sábado, 10 de octubre de 2020

Alex Colville

Alex Colville


Alexander Colville

David Alexander Colville

(1920 - 2013)

David Alexander Colville, painter (born 24 Aug 1920 in Toronto, Ontario died 16 July 2013 in Wolfville, Nova Scotia). Alex Colville moved with his family to Amherst, NS, in 1929 and studied at Mount Allison (1938-42).


David Alexander Colville, painter (born 24 Aug 1920 in Toronto, Ontario died 16 July 2013 in Wolfville, Nova Scotia). Alex Colville moved with his family to Amherst, NS, in 1929 and studied at Mount Allison (1938-42). On graduating he joined the army and in 1944 was sent to Europe as a war artist. He returned to Canada late in 1945 and worked in Ottawa on paintings based on his European sketches and watercolours until his demobilization in 1946. Colville taught at Mount Allison 1946-63, when he resigned to devote himself to painting. Between 1952 and 1955 the Hewitt Gallery in New York gave Colville his earliest commercial exhibitions. The most substantial Canadian support for his work at this time came from the National Gallery of Canada, which acquired seven of his paintings in the 1950s.

Nude and Dummy, 1950
Alex Colville

The 1950 painting Nude and Dummy marks the transition from the reportage of Colville's war pictures to a personal creative direction. His subject matter is invariably chosen from his immediate environment: his family, the animals he keeps, the landscape near his home. The representations, however, are never simply a recording of the everyday; they are highly representational reflections of a world which is at once filled with the joyful and the beautiful, the disturbing and the dangerous. Alex Colville has changed his medium a number of times, from oil to tempera to oil and synthetic resin, and after 1963 to acrylic polymer emulsion. He follows a long, careful process for each composition, taking precise measurements and proportioning these to an underlying geometric scheme. He works on only one composition at a time, and since the 1950s has produced only three or four paintings or serigraphs a year.

Dog and Priest, 1978
Alex Colville

The first retrospective of his work was held at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1983 and subsequently travelled in Canada. In 1984 and 1985 the exhibition toured in Germany and the Far East, including Japan, the first time that an exhibition of the work of a living Canadian artist had been seen in that country. A major exhibition of his work done since 1984 was held at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal in 1994 and in 2000 an exhibition was mounted at the National Gallery of Canada to mark his 80th birthday. In 2003 the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia organized the touring exhibition Alex Colville: Return, Paintings Drawings and Prints 1994-2002.

Waterville, 2003
Alex Colville

In 1966 Alex Colville represented Canada at the Venice Biennale. He was visiting professor at University of California at Santa Cruz in 1967 and in 1971 spent 6 months as a visiting artist in Berlin. He has served on numerous boards and commissions. He designed the Centennial coins, minted in 1967, and the Governor General's Medal, in 1978. In 1984 a film, Alex Colville - The Splendour of Order was produced by Minerva Films. He lived in the small university town of Wolfville, NS, from 1973 until his death in 2013 and was chancellor of Acadia University for ten years. In 1982 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and in 2003 he received the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.


Alex Colville

1920David Alexander Colville born in Toronto 24 August
1929Moves to Amherst, Nova Scotia
1942Graduates from Mount Allison University, Sackville, N.B. with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Enlists in the Canadian Army. Marries Rhoda Wright, 5 August.
1944First son, Graham Alexander is born, several months after Alex’s departure overseas as a war artist
1946Second son, John Harrower is born. Alex begins teaching at Mount Allison University
1948Third son, Charles Wright Colville is born
1949Daughter Ann Christian is born
1951First solo exhibition is held at the New Brunswick Museum, Saint John
1953Solo exhibition Hewitt Gallery, New York
1955Second one-man exhibition, Hewitt Gallery, New York
1958Exhibitions at the Hart House Gallery and the Laing Galleries, both in Toronto
1963Resigns from teaching at Mount Allison.; exhibits at the Banfer Gallery, New York; receives the Won Dunn International Award, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton.
1965Commissioned by the Government of Canada to design coins commemorating Canada’s centennial year.
1966Represents Canada at the 33rd Venice Biennale; travelling exhibition of war paintings organized by the National Gallery of Canada; exhibition at Hart House, University of Toronto.
1967Named an Officer in the Order of Canada; receives an honorary D.Litt. from Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario
1967–68Visiting artist at the University of California at Santa Cruz
1968Receives an honorary LLD from Mount Allison University
1969Exhibits at Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, Germany; receives an honorary LLD from Dalhousie University, Halifax.
1970Exhibits at Marlborough Fine Art, London, England.
1971Visiting artist, Berliner Kunstlerprogramm, Berlin.
1973Moves to Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Receives honorary degrees from Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C., and the University of Windsor, Ontario.
1975Awarded Molson Prize (Canada Council); receives honorary D.Litt. from Acadia University, Wolfville.
1976Exhibits at the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery, University of Regina.
1977Exhibits at Gemeentemuseum in Arnhem, the Netherlands, the Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, Germany, and Fischer Fine Art, London, England.
1978Designs medal for Governor General and Mrs. Jules Léger, exhibits at the Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto and Montreal.
1981Appointed Chancellor of Acadia University; Brockington Lecturer at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario; receives an honorary D.Litt. from Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.; traveling exhibition of war art organized by the Canadian War Museum.
1982Named a Companion of the Order of Canada
1983The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, holds a retrospective that subsequently travels to six galleries in Canada and Germany
1984–85Exhibits in Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo and London, England.
1990Becomes a board member of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (until 1993); receives honorary LLD from the University of Calgary.
1991Exhibits at the Drabinsky Gallery,Toronto; resigns as Chancellor of Acadia University.
1992Appointed to the Privy Council; exhibits at the North Bay Arts Centre.
1993Exhibition of drawings at the Owens Art Gallery, Sackville, which subsequently travels to five Canadian galleries.
1994Exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal
1995Receives honorary degree from University of Manitoba, Winnipeg
1997Receives honorary degrees from Bishops University and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design
2000Exhibition, “Milestones” at the National Gallery of Canada to mark his 80th birthday.
Subject of CBC “Life and Times”
2002Exhibits at Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto
2003Receives Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts
Named a member the Order of Nova Scotia
Exhibition “Alex Colville: Return” Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and travelling to five Canadian galleries
2004Exhibits at Mira Godard Gallery
Exhibits at Douglas Udell Gallery, Edmonton
2007Exhibits at Mira Godard Gallery
2010Exhibits at Mira Godard Gallery
2013Alex Colville died peacefully at home on July 16th, 2013, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

Alex Colville

About Alex Colville

The pictures of Canadian artist Alex Colville bear more affinity to the American Precisionists of the 1930s than to photo-realism. His perfect compositions are based on an abundance of sketches and studies, which are first brought into an abstract, geometric scheme before drawings are made from the live model and proportioned according to the planned format. Only then does the slow and patient process of painting begin. Layer upon layer of thinned paint is applied to a primed wooden panel, and the opaque surface finally sealed with transparent lacquer. The process can often take months.

Colville has devoted intensive study to European painting. According to him, it took him many years to digest the impressions gained during two days spent in the Louvre. Yet he has also been deeply impressed by the American Luminists, and not least by Hopper. Colville’s paintings are proof of the fact that a realism of content need have nothing in common with naturalism, that the serious realist does not unthinkingly reflect reality, but analyses it. It is this analytical cast of mind, Colville is convinced, that permits him to discover “myths of mundanity” — on the banks of the River Spree, by the seaside, in the circus, at sports events, on a boat or a highway, in a meadow or a swimming pool, in a telephone booth or a bedroom. Colville insists that the mythical aspect of everyday life is not reserved for authors of the secular rank of a James Joyce, but that the contemporary painter can have access to is as well.

Colville’s silent images are static. Yet practically all of them tell a story, in a brief, concise plot that does not always have a resolution. Fundamental human situations are their both simple and complex themes: loneliness, isolation, parting, work, leisure, estrangement, love. The only subliminally dramatic, often melancholy laconism of content corresponds to the absolute precision of form by which it is conveyed. Like hardly another artist, Colville maintains the difficult balance between imagination and sober calculation, formal interest and social commitment. Behind the realistic surface of his imagery lurks the surreal – but a surreal that lacks every trace of theatrical staging or borrowing from psychoanalysis, whose new myths Colville deeply mistrusts.

—From Art of the Twentieth Century, ed. Ingot. Walther. Vol. I Taschen, Koln, 1998

Behind his words, as behind his art, you can sense elaborate webs of thought. And, also like his paintings, he stands quite alone, beyond category. It’s impossible to speak with him for a few hours without feeling his powerful sense of self. He is, it seems, a free man.

—Robert Fulford, Regarding Alex Colville, Saturday Night, 17 June, 2000

Pacific, 1967
Alex Colville

By David Howes



"What often happens is that I suddenly see that I can combine one idea with another, and both ideas then take on a significance that they would not have had on their own. It’s a curious business of using rational processes and irrational ones – and they’re going in a double harness."

– Alex Colville

We could think of Janus as Colville’s household god, for the notion of a double-facing and double-faced figure appears so often in his work.

– David Burnett,

Colville: Painter Laureate

Alex Colville (b. 1920) describes himself as "a provincial artist." He makes his home in the Maritimes. At the same time, he enjoys an august position on the national arts scene, and his paintings have won him an international reputation. Robert Fulford has dubbed Colville "our painter laureate," pointing to the pervasiveness of the images he has created: "Reproduced in magazines and books, on postcards and posters and television, [Colville’s paintings] have become icons of Canadianism, the visual expression of our spirit" (Fulford 1983: 5). In addition to this widespread popular recognition, Colville has received official recognition for his work. For example, he was commissioned to design a set of coins for Canada’s Centennial, and he was named to the Order of Canada in 1972.

In view of Colville’s status as Canada’s painter laureate or "state artist" (Tuzi 1988), it is striking to learn that he himself traces his initial inspiration to become an artist to the hours he spent as a boy pouring over The Saturday Evening Post (Dow 1972: 17). Many of the Post’s most memorable illustrations during the 1930s were created by Norman Rockwell (b. 1894 – d. 1979). Rockwell had a talent for producing icons of Americanism, and he himself became a national symbol in his own country. As Thomas Buechner (1972: 13) states: "In America, Norman Rockwell is the best-known artist who ever lived. His subject is average America. He has painted it with … benevolent affection … [He] describes the American Dream."

Given the alleged "iconic" status of the art of both Norman Rockwell and Alex Colville, and the formative influence the one had on the other, the relationship between their works presents an intriguing subject for comparative cultural analysis.

The Canadian Rockwell?

The apparent similarities between Rockwell’s art and that of Colville are due to their insistence on painting "the ordinary." "I do ordinary people in everyday situations and that’s about all I can do," Rockwell once said (Buechner 1972: 122). Colville "celebrates the ordinary" according to Hellen Dow (1972: 104). This ordinariness or "quotidian realism" is probably what accounts for the popular appeal of their work, although it has not endeared them to many high art critics. For example, the arts columnist John Bentley Mays asserts that: "the art [Colville] has made is virtually of no creative consequence within the history of Canadian painting and graphic design, except, perhaps, as a footnote to some paragraph on the fate of the magazine illustration style of the 1930s" (Skoggard 1988: 89).

It is true that Colville’s work has not been fashionable in high art circles. However, there are three major difficulties with John Bentley Mays’ way of identifying and then dismissing Colville as the Canadian Rockwell. First, this identification overlooks the Maritime Realist tradition in Canadian painting, which was one of the "creative consequences" of Colville teaching art at Mount Allison University, where Mary Pratt, Tom Forrestall and other members of this tradition all experienced him as a teacher (Burnett 1983: 199-200). Second, this identification elides Colville’s connection to the American Realist Movement (Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper, George Tooker), which provided both a source and a context for the early reception of his work (Burnett 1983: 111-13). Third, if Colville is no more than "the Canadian Rockwell," then why is it that the sense one obtains from his paintings is so different from the feeling one gets from a Rockwell? When Rockwell painted American family life he did so with benevolent affection, and his illustrations generate a sense of cozy familiarity in the viewer. Colville’s family scenes, by contrast, are painted with clinical precision, and their settings often communicate a profound sense of foreboding. A typical instance would be Family and Rainstorm, which portrays a mother holding the door of a black family sedan open as two children, with heads bowed, climb into the back seat, and dark stormclouds loom on the horizon. Taking Family and Rainstorm as an example, if Colville is the Canadian Rockwell, then a major transformation came over the Rockwellian vision when it was transplanted to Canada.

In this chapter, the tension and precarious sense of balance manifest in Colville’s vision of reality will be shown to have its roots in the constitution. Colville does not simply paint "the ordinary," he pictures the elementary structure of Canadian society. His art represents justice-Canadian-style, just as Rockwell’s art – from Four Freedoms to The Problem We All Live With to The Golden Rule – is representative of justice-American-style.

The idea that Colville’s paintings are about justice was first suggested by George Grant, the arch-Canadian political philosopher. Grant dedicated his monumental work, English-Speaking Justice, as follows: "To Alex Colville and [the poet] Dennis Lee, two artists who have taught me about justice." Grant does not expand on what Colville’s art has to say about justice, but Grant’s own ideas can perhaps provide some clues.

According to Grant, "justice is the overriding order which we do not measure and define, but in terms of which we are measured and defined" (1985: 74). Justice is "what we are fitted for" rather than something we bargain for or make. This view of justice as natural is radically opposed to the contractarian view of justice popular in the United States and theorized by the American political philosopher John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. Without going into detail, Grant criticizes Rawls’ vision of justice as contractual for offering nothing more than "a certain set of external political arrangements which are a useful means of the realisation of our self-interests" (Grant 1985: 44). Justice is not external to the self for Grant. In Grant’s terms, justice is the "inward harmony" which stems from human beings doing what they are fitted for – namely, living "well together in communities" and trying to "think openly about the nature of the whole" (Grant 1986: 42).

How might this view of justice as natural be seen to find expression in Colville’s paintings? The best place to start is by examining what "realism" means to Colville and how his realism differs from that of Rockwell.

Everyday Realism

The primary reason for Rockwell’s realism was that he felt "uneasy about making up pictures "in his head" as he would say" (Meyer 1981: 65). He had to have a model in front of him in order to draw – or a photograph. In fact, all of Rockwell’s paintings from the 1930s onwards are tracings (using an opaque projector) of the pictures he took during photographic sessions involving countless friends and neighbours as models. As Susan Meyer (1981: 65) notes, "The strong kinship Americans felt for the personalities depicted in Rockwell’s work derived, in large part, from the authenticity of the subjects themselves: they were real." Asked to paint a sheriff or a country doctor, Rockwell went and got the local sheriff or doctor to pose for his camera. Meyer continues, "In a sense, Rockwell was a realist: he happened to view the American way of life with constantly renewing optimism, but he drew from genuine sources." In America, optimism is not opposed to realism, but intrinsic to it, or as George Grant (1985: 9) would say, "progressivist faith is … fact."

One finds the same striving after visual truth in Colville’s paintings, but the truth of a Colville painting is more transcendental than empirical. As Colville has written,

because an artist must conceive as well as perceive if he is to present the full implications of his subject, I work in an indirect way. By painting largely `out of my head’ and by using an arduous technique, I aim to produce paintings which are constructions on a flat surface, each with an individual identity (Dow 1972: 89).

To elaborate, Colville’s depiction of things is not dictated by the technology of the camera. Unlike Rockwell, he does not work from photographs, at least not initially (Burnett 1983: 135-6). Rather he begins with imaginative sketches, which he proceeds to "authenticate" (a process which may take months, or even years) by doing life drawings of the figures of his imagination, proportioned according to the modular structure he has chosen for a given painting (Burnett 1983: 19-20; Fry 1994: 10, 21).

A Colville painting both etches a moment out of time and offers a lesson in geometry. Hellen Dow (1972: 33) explains:

His paintings are rationally constructed on a mathematical system of harmonic proportions. The artist freely selects this modular arrangement, with the firm belief that by deliberately limiting his formal composition in this way, he actually gains freedom of expression. For it is only under the control of a rational order that he is free to achieve the highest and most profound possibilities of his art. "Limitation is freedom" he declares.

The declaration "Limitation is freedom" recalls to mind the vision of ordered liberty, or "peace, order and good government," enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. It also gives expression to one of the most fundamental preoccupations of the Canadian imaginary, the preoccupation with establishing limits, or borders.

The titles of Colville’s paintings often play upon the notions of limit and measure. Consider Ocean Limited, a painting which shows a man walking along a road in the foreground and a train speeding in the opposite direction in the distance. The title of the painting is actually taken from the name of the train which runs between Montreal and Halifax. What would have appealed to Colville about this title is the idea of ocean (which evokes the notion of endless expanse) being subject to limits. Another illuminating title is Nude and Dummy. The scene of the painting is a bare attic room: a female nude stands at the far end of the room, next to a window, looking back over her shoulder at the dressmaker’s dummy in the foreground of the pictorial field. Why a dummy? "The purpose of a dummy is wholly contained in the notion of measurement" (Burnett 1983: 77). Hence, Nude and Dummy is as measured – or in other words, constructed on a mathematical system of harmonic proportions – as it is about measurement – here symbolized by the dressmaker’s dummy.

The titles of Rockwell’s paintings have a different ring, which can be related to the preoccupation of the American imaginary with the themes of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Consider his magnum opus Four Freedoms, for example. This series was actually commissioned by the United States Government for use in a promotional campaign for the sale of U.S. war bonds. Four Freedoms consists of four panels: Freedom of Speech (a man rising to speak out at a town meeting), Freedom of Worship (a mass of people praying side by side), Freedom from Want (a family sitting down to a turkey dinner) and Freedom from Fear (two parents tucking their children into bed). The last two freedoms are nowhere mentioned in the American Constitution, though it is easy to imagine them as implied. In any event, the emphasis in Rockwell’s painting is on freedom, on overcoming limits, whereas the emphasis on Colville’s paintings is on defining limits.

Doing Justice to Reality

Colville may be Canada’s painter laureate, but his art is not deliberately Canadian or nationalistic in the conventional flag-waving sense. Indeed, he once proclaimed it "ridiculous to be self-consciously Canadian or to make self-conscious attempts to produce a Canadian art … one wants to be good" (Dow 1972: 96). Commenting on this pronouncement, Hellen Dow points out:

The indigenous painting which first endowed Canadian art with self-confidence and direction was the landscape work of the Toronto men who are known as the Group of Seven. Apart from his overwhelming concern for natural environment, however, Colville has nothing in common with these painters. Indeed, beyond the Post-Impressionism of his teacher, Stanley Royle, who was a product of English Schools, [Colville] has no stylistic heritage in Canada at all. In truth, his most significant teacher has been nature itself (Dow 1972: 96).

Contrary to Dow, Colville himself defines his creative impulse with a phrase borrowed from Joseph Conrad: "I try to do the highest possible justice to reality" (de Santana 1986: 70). "Doing justice to reality" involves something more than letting nature be one’s teacher. This self-professed aim forces an examination of how Colville’s paintings, rather than simply transcribing nature, may be seen to body forth the image of a just natural and social order.

Consider the painting Couple on Beach (figure 2). In this painting, a woman lies on the sand with a sun hat covering her face, a man crouches in front of her looking out to sea. Significantly, the figures cast no shadows, and their contours are perfectly delimited. If the woman were "really" lying on the beach, the sand would have obscured part of her figure. But it does not. She is wholly self-contained. So is the man: his feet rest on but do not touch the ground.

In this attempt to "do justice to reality," why has Colville eliminated anything (shadows, sand) which might confuse or blur the boundaries of these figures? Perhaps this is because he thinks of justice as "a system of provinces, co-existing side by side, with clearly marked boundaries"; for any element in this system to encroach upon another would be an injustice – each must keep within bounds (Cornford 1957: 71, 55-63). This way of thinking about justice is consonant with the "watertight compartments" theory of Canadian federalism, as discussed in the chapter “Bordering On: Framing the Canadian/American Imaginary.”

The mood or atmosphere of Couple on Beach is best described as one of double solitude. The unity of the couple is a "unity of you and I". The man and woman are together, but apart, their attention turned in different directions. This is a constant theme in Colville’s paintings. In June Noon, a woman undresses inside a tent; a man with binoculars stands outside scanning the horizon. In January, a woman on snowshoes turns in the direction of the horizon; a man wearing sunglasses faces the spectator.

At one level, Colville’s paintings of couples give expression to the painter’s own ideas about inter-personal relationships:

Colville has said: "I am inclined to think that people can only be close when there is some kind of separateness." When he says this he does not mean the egotism of "having one’s own space," but rather the responsibility of caring for the individuality of the other (Burnett 1983: 108).

At a deeper level, Colville’s couples can be read as figurative expressions of the compact between two distinct social and linguistic groups (here symbolized by the sexes) which is at the basis of the Canadian confederation.

Colville’s paintings are sparsely populated, rather like his country. Furthermore, whatever human figures there are in them tend to stand in juxtaposition to each other, but do not touch. This is very different from Rockwell’s style: Rockwell liked his figures to come together, to merge, and he frequently depicted them embracing or otherwise touching. In Rockwell’s Looking Out to Sea, a boy and his grandfather face in the same direction, the old man’s left arm encircling the boy’s shoulders. In a pair of illustrations advertising life insurance, Planning the Home and First of the Month, Rockwell has a young couple snuggling up to each other in a comfy chair while going over some architectural blueprints and calculating how to pay the bills respectively. As Christopher Finch (1975: 98) observes, these situations are depicted in "good humored but slightly idealized terms … [idealized] in the sense that these paintings tend to show man and wife thinking as one person." That is, the man and woman are shown to form a "unity of we".

It is the indivisible unity of the couples Rockwell depicts that constitute their most endearing quality. Even when spouses appear to have quarrelled, as in The Debate, where a husband and wife sit back to back and it appears from the papers they are holding that they support rival political candidates, the most significant fact is that their heads are already inclining in the same direction, which suggests they will soon see eye-to-eye again.

Colville’s paintings depict not only dualisms between humans, but also the dualism of humans and nature – a dominant motif of the Canadian imaginary in which the notion of wilderness looms so large. Whereas in Rockwell’s paintings the wilderness has been comfortably domesticated to become a swimming hole or a back alleyway, in Colville’s work the wilderness remains a potent, untamed and independent presence. Indeed, it appears in various of Colville’s images that humans, far from dominating nature, are about to be enveloped by it. Consider Swimmer, for example, in which a lone swimmer is three-quarters immersed in a dark expanse of ocean. The people in Colville’s paintings, however, do not appear to be threatened by the enormous natural forces in their environment. As Colville has said of The Skater, which depicts a person skating in a "bleak" world of ice and rock, this painting "is about controlled but relaxed conscious movement in a kind of elemental, void-like aspect of nature – a kind of environment which I think many people find frightening. However, the Skater is not frightened" (Cited by Dow 1972: 109).

Balance is the predominant idea suggested by Colville’s juxtapositions of humans and nature. Humans and landscapes or animals often mirror each other in his paintings, in terms of their side-by-side positioning, their similar textures and forms, and the equal respect the artist accords them. In Couple On Beach the couple’s bare skin matches the sandy beach, while the woman’s blue swimsuit with white stripes mirrors the blue, white-waved sea. In Cyclist and Crow the lowered head of the cyclist reflects the lowered head of the crow as they both "fly" along separate but parallel paths. The equal importance of natural and human elements in a painting is indicated by Colville through titles such as Family and Rainstorm, Cyclist and Crow, Dog and Priest, in which the two main subjects of the painting are juxtaposed but not subordinated to one another.

Contemplation and Angst

The theme of contemplation is a recurrent one in Colville’s paintings (Dow 1972: 45). It is good to contemplate, according to Colville, a disposition he shares with George Grant. As will be recalled, Grant believed that: "Human beings are fitted to live well together in communities and to try to think openly about the nature of the whole" (Grant 1986: 42)

Colville is constantly encouraging his viewers to contemplate the whole. In Visitors are Invited to Register, where a man contemplates – or "registers" – the interior of a church; in the self-portrait Target Pistol and Man the artist locks eyes with the spectator, a target pistol lies on the table in the foreground. Some viewers perceive the latter picture as menacing or sinister, but this is because they are not contemplating it adequately. A target pistol is not designed to kill; it is designed to improve one’s concentration, one’s aim.

This raises the subject of angst in Colville’s paintings, and in particular the critic Mario Tuzi’s charge that Colville’s work presents "a mechanical geometry of angst". Consider Pacific, for example: a man, shirtless, with his back turned to the spectator, leans against the doorframe of a house overlooking the sea; in the foreground a pistol lies on a table that is also incised with a yardstick or ruler of the kind used for measuring cloth. According to Tuzi (1988: 8): "It is the gun and virility, implied menace and violence, couched in a flawless aesthetic order that rule the painting."

Tuzi’s reading is mistaken to the extent it focusses on the gun in isolation, rather than in relation to other details of the painting, most notably the ruler. The ruler stands for measurement and balances the gun. Similarly, the infinity of the ocean balances the virility or latent aggressivity of the man. The title of the painting, "Pacific," further implies that the image is after all one of peacefulness – albeit a controled peacefulness. Together, all the elements suggest an image of society in which the threat of violence is controlled by the imposition of a "peaceful" order. Were Tuzi to reflect upon the relationships between the objects in Pacific, instead of focussing on the objects themselves, he might have grasped the painting’s underlying meaning. The meaning of a Colville painting is always in the balance. Tuzi (1988: 10) unwittingly recognized this when he wrote: "The idea that Canada is a fragmented, regionalized country, holding itself precariously together on the edge of existential negation, achieves complete legitimation in Colville’s work".

If Colville’s paintings are intended to make the viewer "think openly about the nature of the whole," as Grant would say, then the painting that calls upon viewers to think the hardest is Horse and Train (figure 4). In this painting, a horse gallops down a railway track in the falling dark, a train approaches from the opposite direction. As David Burnett (1983: 96) suggests: "The images jolt us by their unexpected juxtaposition and angles, and they contain the apprehension of disaster."

The inspiration for Horse and Train came from a poem by a South African writer, Roy Campbell:

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

What would have appealed to Colville about this poem is its diathetical structure: it advances two theses at once (genius and regiment, horse and train), without attempting to reconcile them, or subordinate one to the other.

Horse and Train is open to a variety of interpretations. Hellen Dow reads it as being about the opposition between nature and machine, or the opposition between the unconventinal artist and conformist society. However, to ask: "Which will conquer, nature or machine, creation or destruction, Providence or chance?" as Hellen Dow (1972: 41) does, is not appropriate. To think in terms of conquest, or "winning", is to think synthetically instead of diathetically, to posit a "unity of we" (involving the negation of the other as other) as the end of history instead of a "unity of you and I." Colville’s point is precisely that horse and train must be thought as an ensemble, as a "divided whole" not a "single whole." That is why there is no temporal dimension to this painting: time is frozen in space. As in all Colville’s work, time is absent, history stands in suspense.

By contrast, there is always something happening in a Rockwell painting. In No Swimming, for example, three half-dressed boys and a dog are shown dashing past a "No Swimming" sign. The viewer can tell that the outraged owner of the waterhole is in hot pursuit of the trespassers, even though he is not in the picture itself. Buechner has commented on Rockwell’s "fascination with time" as reflected in this and other paintings: "Although he records precise moments, he wants the viewer to know what has just happened or will happen next" (Buechner 1972: 114). Rockwell’s paintings are thus intimately bound up with time and its passage.

More and more differences between the two artists’ styles become apparent, as one reflects further on the specific iconographic characteristics of their work. Colville’s work is detached, Rockwell’s sentimental. As Meyer (1981: 24) notes, Rockwell was always on the look-out for situations that would make the spectator "want to sigh and smile at the same time". This surplus of emotions was further augmented by the "extra attention" Rockwell gave to the faces of those he drew (Buechner 1972: 42). This excess of detail is the reason why the personalities of "Rockwell’s people" stand out so strongly. Colville’s people, by contrast, often have their features covered up because their backs are turned to the viewer, or they are holding something – a mirror, a dog, binoculars – which obscures their faces. Furthermore, when Colville does paint faces, they tend to be expressionless. It is as if the idea of individuality were less developed in Colville’s paintings than in Rockwell’s – a fact consistent with the historically lesser interest in individual rights (and the expression of individualism) in Canada than in the United States.

Another major difference has to do with the representation of space. There is as strong an emphasis on proximity in Rockwell’s paintings as there is on distance – infinite expanses – in Colville’s. As Buechner (1972: 135) has noted, "in spite of outer space, [Rockwell] likes his backgrounds close in," hence the preponderance of interiors in his paintings. As Finch (1975: 25) suggests: "It is almost as if the incidents that he illustrated … took place in shallow boxes." Most of Colville’s paintings, by contrast, have exterior settings, while those which do have interior settings typically also include a window or other opening which gives out on some endless expanse of field, sea, or sky. The closeness and temporality of Rockwell’s canvases, like the spatiality and atemporality of Colville’s, contribute to their emotional meaning and tone. As Mary Douglas has observed, "More spacing means more solemnity" (1975: 82), which explains in part why Colville’s paintings lack levity and Rockwell’s paintings are difficult to take seriously.

A painting can either accommodate itself to the viewpoint of a spectator who is imagined to be standing in front of it, or it can seek to reposition the viewer. Rockwell’s compositions tend to adapt to the existing standpoint of the viewer whereas Colville frequently experiments with the viewpoint of the spectator in his paintings. For example, in Couple on Beach the viewer is positioned in the same crouched position as the man (rather than looking down on the man and woman as the standard spectator would); in Main Street the viewer is positioned at car-seat level; and in Embarkation the viewer experiences vertigo as a result of being forced to peer over the head of the male subject into the unfolding scene below.

The scene in Embarkation is one involving a man sitting on the edge of a wharf watching a woman climb down a ladder to a motorboat moored below. Philip Fry (1994: 5) aptly encapsulates the effect on the viewer of Colville’s experiment with perspective in this painting:

By placing us in the position of someone standing near the edge of the wharf and looking straight down between the man and the woman, [Colville] plunges us directly into the centre of the scene. From this viewpoint, we can immediately see the main connections between the man, the woman and the boat, as if sharing the man’s concern and the woman’s downward progress.

The variation Colville introduces into the positioning of the viewer from one painting to the next is indicative of the preoccupation with perspectivalism which is characteristic of the Canadian imaginary. Colville’s perspectivalism has the effect of drawing the viewer into different sets of relationships.

Rockwell’s canvases do not experiment with differing perspectives the way Colville’s do. This trait may be interpreted as as linked to the holism (or anti-perspectivalism) of the American imaginary. Rockwell reinforces the viewer’s sense of his or her own uniqueness precisely because the viewer is not challenged to perceive things from any other angle than the one he or she already occupies.

Interestingly, in Colville’s paintings, while one sometimes encounters the head-on stare, it is often the case that hand-held mirrors, binoculars, and other such devices, extend or deflect the subjects’ gazes in different directions. This trait may be taken to imply that knowledge is not distributed evenly, that knowledge is both heterogeneous and tied to position. In addition to giving expression to the theme of perspectivalism, these images bring out the importance of mirror images and reflections in the Canadian imaginary.

Colville’s paintings, in many cases, constitute mirrors of his own life, for he often uses himself as a model. These auto-portraits are not self-portraits in a traditional sense, however, for Colville creates an imaginary parallel life for his pictorial double, in which he is a blind man being guided by a dog (Night walk), or a nude drinking milk in a dark kitchen (Refrigerator). These duplications of himself provide Colville, rather, with a series of alter egos through which he can further explore the relationship between "one" and "other".

Rights Consciousness

It is said that Rockwell’s art took a "political turn" in the 1960s as he, along with many other Americans, became more sensitive to civil rights issues (Meyer 1981: 212). This new rights consciousness is reflected in The Problem We All Live With: a little black girl marches to school surrounded by four U.S. deputy marshalls, the ground strewn with the debris of protest. This painting is about the "problem of integration", of achieving a veritably "perfect Union." Another painting which gives expression to the theme of rights consciousness is The Right to Know (figure 8): a great mass of people, both young and old, hip and straight, look directly at the spectator from the other side of a judge’s bench. This painting is about the democratization or popularization of wisdom. It stands for the principle that in a republic there should be no unevenness to the distribution of knowledge.

The Right to Know was probably inspired by the Watergate scandal. There is something vaguely disconcerting about this painting, perhaps because none of the people show any sign of having been illuminated by the knowledge they have acquired through the exercise of their "democratic right" to know. Or perhaps it is because it is thrilling but also somewhat alarming to see so many people so closely crowded together.

The first painting in which Rockwell massed people in this fashion was Freedom of Worship, painted in 1942 (Buechner 1972: 97). The inscription on that painting reads: "Each according to the dictates of his own conscience." The most famous painting in which Rockwell piles people into a canvas is The Golden Rule (figure 6). That painting has a representative of virtually every nation in the world in it, with each person dresssed in his or her own national costume. The inscription on it reads: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This painting now hangs in the United Nations building in New York, which is entirely fitting when one considers how many nationalities it ostensibly represents.

The idea that everybody should be treated the same as you treat yourself is an idea with tremendous ethical force. It is a religious idea in origin, but was secularized by the philosopher Immanuel Kant and has become the dominant idea of justice in liberal democratic society. But there is also another, more archaic definition of justice which is: "To render each human being their due" (Grant 1985: 87). The latter definition would require a very different kind of society, with different people fulfilling different roles or purposes, for it to be applied in a meaningful way (MacIntyre 1988: 106-7). But such is not possible in the modern day United States where everybody must be treated equally by definition (if not always in actual practice).

What is the effect of treating everybody as the same (i.e. equal) in principle? It paves the way for the coming to be of the "universal and homogeneous state" (Strauss 1963). The universal and homogenous state is one in which nature – including human nature – has been subjected to total technological mastery in the interests of overcoming contingency and chance so as to ensure that every citizen is equal and free (Grant 1985). George Grant would argue that there is no space for any authentic alterity to exist in such a regime. That this state is what The Golden Rule ultimately envisions as in store for humanity is attested in an interesting way by the circumstances of its production:

One point about the Golden Rule that particularly pleases Norman is that the models appearing in it, though they represent a cross-section of the nations of the world, all came from his home area … [either from] Stockbridge or from Arlington, Vermont … `Guess it proves that America really is a melting pot,’ he noted (Walton 1978: 220).

The Golden Rule, then, sets forth a powerful, synthetic vision of humanity’s telos as a "unity of we" – a vision in which "We, the People" and "We, the World" are as one. It will be appreciated how that vision differs from the diathetical vision of a Colville: there is no space within The Golden Rule for any otherness to emerge, even though the painting teems with individuals.

What is life like once the "universal and homogeneous state" has come to be? Rockwell perhaps gives us a glimpse of that state in Apollo 11 Space Team. The setting is Cape Canaveral, and all of the figures in this painting – astronauts and pilots, scientists and ground crew, cooks and secretaries – are lined up in rows, their faces turned in the same direction, illuminated by the blast of a rocket. This painting bodies forth the essence of "technological liberalism" (Kroker 1984: 39), of the universal technological mastery of nature including human nature, hence the regimentation, the rows.

It is appropriate to recollect the dark horse and armoured train of Colville’s Horse and Train at this juncture. In Colville’s terms, all of the people in Apollo 11 would be inside the train, the technological dynamo of modernity. The dark horse has been effaced. In Rockwell’s terms, by contrast, Apollo 11 represents the fulfillment of the American Dream: it is the snapshot of history.

Recall once again the paintings Couple on Beach, June Noon, and January. Remember the mood of double solitude in those paintings. The theme of solitude also finds expression in American painting, not so much in Rockwell’s work, but certainly in that of America’s other most famous visual artist, Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth’s Christina’s World, for example is an icon of Americanism. But there the solitude is singular, rather than double, and that is the key. The American soul achieves "inward harmony" (Grant 1985) or "psychic integration" (Bateson 1973) as long as it is "at one" either with itself, as in Christina’s World, or with others, as in The Golden Rule. The Canadian soul is never at one with itself: its "integration" is contingent upon being juxtaposed to some double, as in Colville’s couples. In Canada, the minimal conceptual unit is a pair as opposed to a one. Canadians may not be the only people in the world to seek out solitude in pairs, but they are one of the few.


Selected Publications

  • Burnett, David. Colville. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, McLelland and Stewart, 1983.
  • Cheetham, Mark. Alex Colville: The Observer Observed. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994.
  • Da ke, Jiang. Colville. (in Chinese) Shanghai: Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Publishing House, 2001.
  • Dow, Helen J. The Art of Alex Colville. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972.
  • Fry, Philip. Alex Colville: Paintings, Prints and Processes 1983–1994. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 1994.
  • Kelley, Gemey. Alex Colville, Selected Drawings. Sackville N.B.: Anchorage Press, 1993.
  • Metson, Graham, and Cheryl Lean. Alex Colville, Diary of a War Artist. HalifaxNimbus Publishing, 1981.
  • Perkin, J.R.C. Ordinary Magic, A Biographical Sketch of Alex Colville. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1995.
  • Smart, Tom Alex Colville: Return, Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 2003.
  • Fulford, Robert; Schmied, Wieland; Schultz, Andreas; Welch, Cyril. Colville Tributes. Kentville N.S.: Gaspereau Press, 2011.
  • Hunter, Andrew ed. Colville, Toronto: published in conjunction with the exhibition Alex Colville: Art Gallery of Ontario, August, 2014–January, 2015; National Gallery, April–September, 2015

Horse and Train, 1954
Alex Colville


  • Burnett, David. Colville. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, McLelland and Stewart, 1983.
  • Cheetham, Mark. Alex Colville: The Observer Observed. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994.
  • Da ke, Jiang. Colville. (in Chinese) Shanghai: Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Publishing House, 2001.
  • Dow, Helen J. The Art of Alex Colville. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972.
  • Fry, Philip. Alex Colville: Paintings, Prints and Processes 1983–1994. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 1994.
  • Kelley, Gemey. Alex Colville, Selected Drawings. Sackville N.B.: Anchorage Press, 1993.
  • Metson, Graham, and Cheryl Lean. Alex Colville, Diary of a War Artist. HalifaxNimbus Publishing, 1981.
  • Perkin, J.R.C. Ordinary Magic, A Biographical Sketch of Alex Colville. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1995.
  • Smart, Tom Alex Colville: Return, Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 2003.
  • Fulford, Robert; Schmied, Wieland; Schultz, Andreas; Welch, Cyril. Colville Tributes. Kentville N.S.: Gaspereau Press, 2011.
  • Hunter, Andrew ed. Colville, Toronto: published in conjunction with the exhibition Alex Colville: Art Gallery of Ontario, August, 2014–January, 2015; National Gallery, April–September, 2015

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