In biographies of artists, their paintings are both a welcome feature and a disadvantage. Their commanding presence can easily overwhelm their creator and make commentary redundant. That problem is especially evident in Alex Colville: The Splendour of Order. Colville’s work is so self-contained and alienating, and the artist’s public self is so straightforward, that neither affords easy access to the darker secrets of his art. Only when the one-hour portrait pulls back to document Colville’s early life, his marriage and his working methods does Splendour offer insights worthy of his art.
Because the independently produced film is admittedly a celebration, the critical trumpets blow loud and clear for Colville as “the most important realist painter in the Western world.” Splendour is lavish in its use of Colville’s paintings, and often inventive in photographing them to capture both their nuances and the feeling of dread that suffuses them. In his interviews, Colville is calm and amiable, a man of total integrity who manufactures his own frames and packing crates and is possessed by an inner vision which he can only forcibly express on canvas. But the technique of blending shots of Colville in his natural habitat of Wolfville, N.S., into the paintings based on them only emphasizes how closely his art verges on the banal and sentimental.
The most fascinating perspectives on Colville are found beyond the paintings, especially from his wife, Rhoda. Few critical accolades can match that modest woman’s willingness to pose as a model and her faith in Colville’s ability to “do good.” As a child he almost died of pneumonia; later he served as a war artist, including a session documenting the horror of Belsen. Ultimately, Colville’s commitment in art is to redeem chaos and death through a more innocent order. Watching him measure a rusted iron cross, the viewer realizes that Colville will transcend that bare geometry to gauge the indefinable essence of his subject. In those moments, more than in Colville’s art or words, the film-makers movingly illustrate the truth that such artists as Colville are the measure of all things.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.