Alex Colville

The notion that painting should supply imagery remains fairly well implanted in the public mind, at least since the aurochs & equines of Lascaux. “Representative” is a related but different idea. The Abstract Expressionism against which Alex Colville rebelled, when he returned from the European front as perhaps Canada’s most memorable war artist, cannot be said to dispense with imagery. I think it would be more accurate to say it was “dispensing” with it; & Colville was pleased to dispense with the dispensing. (He had no use for fashion.) I cannot recall an abstract painting in which the image is not retained as a ghost, or a poorly concealed premiss; but then, there is a lot of abstract painting I simply can’t recall. By contrast, it is hard to forget Colville paintings.

His “magic realism,” or “super-realism,” or “hyper-realism” — perhaps one might sometimes say “supernatural realism” — was something I admired without entirely liking. Yet it was certainly not “photo-realism,” which I detest. Colville himself was a magnificent man, entirely sincere & characteristically humble. The “supernaturalism” was I think constantly & intentionally present, but as consciously & intentionally restrained. As I know from my own family past, it is a mistake to think that United Churchmen rejected mysticism & asceticism, or that they were ever unemotional. They did not reject Trinitarian Christianity, and many still do not, as I was recently reminded at the funeral of a beloved uncle, who had for decades continued singing in the choir. Colville, who in my very brief brushes with him seemed like a member of my own extended family, was a tame & decent man, such that the tameness & decency itself carried a religious charge — a contained & applied religious anxiety.

They are clubbable people, in my view. Colville’s membership card in the Progressive Conservative party (how Canadian that oxymoron!) was something precious to him, signifying his refusal to be an outsider. From war artist forward, he never resisted public service. He accepted awards, & behaved with due diligence on arts committees, in academic administration, & any other call to duty, without ever pushing himself forward. He was entirely in his element designing the reverses for our national coinage in Centennial Year (quite astounding reliefs of common Canadian animals). He rejected rejectionism. He was totally reliable. He was the exact opposite of what we imagine by an artistic temperament.

For he put that temperament entirely into his work. He chose the most painstaking methods available, not only in technique but in construction. The geometry in his paintings is as refined as that of Piero della Francesca, & the colouring as serene in the service of the geometry. The symbolism has a similar quality: resonating from the obvious, rather than from the arcane. The subject matter was entirely different, but I mention Piero because after taking in Colville, Piero made more sense to me: his careful choreography of extraordinary detail towards an overall simple effect; his uncompromising “logistics” in the service of disarmingly plain juxtapositions.

The most famous Colville painting is, “Horse & Train.” One could not hope for symbolism more dead obvious. A dark horse is running off from the foreground along railway track, directly in the path of an approaching engine, whose steam is modestly bleaching the sky. The original title spells this out more clearly still: “A Dark Horse Against an Armoured Train.” The setting is a specific place, near Sackville, New Brunswick, where the rail trestles low over the Tatramar Marshes. The inspiration is likewise deadpan. Colville was arrested by a couplet, itself often quoted, from the (explosively Catholic) South African poet, Roy Campbell:

Against a regiment I oppose a brain,
And a dark horse against an armoured train. …

Colville himself acceded to calling this his signature work, or as he told my father, “A skeleton key to all the others.” In none of his paintings is the outward placidity to be taken at face value. Though employing some techniques associated with photo-realism, it is never to a photographic purpose. It is curiously enough to an abstract & expressive purpose. Always some juxtaposition; always something disturbing in that, & some hint of nature in opposition to nature; for even over a pure landscape he flies the scavenging “Seven Crows.” Death is always stalking.

It would be inane to attribute this “psychologically,” to his formative experience as war artist, or his own early proximity to death by pneumonia; just as it would be obtuse to say that the attraction of his paintings to the large audience he eventually found, overlooked this element. For while it is true that any pretty realism will appeal to the chocolate-box mentality, the power in Colville’s paintings is to spook it. “Oh look, a little naked child with a big black labrador.” But the child is looking at the dog, the dog is looking through the child, & the dog’s collar is its symbolic mark of submission. It could, if it wished, tear that little child to pieces. Even while trying, no one will be able to miss this aspect of the composition, in which the comforting is presented, then withdrawn.

Colville (who died yesterday, age 92), was hardly a melodramatic person. His “lifestyle” & sunny demeanour gave no hint of this. Nor did his remarkably long happy marriage to the witty Rhodda (née Wright), herself artist as well as wife, mother, model, & muse, who predeceased him in December. They were contented Maritimers, small town citizens, perfectly in tune with their neighbours. Nothing could ever draw them towards the big city, for Alex had seen enough of warzones already. The down-home warmth in his voice is the impression I will carry.

He could not come from any other place, & only the weight of his art drops through it. His work was “discovered” in Germany & England before it made any significant impression in Canada. It will probably survive, because it has real universality. It is uncluttered by period sentiment, aloof, complete, & self-explanatory: such things travel well through time. But Colville didn’t worry about such things, & it is not for us to worry on his behalf.