has remained fresh.”

Like visual poems, Colville’s paintings tease the mind with questions to which there is no final answer. That enigmatic quality annoys some critics, such as Toronto Life’s Gary Michael Dault, who considers Colville’s images “almost smugly out of reach.” But in Godard’s view, it is precisely that “element of mystery” that makes the works so compelling. Others have found his drawing “graceless” and devoid of warmth, an assessment that Colville himself shares. But his detractors are easily outnumbered by his admirers, led by British critic Terence Mullaly, who has called Colville “the most important realist in the Western world.” His en-

thusiasm is shared by Canadian, German and U.S. collectors who pay as much as $100,000 for one of the three works he produces each year. Colville enjoys telling a story about the owner of Seven Crows (1980), who said, “I have three priorities in life: my family, my wife and this painting.” The artist’s annual limited edition of 70 silkscreen prints, priced this year at $2,500 a piece, invariably sells out within several months, and there are waiting lists for favorites such as Cat and Artist (1979).

When such a print comes out, Godard says, “people will scratch your eyes out to get it.”

But Colville has only achieved substantial financial success in the past decade. During the 1950s and early 1960s, when realism was out of vogue, he sold few works and supported his family by teaching art at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., where he himself had studied. Through his work at the university, Colville became a major influence on a number of students who went on to become prominent realists in their own right—among them Christopher and Mary Pratt, D.P. Brown, Tom Forrestall and Hugh MacKenzie. But the example of Colville’s artistic integrity has perhaps been more inspiring to young painters than his actual style. Said Greenwood: “Here is a man who has resolutely gone his own way, regardless of fashion, and has come out on top.”

From the beginning of his career Colville had no doubt about the way he wanted to paint. During the postwar period, when modern artists were rejecting representationism, Colville stuck stubbornly to the then unfashionable notion that art must carry a message. In a brilliant 1951 speech outlining his philosophy of art, he compared the new design-oriented and abstract art to “some brilliantly played but pointless mathematical game.” Instead of turning its back on the world, he proposed that art should address such fundamental questions as “Who are we? What are we like? What do we do?” While the abstract expressionists hurled buckets of paint at the canvas to express their visions of personal and public chaos, Colville believed that the artist had to do more than express his anguish. Fresh from the horrors of war and lacking the comfort of a religious faith, he felt that his responsibility was to stare into the void and find meaning. Says Colville quietly: “I have an enormous desire to make sense out of things.”

Warm cloak: Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, he eventually found that sense in his own backyard. It flows from his attachment to a small community, from his devotion to Rhoda , their children—Graham, John, Charles and Ann—and to domestic animals, which he regards as morally superior to most people. Colville dislikes the anonymity of cities and is clearly happiest on his home turf in Wolfville, a quiet, traditional town of 3,200 in the lush Annapolis Valley, where Rhoda’s ancestors settled 223 years ago. Since 1973 they have lived in the handsome stucco house which her father, a prosperous contractor, built in 1920—the same house in which she was born and where she and Alex married in 1942. Rhoda’s strong sense of tradition and belonging enfolds her husband like a warm cloak. “I am, in a sense, rootless,” he said, settling contentedly into a chair in the library, which, like every other room in the house, is filled with fine antiques, comfortable furniture and his own prints. “It is a somewhat unpleasant thought, but in a way an artist does live off other people and environments and is also, in a certain sense, nobody.”

Colville is deeply aware of the contrasts between his and Rhoda’s back-

grounds. Born in a tiny row house in Toronto in 1920, Colville moved with his family to St. Catharines, Ont., when he was seven and to Amherst, N.S., when he was nine. There, his Scottish-born father advanced to a low-level management job at a steel company owned by Dominion Bridge, exchanging his former worker’s uniform for a suit and tie.

But David Colville’s gentle, romantic nature was basically unsuited to the industrial world. His recurrent bouts of drinking put further strain on an already unhappy marriage to Alex’s mother, Florence, a stylish, businesslike woman who started a clothing store in Amherst during the Depression and ran it successfully until her death in 1963. Raised as a Roman Catholic, Col-

ville says that he was never sent to church schools, “probably because my mother sensed it would be a social disadvantage.”

As the younger of two sons, Alex was somewhat spoiled, always beautifully dressed and never forced to work in the summer, despite the family’s modest income. At the age of nine he almost died

of pneumonia, and during his long convalescence he began to draw, an interest that persisted throughout high school. Out of the traumatic brush with death Colville developed a deeply introspective nature. There were few books at home, so he raided friends’ libraries for anything he could find—first boys’ adventure stories and later T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and H.G. Wells’s Experiment in Autobiography. Experiment, an account of a boy from a modest background who becomes a scientist and writer, inspired Colville with a sense of the possibilities beyond Amherst. When he graduated from high school, the clever, self-confi-

dent young man was able to choose between a scholarship to Dalhousie University in Halifax, where he would have studied law, and one at Mount Allison. His parents were fully prepared to let him study painting, a fact that he attributed to their social naïveté. Colville, on the other hand, was hard-nosed about his career. He asked Stanley Royle, an art teacher from Mount Alli-

son who had taught him during the summers, “Will I be poor?” Only after hearing the answer—“No”—did he choose art.

Intensely aware of his parents’ own disappointments, Colville has carefully charted his own course in a straight line, with remarkably few false turns. Robert Hubbard, a former curator at

the National Gallery of Canada, who has known Colville since he was a war artist, recalled, “Even as a young man he was somehow very formed and developed.” Colville was deeply affected by existentialist philosophy and its emphasis on making firm, responsible commitments. Said his friend George Thomson: “He is deeply serious, not in the sense that he never smiles but in the I

sense that you imagine John Milton and St. Augustine were serious. That means he takes everything he does seriously— himself, his work and those he loves.”

Colville’s central commitment, both in his life and art, has been to Rhoda. “I remember thinking,” he said, “that if, for some bizarre reason, I had to choose between my wife and my art, I would choose my wife.” During the two years between 1944 and 1946, when he was in Europe, he wrote every day to Rhoda, who gave birth to their first son, Graham, while he was away. His war diary from the summer of 1944 is filled with such entries as “Had headache in evening. Lay up near radar tower until 20:45 when show started. It was Betty Grable—so I left and wrote to Rhoda.” His paintings from the early 1950s, such as Soldier and Girl at Station, are filled with images of loneliness and longing. Since then he has celebrated Rhoda in an endless series of poses: bringing in laundry, putting on her brassiere, carrying a canoe, riding her bicycle and standing on her head. His sensuous handling of the shapely nude in a tent in June Noon (1963) belies the popular image of Colville as a cold, unfeeling painter. Colville has nicknamed his wife and himself “Live” and “Learn”: she the harmonious being in tune with existence and he the restless striver after self-knowledge. Typically, in Couple on the Beach (1957), the man is the outsider, crouched almost worshipfully before the reclining woman who seems a part of the landscape. Said David Burnett, curator of the retrospective: “The reason their marriage is so successful is that she does not have that inner reserve. She is open and warm, which makes him reflect upon what he feels to be his coldness.”

Lucid: Because of his devotion to Rhoda, predictably Colville’s first successful work, Nude and Dummy (1950), featured her in an attic staring over her shoulder at a dressmaker’s dummy. In the almost surrealistic piece, Colville first employed the kind of composition that became a standard feature of his mature style. His careful method of constructing a painting along clear lines of perspective within a tight geometric framework derives from such early Italian Renaissance painters as Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. Colville’s overwhelming need to make sense of the world required this lucid, rational approach to organization.

Although Sackville in the 1950s was an unlikely place to experiment with Renaissance geometry, it suited Colville. His lack of sympathy with the progress of modern art meant he had little interest in being close to any contemporary art scene. He has an aversion to meeting other artists, whom he considers “just boring as hell.” He is no fan of the Group of Seven, preferring instead such American painters as Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn and Grant Wood. It is clear that Colville does not want to be swallowed up by anything— by the art world, by the anonymity of city life, even by nature itself. He dislikes the Canadian West Coast and, during 52 years in the Maritimes, has never bothered to visit Cape Breton. The empty, desolate work world of Sackville and of Canadian culture as a whole provided an ideal breeding ground for his art.

“One of the great things about living in a primitive culture,” he says, “is that, in a sense, nothing is done, so everything is yet to be done.”

Sinister: From the start, Colville was recognized by a few collectors such as New York ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein and Hubbard, whose farsighted purchases during the 1950s, including Hound in Field, have given the National Gallery a splendid Colville collection. Still, it was not until 1963, when he had a successful show in New York, that Colville could afford to leave his teaching job. The next three years were

so perilous financially that he even sold life insurance to make ends meet. In 1966 he represented Canada at the prestigious Venice Biennale and was wooed by leading European art dealer Harry Fischer of the Marlborough. After Colville’s critically acclaimed shows in Hanover and London in 1969-70, his international reputation was secure.

As his fame has spread in the past decade, so has the image of Colville as a sinister figure pathologically fixated with guns. Of 122 paintings, in fact, only three feature weapons: Pacific (1967), In the Woods (1976) and the self-portrait. For Colville, who belongs to his local target-pistol club, the guns sym¡2 bolize the need to be armed and I aware in a world he regards as 5 increasingly “fragile.” During a 10-month teaching stint at the s University of California in * Santa Cruz in 1967-68, he became alarmed by student violence and the disintegration of society. There, he painted the powerful Pacific, which portrays the back of a man looking out on the ocean with a gun sitting on a table in the foreground. It raises disturbing, unanswerable questions. Colville says that he only paints people and situations he considers “wholly good.” But, for the viewer, the artist’s assertion does not banish the sense of dread.

Nothing could be farther from that threatening world than the idyllic frame cottage near Wolfville, where the Colvilles can sit on a clear summer night and watch the setting sun flooding Minas Basin with rosy, transcendental light. Rhoda has been visiting the cottage since she was a child, and the neighbors are old friends, one of them a witness at the Colvilles’ wedding. Several years ago, on a visit from Toronto, Godard suggested that they buy the adjacent cottages and tear them down for more privacy—a proposal that highly amused the community-spirited artist and his wife. As the artist tells his big-city friends who ask why he hates to travel: “I am a provincial; I am like an Israeli. There is something I have to get back to.”

Whether cycling to the cottage on his Italian touring bicyÔ cle or zipping down Main Street “ in his $38,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible, jauntily dressed in a blue-and-white striped Tshirt, shorts and boating shoes, Colville cuts a distinctive and popular figure. Invariably cordial and unpretentious, he takes care to wave or talk to certain prickly local characters who would be affronted if he did not. He serves on the local parks and trees committee, and since 1981 he has been chancellor of Acadia University, whose small Ivy Leagueish campus dominates the town. Outside Wolfville, Colville is in great demand as a speaker on the university circuit and he has served on both the Canada Council and on the visiting committee

of the National Gallery.

But the flip side of that civic-minded persona is an intensely private man who has little interest in playing the role of a celebrity. His idea of a wonderful evening is a long dinner over wine with his wife at home, followed by some Tchaikovsky on the stereo or Wordsworth read aloud. His newfound wealth has allowed him to indulge his boyish enthusiasm for beautiful machines and what he describes as his narcissistic love of clothes: custom-made British

suits, cashmere sweaters and dapper hats. Says Colville, flashing a radiant grin: “As Mae West said, ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.’ ” But friends and family say financial security has changed him little. He spends his days much as he always has, rising at 7 a.m. to walk his beloved dog, Dinah. Most mornings are spent in his spare, white-walled studio, where the sun floods in through the skylight over the high table at which he works. When a CBC camera crew filmed some drawings in his studio in 1965, it caused him, for reasons he cannot explain, to abandon the idea he was working on. Since then, he has barred most visitors from entering. As he says with a trace of embarrassment, “It seemed like a kind of curse.”

Prying: Maintaining what Colville calls the “state of grace” necessary for him to work involves saying no to many of the demands on his time—social invitations, such as the recent lieutenant governor’s garden party in Halifax, or such burdensome tasks as serving on the Applebaum-Hébert cultural committee, a job from which he resigned after one year. Above all, it means saving part of his soul from the prying eyes of the public. Even his friend of 30 years George Thomson, with whom he enjoys long, rambling discussions about art, literature and philosophy, knows that it is futile to probe too deeply into areas such as the dark side of Colville’s paintings. Typically, the artist avoids such questions with a kind of Oriental politeness, diverting the topic with one of his eloquent and entertaining freeform monologues. Says Thomson: “Even now I feel I do not know him well. There is something there, something firmly under control, that he does not show.”

Colville’s burning desire to keep on painting grows out of that unfathomable core. He notes that the Renaissance painter Titian was thought to have painted his masterpiece Death of Acteon in his 90s, and Colville himself hopes to have 30 years of work ahead of him. Although he claims not to believe in an afterlife, he clearly has faith in the immortality of his art. Even if he never enters the pantheon of artists hanging in the Louvre, in his own mind he has reached the goal he set for himself long ago. Sitting serenely in the Art Gallery of Ontario as his paintings were being assembled around him, Colville expressed supreme confidence in history’s verdict. “I was never trying to be an A.Y. Jackson, but rather a Vermeer, a Manet or a Piero della Francesca,” he said. “I always thought I was in that league.” As Canadians come face to face with Colville’s lifetime achievement, it will be clear that they have a master in their midst. f¡?