Surrealism and Celebration: Home
| Français | Introduction
The Paintings of Alex Colville in the
Collection of the National Gallery of Canada
by Patrick A. E.
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
University of Western
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19 Robert Ayre, 'Canadian Painting', Museums Journal (London,
the Museums Association, Vol. 26, No.4., March 1963, p. 264.)
The 'accounts of arrested time' have been dealt with very
perceptively by Helen J. Dow in her article 'The Magic Realism of
Alex Colville' (see Bibliography); critical interest in this aspect
of Colville's work will no doubt be stimulated by his splendid,
dynamic designs for the Centennial Coinage, in which six kinds of
movement have been arrested in instants of perfection.
We shall argue in the second part of the article that Colville is
not, essentially, a surrealist; but it might be said with
considerable truth that Colville trumps the surrealists, so to
speak, at their own game. His superb ability to freeze movement
without killing it, satisfies, better perhaps than Breton could have
imagined, his demand for l'art convulsif: 'le mot "convulsive", que j'ai employé pour qualifier la beauté qui
seule selon moi doive être servie, perdait à mes yeux tout sens
s'il était conçu dans le mouvement et non à l'expiration exacte
de ce mouvement même: The expressions convulsive
and l'expiration du mouvement define one another, and both
smack too much of the death wish for my taste; even making every
allowance for the relative inefficiency of the high speed cameras of
the 1930's, I prefer Colville's swimming girls or his rabbit on the
50 piece to the dancer in Breton's illustration, Explosante fixe:
see André Breton, L'Amourfou, Paris, NRF / Gallimard, 1937; pp.
15-16 & 26; and Fig, 1 facing page 16.
The theme of loneliness, a dominant one in North American painting
(see especially 'The landscape' in American Tradition in Painting
by John W. McCoubrey), is generally treated by Colville in
social, existential terms; in a previous article the present writer
has discussed the social-democratic implications of the composition
of Colville's Child Skipping; it is an image of loneliness,
in a sense, but one whose social and emotional context is so
precisely and exquisitely defined that the theme is transposed. Departure
makes a different comment again, still laconic though, and far
from the usual landscape - or townscape-angst.
20 'History: said Voltaire,' is only a pack of tricks we play on the
dead', and the current critical trick is to make the dead out to be
our contemporaries. There are two plates in E. P. Richardson's
Painting in America (London, Constable, 1956, Figs. 72 and 73)
which might invite us to update them with the tag 'surrealists'; one
is Charles Bird King's The Vanity of an Artist's Wishes (1830),
the other is Raphaelle Peale's After the Bath (1823). We
might very well fit the new label on King's precise but dream like,
arbitrary, illogical and haunting assemblage of stock, allegorical
objects; it is very much a Breton Poème-objet. But the
Peale, one towel painted with Netherlandish exactness, is not really
surrealistic at all. It is simply hyper-realistic, and only
the imperialism of the idée fixe, from which many of the
surrealists were not entirely free, would make anyone settle for the
'surrealist' ascription here.
The parallel here is between Peale and Colville, not between King
21 "Manifeste du Surréalisme, p. 28. Quoted by
op. cit. p, 23.
22 Breton, op. cit. p. 29,
23 Quoted by Waldberg in Surrealism, p. 26.
24 Henry Thoreau, Walden, N.Y., Random House (The Illustrated
Modern library), 1937/1946, p.110.
25 Alex Colville, quoted by Helen Dow in 'The Magic of Realism' (see
26 Thoreau, op. cit.
27 Alex Colville, letter to the present writer, 25 September 1965.
28 The essential difference between Colville and the surrealists may
be brought out in another way again, by means of a parable. Patrick
Waldberg tells this story: 'One day on a large canvas, Magritte
painted a pipe, quite an ordinary pipe, much as it might have been
presented in a school book or a dictionary. Then below it he wrote 'this
is not a pipe...'
Now this is just the kind of thing that Colville would never
do, and the difference between the two painters here is
fundamental. Waldberg goes on:
'Magritte...divests the object represented of its meaning by
depriving it of its name: (Surrealism, p. 78.) Legitimate of
course; but this is not Colville's kind of concern at all. On the
contrary Colville might, were the issue of names raised for
him, find himself very close to Claudel for whom names and meanings
are not arbitrary, but, in some obscure sense, essential:
'...toute chose, tout être est son nom propre, son poids spécifique
dans le milieu où il est immergé...' ('Art Poetique., Oeuvres
complètes de Paul Claudel, Vol. V,
Connaissances. Paris. NRF / Gallimard,1953, p, 37, cf. also pp. 22 and 106.)
Colville would calculate les poids spécifiques more socially
and pragmatically. and less mystically and poetically, than Claudel,
but both have the same sense of things taking value, place and
significance, all together, in a context.
Curiously enough, the poet Scutenaire seems to find some elements
akin to magic realism within the larger pattern of Magritte's
surrealism, and he has this to say' 'Ce peintre, au même titre que
le savant, ouvre une fenêtre dans le noir, sur le jour. Car les
choses quotidiennes. les souliers, l'oeuf, la porte, à la longue
deviennent si familières qu'elles passent à l'invisible ou
à la transcendance. Magritte a entendu disputer les
objets au néant-elle monde lentement se repeuple, (Scutenaire,
Magritte, Monographies de l'art Belge, Sikkel, Anvers, pour
le ministère de l'instruction publique, 1948, p. 8) (Italics mine).
Colville's objects are less threatened with disappearance perhaps,
and he is not driven to the same lengths as Magritte, who must use
the extremes of fantasy to combat le néant.
29 Alex Colville, in the Introduction to the Catalogue of the
Exhibition New images from Canada (Glenn Adams. D. P. Brown,
William Kurelek, Robert Markle, Willis Romanow, Roger Savage,
Kenneth Tolmie), at the Banfer Gallery, 23 East 67th Street, New
York, September 1963.
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