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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30 European parallels: Helen J. Dow has recorded Colville's affinity with and admiration for Poussin in her article 'The Magic Realism of Alex Colville. (see Bibliography), and there is an obvious if not ultimately instructive affinity between Colville and the Pre-Raphaelites (the painter himself scotched any suggestion of borrowings). But there is another parallel which is worth following  up, putting aside as extremely remote indeed all suggestions of influence.

Colville's technique suggests ultimate comparisons with David, and occasionally with the hard edges of Ingres, But the revolutionary heroics of David have long since come to rest in the égalitarian society that he might have wanted, and would no doubt have found extraordinarily boring. Not surprisingly perhaps we find a Danish pupil of David exploiting his heroic line for democratic ends in the master's own lifetime. C. W. Eckersberg's The Eldest Daughters of M. L. Nathanson, Esq. (Copenhagen, Royal Museum of Fine Arts; reproduced in colour in The Studio, Vol. 138, July-December 1949, p.140) is monumental and hard in David's way, but absolutely unheroic and domestic: it shows us the two girls and a parrot in a cage in a comfortable Turkey-carpeted room, an irreducibly bourgeois subject, but rendered so that the gestures of  ordinary life become as monumentally significant as the grands gestes of David's turbulent sitters. Eckersberg's Nude Before a Mirror (oil, Collection Hirschprung, reproduced in Peinture et Sculpture au Danemark, Vagn Poulsen, Copenhagen, n. d., Institut danois des Relations culturelles, p. 48) is a kind of democratized David or Ingres figure, a middle-class woman in a domestic interior, with no pretensions to classical nudity, who nevertheless achieves the calm and absolute repose  of a mythological creature.

Danish portraiture and domestic painting had been,  as we see in Jens Juel's Portrait d'une jeune mère et son fils (c. 1802) (Poulsen, p. 43), superbly intimate, but  elegant in an aristocratic way. Eckersberg replaces the aristocratic grace with his own peculiar prosaic monumentality, and it is difficult to avoid the temptation to label him by hindsight a social-democratic painter. One  is tempted to see him as foreshadowing the sober égalitarianism which Denmark was to adopt as its social principle.

Certainly there is an affinity between this prosaicization  of David and Colville's monumentalization of the  prosaic: the same, or closely analogous, motives seem to be at work in both. (See also Niels Th. Mortensen, Dansk Billedkunst, Odense, Skandinvisk Bogforlag, 1964.)

It is very curious that David's Canadian disciple George Theodore Berthon should have failed to appreciate the radical classicism of his master's line and spirit (see Robert H. Hubbard, An Anthology of Canadian Art, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 14-15). Berthon's The Three Robinson Sisters is closer to Wintehalter than to David, and what one would have expected to be a most fruitful influence peters out in,  'a sentimental sweetness which reminds us of the contemporary fashion plate' (Hubbard). (Hubbard, op. cit. pl. 41; also, plate at p. 19, The Development of Painting in Canada / Le Développement de la Peinture au Canada 1665-1945, Toronto, The Ryerson Press, 1945.)

31 Within the North American school of magic realism, Colville has his own particular place; but if we look beyond the North American tradition, his strongest affinities are perhaps with the Italian School of Pittura Metafisica: see Werner Haftmann's comment, 'In Pittura Metafisica the Italian painters found a means of expressing the sense of the mystery concealed in the pure essence of things...' and his phrase a little later, '...the initial shock gave way to a quiet sense of fraternity with things' (compare particularly Felice Casorati's Le Studio, 1935; and cross refer the plate of Niles Spencer's The Green Table, 1930, in Goodrich and Baur, American Art of Our Century, p. 82). Colville's feeling is fraternal, and socialized: he feels for man, and for the things that are part of man's life.

Reference: Werner Haftman, Painting in the Twentieth Century, London, Lund Humphries, 1960, Vol. II, pp. 248 and 258; cf. also pp. 284ff. (Italics mine).

32 There is an expressionist, allegorist anguish in Tooker's work which cannot be detected in Colville's: we find this not only in his famous painting of The Subway, 1950, with its terrifying cage-forms (a perfect transcript of claustrophobia) and uncanny repetitions of the one figure, but equally in The Red Carpet 1954, with its tremendous psychological tension, a tension that belies the silken smoothness of the composition. The calm profiles of two of the girls are set off against the staring-eyed obsession of the third, but the two themselves are alike even to bet wins; this strikes us suddenly as an almost clinical but absolutely symbolical portrait-group of hysteria and schizophrenia.

Tooker's medium however is similar to Colville's. egg tempera; and they handle it with strictly comparable precision.

Vickery, though he can in a painting like The Labyrinth. 1951 (plate in Goodrich and Baur, American Art of Our Century, p.145) be quite explicitly surrealist and allegorical, does sometimes come closer to Colville's absolute calm and rejection of anguish: see Conversation 1955 (cf. plates of Tooker and Vickery in The New Decade, 35 American Painters and Sculptors. ed. John J. Baur, N. Y., Macmillan for the Whitney Museum, 1955, pp. 87-91 ).

33 Much of Perlin's work has the hyper-realist finish which so easily invites the surrealist label, and it shows a curious intensity of vision. one different, equally, from Magritte's and Colville's. But like Colville - and unlike Alton Pickens, for example - Perlin eschews both menace and mannerism. His The Shore 1953, though more ideally real, and more hallucinatory perhaps than Colville, has a similar feeling of wonder with out terror, of reality respected but no 1 feared. See: The New Decade, ed. John I. H. Baur, pp. 62-64, 65-67.

34 John W. McCoubrey in his American Tradition in Painting (N.Y., Braziller, 1963, p. 48) gives an interpretation of the intention or intentionality of the work of Scheeler, Demuth and Hopper which would oppose it diametrically to the intentionality of Colville's work, and he concludes:

' these twentieth-century paintings, the modern world is less celebrated than exorcised. (italics mine). If this interpretation is correct, and it may be though it is at least questionable on the face of it. then any similarity between these Americans and Colville would be restricted sharply to matters of technique alone, for Colville is no exorcist.

A less extreme interpretation of the 'Precisionists' can be found in American Art of Our Century by Lloyd Goodrich and John 1. H. Baur (N.Y.. Fdk. A. Praeger for the Whitney Museum, 1961. pp. 50 ff).

Next Page | Notes 35 to 37

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