Alex Colville’s terrible beauty

Menace lurks in the paintings of a master

JOHN DeMONT October 10 1994

Alex Colville’s terrible beauty

Menace lurks in the paintings of a master

JOHN DeMONT October 10 1994

Alex Colville’s terrible beauty


Menace lurks in the paintings of a master


The angular, monk-like face is burned into the memory of anyone who has ever stared at his haunting self-portraits. But the reality of the smiling, brush-cut guy in the shapeless T-shirt, khakis and deck shoes who pushes open the door of his Wolfville, N.S., home collides with the image. “Excuse my clothes, I just cycled in from the cottage,” says Alex Colville, 74, card-carrying Conservative, lover of guns, believer in absolute evil and creator of some of the eeriest paintings ever to grace a gallery wall. Then again, today he’s full of surprises—including a rare offer to show a visitor the thirdfloor studio where he recently put the final touches on his latest painting, Embarkation, which, a day earlier, was shipped to his dealer, the Drabinsky Gallery in Toronto. Sunlight bathes the sparely decorated, highceilinged room. Even there, the unexpected: atop a stack of Mozart compact discs sits the

latest recording by k.d. lang, the trail-blazing, Alberta-bom singer, who seems about as far removed from the dignified, austere Nova Scotia painter as is humanly possible.

Colville’s personality, it becomes apparent in a three-hour interview with Maclean’s, is as perplexing as his work. He is a giant in the world of art who eschews big-city celebrity for an obscure life in a tiny university town in Nova Scotia’s luminous Annapolis Valley; an artistic perfectionist who occasionally works in tailor-made Savile Row suits and treasures the fact that his canvases fetch at least as much as those of almost any living Canadian painter (about $150,000 apiece); an intellectual, profoundly pessimistic about life, who still considers himself deliriously happy. Colville brims with paradox. That is reflected in his paintings, which at first seem straightforward depictions of ordinary life, but gradually suggest a darker sensibility. Critics, meanwhile,

are widely divergent on the merits of his work. Whereas a British critic once labelled his canvases “a turning point in the history of art in the 20th century,” Toronto’s The Globe and Mail has dismissed him as “virtually of no creative consequence.”

The opening last week of a Colville retrospective at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, on view until Jan. 15, will undoubtedly reopen the debate. (Kingston, Ont.’s Agnes Etherington Art Centre also has a Colville show, of selected drawings, until Nov. 6.) The 25 paintings, 10 silk screens and 346 related sketches hanging at the MMFA, most of them created between 1983 and 1994, show Colville at his powerful, enigmatic best, using his trademark images of nature and the everyday world to ask the most fundamental of life’s questions. As exhibit curator Philip Fry, a visual arts professor at the University of Ottawa, puts it: “His work in the past 10 years amounts to an essay on existence.”

In the eyes of some viewers, Colville’s world view is almost too bleak to consider. They glimpse impending doom in a black stallion in Church and Horse (1964), menace in a roadside figure in Traveller (1992), violence in a nude female at the top of the stairs in Woman with Revolver (1987)—all of which are included in the MMFA retrospective. Says Christopher Ondaatje, the Toronto financier, adventurer and art collector who provided most of the funds to buy Colville’s Ocean Limited (1962) from Sotheby’s (Canada) Inc. for

$148,500 last May and donated it to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia: ‘With Colville, you always have the sense that something awful is just about to happen.”

Standing in his tidy studio, looking far too healthy and happy to fit the role of brooding artist, Colville seems a little puzzled by this dark reading of his work. “Frankly, other people seem to see it more than I do,” he says with a slight note of exasperation. Colville speaks in complete, complex sentences sprinkled with references to everyone from French philosopher Albert Camus to Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg. When asked to explain the point of his paintings, he evokes Buddhist philosophy and quotes a line by British romantic poet William Wordsworth—Though

nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower—before coming to the point. “I think in a sense the things I show are moments in which everything seems perfect and something is revealed,” he says.

Could be, but anyone who stares at a Colville canvas for long knows that an indefinable uneasiness lingers beneath his images of birds, dogs, cars, trucks, boats and trains, as well as women who bear an uncanny resemblance to Rhoda, 73, his wife of 52 years, and the crew-cut men who look undeniably like the artist himself. “Each of his paintings has the quiet ring of destiny far in the background,” says Fry, who thinks Colville has been mistakenly classified in the past as a realist painter, interested mainly in depicting the actual world. “In all of his paintings he captures a moment in which fundamental choices are made.”

Colville’s somewhat bleak vision has been forged through his voluminous reading—his biggest influences include novelists Joseph Conrad and Thomas Mann and philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt—and the horror he saw as a Second World War artist “I’ve always felt that the whole thing is very fragile and can come apart at any moment,” he says. To illustrate, he chooses the metaphor of watching a glider plane flying across a blue sky with the nagging knowledge that as beautiful as the scene is, sooner or later the glider will have to come crashing back to earth. Yet, Colville does not wallow in despair—far from it. Even a bout with prostate cancer five years ago simply reinforced his long-held view that life is most fully realized when you understand that it is finite.

The demand for his paintings and the high price they command have enabled Colville to live on his own terms. There are the expensive suits, the succession of European luxury cars and the fine hotels he frequents when travelling in North America or abroad. Not for him the bohemian artist’s life. The son of a steel plant worker and supervisor, he was bom in Toronto and moved to Amherst, N.S., at the age of 9. Early on, Colville made a conscious decision, he recalls, “not to live like a God damn serf.” By then, he had made an even more momentous choice—to be an artist rather than a lawyer, politician, military officer or one of the other career paths he had considered.

He was a scholarship student at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.—-just across the New Brunswick border from Amherst— graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1942. That same year he married Rhoda Wright, a fellow student in the fine arts program at Mount Allison. A few months later, he enlisted in the Canadian Army with the ambition of being a war artist. In May, 1944, he headed overseas and spent the next year recording troop landings in the south of France and following the Canadian infantry through Holland and into Germany. Colville had a productive war, completing 125 works that are now preserved in the Canadian War Museum art collection. ‘When the war ended,” he says, “I thought, ‘Boy I’ve seen a lot and I have a lot to think about. In order to handle this I have to get away.’ ”

An art-teaching post that Mount Allison offered him in 1946 seemed the perfect solution. Four years later, he completed Nude and Dummy, a haunting, powerful work that signified a breakthrough for the 30-year-old artist. All the same, it took another 13 years until Colville, by then a father of four with only a couple of small exhibitions under his belt, resigned from Mount Allison to devote himself full time to painting. “People thought what I was doing was just crazy,” he recalls. “Everyone was doing Jackson Pollock and all that crazy abstract stuff. Most of them

thought I was just too dumb to know what was going on.

But I’ve never had that much interest in what other people were doing.”

Three decades later, he is still swimming against the artistic currents of the day.

“Alex stands apart from the general trends of art in Canada and the world in art,” says Fry. Acceptance came first in Europe, where a German critic once hailed him as “the most important realist painter of the Western world.” But that streak of stubborn independence has not always made him a darling of the commentators at home. After viewing his 1983 retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto critic John Bentley Mays wrote, “Its widespread popularity and potential as a crowd-pleaser apart, Colville’s art is worthy of inclusion in a small didactic group show of realists from Canada’s Atlantic region, nothing more.”

Such opinions seem to mean little to Colville as he walks through the roomy, comfortable home where he and his wife have lived since 1973. Rhoda grew up in the stucco house, which was built in the early 1920s and overlooks Wolfville’s main street. The interior is decorated with assorted art and antiques. The best walls, however, are reserved for Colville’s own silk screens. “I don’t believe in being self-deprecating,” he says. “I don’t want to be compared to Tom Thomson and all of this Canadian stuff. I want to be compared to the great painters in history.”

For now, Colville has to be satisfied that his pictures hang in galleries and private collections as far away as Germany and Japan. The high prices for his canvases leave a handsome profit after the dealer’s 50-percent cut. Along with material wealth—he says he earned $250,000 last year—his success has also brought honors, including a

stint as chancellor of Acadia University in Wolfville and being named a companion of the Order of Canada.

Over the years, though, little has really changed for Colville. He and Rhoda live like any other affluent, small-town couple, enjoying their mongrel dog, Min, summering at their nearby cottage and having regular visits from their children and grandchildren. He remains a voracious reader and avid supporter of the federal Progressive Conservative Party. He also loves cruising through Wolfville’s leafy streets in his Volvo station wagon—he sold the Porsche in June—and occasionally dropping in at a nearby gun club to sharpen his aim with a pistol. The

Toronto art crowd makes him out to be some kind of hermit, but that may stem from the fact that his list of friends includes a car dealer and the owner of a Wolfville dry-cleaning business, but precious few painters.

Ultimately, he’d rather make art than talk about it. When working, he rises at 6 a.m., takes Min for a 30-minute walk, has a big breakfast and is in the studio by 8, where he remains for the next four hours. “I approach my work just like an accountant,” he says of his notoriously meticulous technique, which, on average, enables him to complete just three paintings and silk screens in total per year.

After half a century, the process is still the same: Colville starts with a feeling, which

may have been bubbling around in his brain for years. In search of an image to embody the notion, he begins a series of simple doodles, which progressively become more precise. Once he finds what he is looking for, he develops a carefully measured geometric model for the work. From there, Colville completes dozens of life drawings. Then the artistic and geometric images are melded together on particleboard. He spends the next few months building up the images with layers of acrylic paint. Finally, the surface is sealed with an acrylic varnish. “Anyone working in the visual arts is a kind of artisan,” he says. Few carry this concept as far as Colville, who personally makes the frames

for his paintings and produces his own silk screens in the studio.

Never exactly prolific in the first place, Colville has slowed little because of age. “When I’m working on something I tend to be obsessive,” he says. All the same, when he does find time to cast an eye over his output, such as the 11 years of work now on display in Montreal, Colville is “pleased and surprised” by what he sees. As for the ultimate historical verdict on his work, he simply shrugs and says, “You do the best you can and whether you are great or not, who knows?” And then he departs, a lean, suntanned senior citizen heading back on his bicycle to the cottage. He looks decidedly ordinary. Yet the knowledge that the rider spends his days bound up in the big questions about existence adds an unsettling subtext to the scene. Almost, in fact, like one of Alex Colville’s paintings. □