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

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Woman, Man, and Boat deftly eludes pure realism: if any of this were actual then the boat would cut a wake, the woman's legs cause a ripple, and the man's hand would grasp a palpable tiller. But it is not real at all, it is all a dream. It is a Jungian one perhaps - the symbol of water demands to be read - or even a merely sensual one, a censored wishfulfilment. And if we read the picture as an image of rebirth, or as a wish, then the naturalistic pose of the woman holding her skirts up out of the water becomes a kind of gesture, significant, equivocal, ambiguous: and consonant with either reading.

But whatever their interpretation may be, the unconscious symbols are presented with a cool, lyrical classicism which recalls Poussin rather than Delvaux. The picture is curiously innocent, and its almost religious quality comes not from its cairn taken simply, nor from the obvious iconic cliché of the boat, but from a fusion of the equivocal unconscious elements with the austere and measured forms which express them. They combine with these forms into an image which goes beyond their mere statement, and resolves itself into a model of a desired integrity, a deliverance, willed if not expected, from the concupiscentia which makes our own unconscious as much a threat to our self as a part of it.

Colville has given us an image of a re-conquest of lost innocence, and his picture realizes, symbolically, the aspiration of Hopkins':

'And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea'. (12)

This desire for innocence regained can be understood either in religious terms, or in plain humanistic ones. And as an ideal it remains universally intelligible, and universally valid, whatever we may believe about the possibility of our ever attaining it. Colville's surrealism is essentially a surrealism of the ego, if we may borrow the Freudian notion, and he is not content simply to express elements from the unconscious.

If, and one is not suggesting that it be done, but if Colville's painting were translated into the terms of some quite specific metaphysic then it would pun, fruitfully, on certain notions of the Ideal: ideals are what we, as egos, have: and they are a function of our rationality, prudent or quixotic demands which reality forces us to make on reality itself.

There is a sense in which Colville might use, and give his own particular significance to, the old slogan of the Idealist philosophers: the rational is the real, the more rational, the more real. He sees, or rather he feels, apprehends or intuits, this in an existential way, and not as they did in a bare and ultimately unsatisfactory 'logical' way. (13) Colville represents aspects of the world and of our own unconscious, not in terms of the brute and sometimes brutish facts that we stumble over, but in terms of that intelligibility, meaningfulness and control that we would have if only we could: and which we must look for, even if we do not succeed in finding it.

This is not surrealism in the usual sense at all, and all the better for that too perhaps; the ego needs allies more than the id. But consider two more examples: one of them a piece of hermetic surrealism, the other a picture which, though it has surrealist overtones, nevertheless suggests to us very forcibly the need to develop more fully the notion of celebrative realism, a notion which can be articulated more adequately to the feel and intention of Colville's most central works.

Four Figures on a Wharf (Fig. 6) has an air of conscious enigma about it, and it presents us with a series of ambiguities: are the figures flesh, or plaster? Are there really four of them, or is this a single, composite, image, like Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase? And why are these forms so gigantic, dwarfing the solid concrete wharf, and bearing down so heavily upon it?

Colville has painted a contemporary problem-picture, and all these ambiguities fuse into the final question: why do the figures progressively clothe themselves as they approach the end of the mole?

If they step over the edge then their classical draperies will drag them down into the depths of the sea. But perhaps they will never plunge in at all.

This may be an image of the renunciation of any return to the depths, an image that is intended to be read by each of us as a warning, solemn or a little ironical, against the fashionable pleasures of psychic skin-diving. Or it may be a plainer warning: don't go swimming in classical robes in those waters.

We might even, then, read it as an allegory on Colville's own art, a statement of the classicalt (14) principles of form and restraint which determine for him the expression of even the most passionately felt things. But we need not read it at all perhaps: an enigma's first aim may be just this, to be enigmatic.

Child and Dog (Fig. 7) dates from the same year as the two paintings which we have just been considering, but its feeling is far far less surrealist. It is in Colville's more personal idiom of hyper-realistic naturalism, and illustrates, more profoundly than his surrealist work, the precise nature of his vision.

The splendid, grave, black Labrador, with perfect dynamic poise in every line of him and the pathetic look of the brute in his eyes, is balanced effortlessly by the frail white wisp of a child, naked, awkward, pot-bellied, but erect and superbly confident in its humanity. It may have nothing to defend itself with, no magnificent claw-like nails, but its kind built the shed and made the dog's wonderful studded collar. And it is the powerful animal who wears this badge of vassalage and of office as he stands, a faithful and unsubtle retainer, protectingly and adoringly beside
the child.

This, like the other non-surrealist paintings of Colville which we have analyzed, celebrates reality.

Next Page | Colville and surrealists

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