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

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12 From 'Heaven-Haven', in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford, third edition, 1948, p. 40). It would be more exact to say perhaps that both Hopkins' poem and Colville's picture can be read against a background of a certain understanding of Pauline and Augustinian notions of concupiscentia, than that either was consciously intended as a concrete image of 'human nature wonderfully dignified and still more wonderfully restored'. The 'occasion' of each is consonant with this kind of ultimate reading, but neither demands it at the simple level of its anecdote.

The particular interpretation of St Paul would be available to Colville, implicitly if not explicitly, in a country whose religious tradition has been influenced so strongly by the double streams of Calvinism and Jansenism. The merits or shortcomings of these particular traditions of Pauline exegesis aside, there are good psychological reasons why we should identify innocence and the freedom of innocence with freedom from libido: see, either St Augustine's Confessions, or Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle. (See also 'The Theological Concept of Concupiscentia' in Karl Rahner's Theological Investigations, Vol. I, Baltimore, Helicon Press; London, Longman, Darton and Todd, 1961).

13 Not that the logical way of doing things is unsatisfactory, on the contrary; and one is not suggesting here that we should all be extreme Romantics, and 'think with the blood'. Far from it. It was simply the case that the logical formulations of the Absolute Idealists were extremely unsatisfactory, pseudological rather than logical, and not really at all the kind of thing they purported to be. One of the great paradoxes of philosophical history lies in this: that these soi-disant Rationalists and soi-disant ultimate Rationalists were in fact the most dangerous Romantics of all.

A Romantic knows, very much from experience, that 'the heart has its reasons...' and well enough: the dangerous Romantic is the one who takes these reasons of the heart for reasons of the head.

14 This is the only picture of Colville's which seems, in even the remotest way, to be about art. His painting is, otherwise, essentially about the object and not about painting itself. But we may if we choose see Four Figures as a picture about pictures, not in the same way of course as Magritte's Condition humaine Il is about pictures, or Rauschenberg's Studio Painting 1961 is about them and their visual balance, but about picturing itself and its relation to the forces beyond the ego. As an auto-critical comment on Colville's oeuvre it might stand very well: there is no need to commit one self to  the depths when there is so much splendour on dry land. References: Waldberg, Surrealism, plate at p. 82, and Robert Rauschenberg, Catalogue of an Exhibition, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1964, pl. 29.

15 Though I maintain, in the body of the article, that Colville cannot be grouped with the surrealists I am very sensible of the phenomenological reasons which might make people want to do just that. (See for example Paddy O'Brien, 'Surrealism'; Canadian Art, November / December 1963, pp. 348ff.) In the last resort one must simply put, as exactly as may be, one's own experience of works of art in such a way as possible to persuade, or at least enable, others to see the works in the same way. If they take up the specified point of view, then  they may see the same things as one sees oneself. Though I do not see Colville as a surrealist, and so do not classify him as one, I must quote a splendid sentence or so written by a colleague whose reactions to the painter's work are obviously quite different from mine: 'I do find Colville terrifying, and had taken for granted everyone would. A comparable experience is surprising (or imagining) a look in someone's eye which is suddenly menacing, sinister, then back to natural...'

16 André Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme et Poisson soluble, nouvelle édition, Paris, Kra, 1929, pp. 27 -28.

17 Breton's own accounts of the synthesis, though numerous and passionate enough, are in the end rather thin and unsatisfactory:'... il s'agit aujourd'hui de 'travailler à ce que la distinction du subjectif et de l'objectif perde de sa nécessité et de sa valeur'.  (In Qu'est-ce que le surréalisme?, Paris, René Henriquez, 1934, p. 26.) In the 1960's this distinction seems to us one of the utmost value; if the world is to be dealt with, we must be quite clear about the differences which may be made by manipulating it, and the differences that will follow from changes that we may bring about within ourselves.

18 The critic's first impulse to label Colville a surrealist might have either or both of two roots, a phenomenological one, and a politico-cultural one, and while the phenomenological option remains open still, one has doubts about the other. Seen in terms of the statement of the surrealist position which Herbert Read set out in his Introduction 10 Surrealism (1936), the argument of the present article would be extremely paradoxical. Colville is called classical here in some sense of classical, and democratic: but, the equation is, or was, Romantic=Democratic, And one argues here against his being a surrealist but the equation was Surrealist=Romantic=Democratic. How then could anyone who wanted to insist on the social significance of Colville deny his surrealism and stress his classicism?

The intellectual climate has changed altogether since 1936, and what Read said then binds no body now, himself included.

Even if we take Grierson's account of classicism as a norm, as Read did, it still makes sense to call Colville at once a Classical and a Democratic painter: 'a classical literature, 'Grierson writes, is the product of a nation and generation which has consciously achieved a definite advance, moral, political, intellectual; and is filled with the belief that its view of life is more natural, human, universal and wise than that from which it has escaped. It has effected a synthesis which enables it to look round on life with a sense of its wholeness, its unity in variety; and the work of the artist is to give expression
to that consciousness;
sense the solidity of his work and sense too its definiteness, and in the hands of great artists its beauty..: (Sir Herbert Grierson, The Background of English Literature, London, 1925, pp, 226, 287 -8, quoted in Surrealism, ed, Herbert Read, London, Faber, 1936, p. 24.) This is precisely what Colville does: he expresses the consciousness of a definite moral and political advance, and why not? This is a society which has achieved a great deal, though indeed more must be done in the future, much more no doubt: but Colville's paintings do not deny that for a moment.

Many of the writers of the 30's suffered from a fashionable and disastrous misconception. They thought that 'classical' views of the world were fixed, immutable and closed; and as they presumed that these views could not allow for any change at all, they supposed that they could not a fortiori, allow for progress' thus Classical became the direct antithesis of Progressive.

In the European context there was some excuse for this misconception. But it should have been obvious to North Americans, then as now, that there can be a kind of Classical outlook which though it may be closed to the past is essentially open to the future, There is the classicism of: 'here is a total and incorrigible world view'; and this classicism is sterile, But there is also the dynamic balance of a society which says: 'we have achieved this so far; these are the values which we will never go back on, any future progress must embody these: This is democratic Humanism, and it is entitled 10 its own kind of classicism of outlook and of expression, whether in Jefferson's prose, or in a painter's style and proportion.

The Jeffersonian ideal, to take it right back to its North American roots, was at once classical and open towards the future' wherever we go on from here, we do not go back to the past or back on our 'evident truths'; but the future is open, Life and liberty are fixed and immutable, but the pursuit of happiness always looks forward, and is always and essentially radical and challenging.

Read's mistake in 1936 lay, as he himself seems even then to have sensed, in joining battle with the Classical ideal on the side of certain Romantics who were out to fight a war of extinction:

'So long as romanticism and classicism were considered as alternative attitudes, rival camps, professions of faith, an interminable struggle was in prospect, with the critics as profiteers. But what in effect surrealism claims to do is to resolve the conflict - not, as I formerly hoped, by establishing a synthesis which I was prepared to call 'reason' or 'humanism' - but by liquidating classicism, by showing its complete irrelevance, its anesthetic effect, its contradiction of the creative impulse.' (pp. 22-23)

This liquidation of classicism is an illusion. And the synthesis of humanism is a regulative principle of any understanding of culture; Read has since come to realize both these things, and the greater part of his subsequent work has been directed towards a realization of the synthesis. When he wrote in 1936:

'Classicism, let it be stated without further preface, represents for us now, and has always represented, the forces of oppression. Classicism is the intellectual counterpart of political tyranny. It was so in the ancient world and in the medieval empires; it was renewed to express the dictatorships of the Renaissance and has
ever since been the official creed of capitalism. Wherever the blood of martyrs stains the ground, here you will find a doriccolumn orperhapsa statue of Minerva.' (p.23)

Read's tone was uneasy; this was the vociferousness of the convert who is still arguing with himself. And he forgot that classicism is at once the natural idiom of ancient republics and the official fashion of modern ones. No doubt, to a radical of the kind that Read then was, 1776 and 1789 would have seemed very partial revolutions, but they were revolutions none the less.

The creative impulse, political and social reform, and all desirable things whatever seem to us, now again, quite compatible with the grace and measure of classicism, a classicism which holds what it has, and keeps itself open to an ever greater expansion of humanism, political, social - and artistic.

As for the humanistic synthesis of classicism and romanticism, it may be put as well perhaps as it can be put, in this image from Yeats:

'... I have a ring with a hawk and a butterfly upon it, to symbolize the straight road of logic, ...and the crooked road of intuition...' (Yeats' note in Collected Poems, p. 534.)

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