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August 8, 2013

Alex Colville, a wonderful gift to the world

The Canadian Charger

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Alex Colville's biographies will read born August 24, 1920 and died July 16, 2013. It is hard to believe that this great energy has left us. These biographies will also describe Alex Colville as a significant Canadian painter of the late 20th century, whose work has been as important as that of the Group of Seven to Canada and to the world, and as familiar.

Colville’s paintings have a distinctive style. Each one is immediately identifiable as his. They have an uncluttered elegance of line, almost minimalist, and a distinctive use of colour, somewhat muted. They are meticulously painted.  At first glance, the images seem photographic, but almost immediately they become something else. This technique has been described as hyper-realism or magic realism--it suggests something beyond simple representation, where details and flaws disappear into perfection.

That something Other often remains elusive. And I suspect it is different for every viewer.  I see not only danger or anger as some people do, but the vulnerability of people and of other life forms. Colville’s time as a war artist during the Second World War probably contributed to this sense of vulnerability and of potential for violence or destruction. Single, menacing guns often appear in his paintings, creating what William Butler Yeats called a “terrible beauty.”

Probably his most widely known painting, “Horse and Train” pits a galloping horse against an on-coming locomotive.  

Who can doubt the outcome?  Is it a comment on technology versus the natural world?  Likely.  But it also raises other issues and questions. It makes a viewer aware of how important space is in life and in a work of art. The horse and the train are fine in their own places, but the space between them, where they may meet, is fraught with violence. This is the danger point, a new meaning for ”vanishing point” in a painting, as the lines converge in that space, not on a distant horizon.

In “Family and Rainstorm,” a family is gathering into a car.

It is one of the first Colville paintings that caught my attention. The woman in the painting is almost ghost-like. She is with her family but at the same time not there, in some place of her own. It is a duality I recognised immediately, and I remember feeling grateful to Colville that he would be aware of it and would paint it sympathetically, under the clouds of a gathering storm.

“To Prince Edward Island” challenges notions of the “gaze” or the viewer.  

We are accustomed to being the viewers before a painting, but in this one the woman is looking back at us, with an intensity that is compelling. And the glass in the binoculars is blank, without any kind of reflection--so much for how important we think we are.  We squirm as we wonder what she sees. We cannot see her eyes, so we have no clues about what she is thinking as she gazes at us.  Who are we?  What does she see?

Colville also plays in this painting with content. We immediately see and are caught by the woman and those binoculars which make us uneasy, and so it is easy to miss the man who is seated behind her. Does he see through her into us? What does he see? The whole relationship of image and viewer is disturbed.  There is also an unanswered question about who is steering this boat.

So . . . we will miss Alex Colville, whose creative energy and view of the world have given us aesthetic pleasure, while they have urged us to think differently about vulnerability, about spatial relationships, about who we are and about what we think we see.  

Colville’s has been a rich and wonderful gift to the world. He will be missed.

The official Alex Colville website is

Written by Judith Maclean Miller

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