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

Résumé en français

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As if they'd taken one step back
T o see themselves as they literally are.
Irving Layton (1)

Art is for celebrating, the gods, the hero, the great men and events of an age: it is for many more things besides, but celebration is one of its high functions.

Alex Colville celebrates the ordinary, the everyday commonplace of a middle-class, democratic society. This is the society to which history has looked forward, and we Canadians, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and Scandinavians live at present in the utopias of the past, far from perfect but decent enough, and essentially hopeful.

That utopia isn't perfect but at once valuable and vulnerable and open to endless improvements is one of the large lessons of history, that is, of experience. Our decent life, suburban, small town, comfortably rural, the life of the little man in his historic era - this is what Colville celebrates. And celebrating it he shows its existential, unheroic nobility.

People, as Aristotle pointed out, like pictures that they can recognize of things that they know, and art's first value lies, as he says, in providing occasions for recognition: Look, this is me, my house, our town, a dog like the one I had when I was a boy. (2) Colville satisfies this instinct for recognition with pieces of superb realism, and he can paint cyclone net ting, barbed wire, gateposts and weatherboard buildings with such deceptive skill that slides of his paintings look like diapositives of the things themselves. The ordinary man enjoys this, and whether he should or shouldn't it is beyond dispute that he does. Facts of nature need no justification and they are indifferent to our condemnation : we may deplore them if that makes us feel better, but they remain.

We deplore this passion for recognition properly enough when it distorts the other values of art too far. The common man who values a Saturday Evening Post cover as highly as a Cassatt, and much higher than anything by the incomprehensible charlatan Picasso - this common man annoys us. Norman Rockwell's (3) extraordinary skill is beyond dispute, but the aesthetic question remains: are his magazine covers, for all the excellence of their craft, really works of art? Colville compels the ordinary man's admiration without inviting this question. And so he can celebrate the ordinary man's life in the ordinary man's idiom.

What do we mean by celebration? Look at the illustrations: Family and Rainstorm (Fig. 1) shows a commonplace scene, two children and their mother getting into the family car after a day at the beach. Commonplace, but extraordinarily solid as well. Iconic. The car is harder, smoother and heavier than life, the pose of the young boy in the middle is timeless and as beyond its context as his mother's gestures are quotidian and within it. She exists in the ordinary world, the world of the splendid but quite meteorological rainstorm, the children and the hard, familiar but unfamiliar machine in another, and both worlds merge and are the one. The window winder on the car door, the little chock and the cog on the lock, the retracting hinge, we can see these on our own automobiles, but not as simple and solid as this, and not as isolated. Here they have the significance of parts of some epic machine, a submarine, or a space capsule.

This epic quality derives clearly enough from Colville's technique. Tempera is a very deliberate medium, tending generally to simplify and make more monumental any forms expressed in it, and in the hands of a painter of the genius of Piero della Francesca, for example, it can transform a flat surface into a phenomenal space where every gesture and every interval between forms seems to be seen sub specie aeternitatis. On the other hand, used as a mere technique to produce a hyper-photographic image, it can become either too dry or too bland. Tempera surfaces have gradations of colour smoother and more uniform than the ones the camera records, and everything tends to become eggshell or matte porcelain, and the technique can lend itself to magnificent trivializations, or to a rather deadly kind of surrealism.

Colville invests with the monumentality of tempera precisely those scenes of ordinary life which are significant because they are not significant. The battles, the occasions, the  great evolutions of history have their end here humanistically speaking, in just these insignificant happenings. The barricades were manned so that ordinary folk should inherit the earth, and go to the beach, and sprawl casually and anonymously along a summer horizon (Fig. 2).

Socialist-realist paintings in the flat Muscovite Burlington House style remain essentially uncelebrative, like their ideological opposite numbers the magazine-cover paintings. They illustrate or harangue, but they rarely give their subjects the dignity that they profess to find in them. Technique alone won't give dignity, but technique and a humane vision will.

Vision is a difficult notion to illustrate. It has to do with the affect of a painting and not simply with the plain effects of technique, but the examination of technique in a wide sense can take us from the way in which an effect is got to the point made by getting it. Consider The Swimming Race (Fig. 3).

Again we have the most commonplace and ephemeral scene, an action photo from the sports page of a provincial newspaper: four schoolgirls diving into the pool, with a referee in the background, stop watch in hand, timing this utterly unmomentous contest. But look at the figures and at the water. The figures are painted with meticulous realism, the girls no prettier and no plainer than we would expect, yet they are solider than life, and their arrested movement has the timeless quality of something cast in bronze. These are not simply schoolgirls diving, but Maillols translated into paint.

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