National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 8 (IV:2), 1966

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Realism, Surrealism and Celebration: 
The Paintings of Alex Colville in the 
Collection of the National Gallery of Canada

by Patrick A. E. Hutchings
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
University of Western Australia

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The rhythmic pattern of bodies, each progressively less jackknifed as we read towards the foreground, could not be rendered in meta! exactly like this. But the solidity of each individual figure is essentially sculptural, and the pool, with its sharp green wavelets, is like the water around Renoir's Laveuse. formal, cast and fettled; only the splash of the middle figure of the foreground group asserts the expected softness of a painted surface. The girls are of polished bronze, the tight unglamourous swimsuits are like wound wire or electroplating, and the surface of each figure has the uniform visual tension of a finely machined metal artifact. And yet the picture remains, pre-eminently, an action photo taken at the high school swimming pool.

Arrested and monumentalized like this, with the banal details of their surroundings resolved into an elegant formal pattern, these anonymous figures become permanent and  memorable. Their Maillol-like solidity gives them the same importance as pieces of public sculpture, those statues with which the past celebrated its values. The values have changed, but the celebrative impulse remains.

Man may fit into his environment snugly enough, but human activity inevitably brings alienation with it.

Work, of its essence, entails the alienation of man from the mindless and effortless round of nature; and as often as not work itself brings about a further alienation, of the person from  his own function as a worker: labour may be necessary but a man cannot identify himself simply with this necessity.

The double theme of alienation can be traced in the painting Woman at Clothes Line, 1957 (Fig. 4), a picture of work, removed subtly but absolutely from the stereotypes of social realism, and plumbing depths deeper than the Marxist might care to go. This is a painting of a housewife who does not enjoy hanging out damp washing on a chili day in fall. Of course, but it is something else as well.

The woman's figure is curiously stiff and wooden, her face is almost schematic, and only the eyes, which look beyond the present situation, betray any life or animation. The person has withdrawn, leaving her body as a functional instrument of work: her arms and legs are solid and well defined, but she is absent. In a sense she is not needed here, only her splendid, solid limbs, and prehensile hands.

The withdrawal of the person from her function of work underlines the larger theme of the Romantic Tragedy, (4) of the essential and necessary alienation of man from nature; and the yellow leaves on the green grass look more real than the woman, just because Nature's cycle has an inevitability and a grace which the human round has not. The indifferent objects, the wash-basket of split wood, the brick damp-course, and the narrow clapboards of the house all seem to relate more easily to the smooth course of the seasons than this intense, labouring figure who can dominate nature only by work: trivial, effortful and necessary action.

The woman, and the seasons, both process inexorably and majestically. And she, like the fallen leaves on the cold green grass, has come to an autumn, but here to one more fruitful than theirs. This notion of a procession is  magnificently conveyed by the strong measured line of the blankets, which thrusts  her forward - dark grey, pale grey, and summer white - and which issues now in this suburban Ceres, whose beautiful feet plant themselves  so firmly on the waste of Nature's diurnal course.

Colville is not telling a story as a nineteenth-century realist would; he is painting an emblem which we feel, or grasp intuitively as an aesthetic idea. We are not supposed to read the picture off into a series of propositions, or reduce it to the elements of its anecdote, though if we are to 'say what it means to us', we must perforce say something.

But, though painting is not propositional, this canvas is metaphysically true, that is to say it represents something fundamental in reality and in the human condition. Human activity, as Aristotle puts it, 'finishes the job where Nature fails', (5) and human action both follows and subdues nature, subduing only in so far as it follows, and always making up what is wanting. Human craft - here techné, cunning and skill are all crammed into one word - overcomes Nature in the end. Work is the means, and the price, of man's mastery over nature, in sudore vultus tui vesceris pane, (6) and even in our remarkably efficient western societies and our comfortable suburbs, man dominates the world only in a glorious servitude to it.

This housewife knows more surely perhaps even than Hobbes that man in a 'state of nature' would be man in a state of confusion; and only her efforts, incessant. wearisome and necessary, can bring about a domestic order as elegant in its way as Nature's own economy is, but. unlike it. never quite mindless or quite effortless.  As we have said, the extreme realism of tempera and other hard-surface techniques can slide into surrealism, and there are elements both of genuine and of merely apparent surrealism in Colville; we shall discuss these presently. But before we come to them it is instructive to look at an example of what one may call, for want of a better expression, Colville's ecstatic pre-Raphaelitism.

The lyrical Hound in Field (reproduced on cover) is as meticulous hair for hair as Holman Hunt's Scapegoat, (7) but it is quite without message: it illustrates no theme, great or small,  and there is no anthropomorphic anguish in the dog's eye. He is closer to a Kodachrome than to a Landseer.

This purely lyrical use of near-surrealism produces great tension in the observer: what is meant beyond the lyrical fact? What is the ulterior sense of this picture? There is nothing ulterior here, unless it is the sheer love of craft and illusion, a passion for realism which survives the absolute conquest of the camera. (8) But searching for motives of this sort brings us dangerously close to questions about the artist's intentions and to the intentional fallacy, when what we are after is the intentionality of his artifacts. Here, the point of the picture almost seems to be just this, to invite the question, and to block off any answer with a disclaimer. We are compelled to attend to the lyrical artifact, simply. This sort of lyricism which says nothing explicitry, but which forces us to use the artifact as the concrete focus of its own suggestions, and of whatever we ourselves may bring to it, has literary analogues in things like Frost's Oust of Snow, or, to take Canadian examples, in the short imagistic poems of W. W. E. Ross.

Two of the Gallery's paintings, Woman, Man, and Boat, 1952 (Fig. 5), and Four Figures on a Wharf; 1952 ( Fig. 6) , are positively but gentry surrealist, and they raise, convenientry, a problem of critical phenomenology and classification that needs to be faced: how far would it be pointful to look upon Colville's oeuvre as in some general sense surrealistic? This is a large question, and needs to be considered at some length.

One wants to borrow and apply to Colville the phrase that John Canaday (9) coined for his essay on Magritte, 'delightful disconcerter'. Colville's explicit surrealism is far less épatant than even the mildest of Magritte, gentrer than Le Château des Pyrénées (10) for instance, or La Condition humaine, (11) and it is altogether cooler and more controlled; the troubled dream itself has been recollected in tranquillity, and the automatic writing of the unconscious subjected to classical canons of style.

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