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

Bulletin 8 (IV:2), 1966

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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

1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  |  10  


1 From Irving Layton's 'Boys in October', The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, p. 308.

2 One is of course paraphrasing very freely indeed here from Aristotle's Poetics, ch. 4. But see especially the Lane Cooper translation (Boston, Ginn,1913), '...we...delight to contemplate ...forms as represented in a picture with the utmost fidelity...' (p.10).

3 Compare: e.g. The Norman Rockwell Album (N.Y., Doubleday, 1961). It would be pusillanimous to deny
the pleasure that one takes in Rockwell's work, and disingenuous as well. But the pleasure of it, and the previous note notwithstanding, this kind of thing is not art in a paradigm sense.

4 The Romantic Tragedy: The Romantic account of evil and tragedy turns essentially on a simple notion of man's alienation from Nature, but it is difficult to find even one Romantic who managed to carry the whole analysis through in these simpliste terms. Perhaps Morris does it in News from Nowhere, and even Marx himself in his concept of the time when the State has withered away; but there are whole interlocking sets of notions of alienation which need thorough exploitation before we can say anything useful about all this.

It is interesting to notice, though, how the author of Émile can set up in that book the ideal of the simple unalienated child of nature, and in the same year, in Le Contrat social make another alienation the essence of any common, political life (op. cit. ch. VI).

The Marx who wrote the paper on 'Alienated Labour', (in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Moscow, Modern Languages Publishing House; London, Wishart, 1959) would have seen eve to eve with Thoreau who wrote this apostrophe to his fellow citizens:

'It is very evident what mean and snarling lives many of you live, for my sight has been whetted by experience; always on the limits, Irving to get into business and Irving to get out of debt, a very ancient slough, called by the Latins aesalienum, another's brass...' (Walden, 'Economy').

But Marx would not have sympathized with Thoreau's absolutely personal policy of withdrawal from the mortgaged life. The accounts which Thoreau kept, including the $32.03 for items 'All experiments which failed', were meant for examples, if negative ones, but they do not profess to tell us everything about the universal laws of history; 'History' presides over the Reading Room of the British Museum, not over Walden Pond. On the other hand, neither Marx nor Rousseau can present such well-audited accounts nor, certainly, such modestones.

It is interesting to notice that, from the beginning, the more simpliste Romantic notions have not thrived in North America; there has not been much demand for either of the Rousseaus, the Contrat social one or  J. J. Émile. And this lack of enthusiasm goes back at least as far as Chateaubriand, who failed to find in Louisiana the noble savages of whom Jean-Jacques dreamed at Montmorency: ne suis point. comme Rousseau, un enthousiaste  des sauvages; et quoique j'aie peut-être autant à me plaindre de la société que ce philosophe avait à s'en louer, je ne crois point que lapure nature soit la plus belle chose du monde. Je l'ai toujours trouvée fort laide, partout où j'ai eu l'occasion de la voir. Bien loin d'être d'opinion que l'homme qui pense soit un animal dépravé, je crois que c'est la pensée qui fait l'homme. Avec ce mot de nature, on a tout perdu...('Préface de la Première Édition d'Atala') (Chateaubriand, Atala, René, Le Dernier Abencérage, edition of Melchior de Vogüé, London, Dent; N. Y., Putnam, 1912, p. xx).

And again, such New Jerusalem building as has been attempted with some success in North America has owed more to certain Evident Truths, to Common Sense and to the Protestant and Yankee doctrines of work, than to the Romanticism either of alienation-redeemed (Émile), or of the higher-alienation-embraced (Contratsocial).

The woman with the wash-basket is a much more representative North American figure than the Noble Redman, or the ecstatic mystic of the volonté générale, and there is not even a symbolic figure in the North American stock to stand in for this second idea.

North America has been sceptical both about Jean-Jacques' diagnosis and about Rousseau's medicine, whether his own bottling or Marx's, and Robert Frost puts it with the exact note of native irony: The communist looks forward to a day of order without law, bless his merciful heart. (In Robert Frost, 'The Constant Symbol'.)

5 Physics II 8:199a.

6 Genesis
11119, (Vulgate).

7 R. Ironside and J. Gere, Pre-Raphaelite Painters, London, Phaidon, 1948, pl. 27.

8 The obvious comparison between Colville's paintings and colour photographs occurs to everyone no doubt, but it is very elegantly put by Gene Baro in his report of the Dunn International Exhibition, London, 1958. 'Colville masters the poetic camera'. The camera certainly never masters Colville. (Reference: Arts, Vol. 38, 1958, p. 53. See illustration of Colville's Dog, Boy and St John River, p. 52.)

9 John Canaday, Embattled Critic (N.Y., Farrar, Strauss & Co., 1962), 'The Delightful Disconcerter' , pp. 107 II. This essay is adapted from Horizon, January 1962.

10 Canaday, op.cit. illustration at p.109.

11 cf. Patrick Waldberg, Surrealism, translated by Stuart Gilbert. (Skira, 1962), plate of The Human Condition II atp.82.

Next Page | Notes 12 to 18

  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  |  10

Top of this page

Home | Français | Introduction | History
Annual Index | Author & Subject | Credits | Contact

This digital collection was produced under contract to Canada's Digital Collections program, Industry Canada.

"Digital Collections Program, Copyright © National Gallery of Canada 2001"