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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Colville's work celebrates man in his varied roles in the world, in a way that we can mark best perhaps by calling it 'existential. And the comparison between Colville and the surrealists, though it is instructive for the parallels there are, becomes even more pointful when the differences begin to show.' (15) Both the positive qualities of Colville's work, and the ways in which it fails to be surrealistic in any usual sense of the term, force on us new and more specific classifications: 'existential' and 'celebrative' realism.

How does the label fit Colville's work? What important characteristic does it record? There is no short answer, and the point of the classification can be shown only by discussing, however briefly, the things themselves of which it is to serve as a reminder.

One is tempted to call Colville a 'surrealist' primarily perhaps on account of his hyper-realism and his meticulous finish, and certainly hyper-realism is one ingredient in surrealism, but it was not, historically, the crucial one. If we take Breton's definition of 'surrealism'- it is after all the most obvious one to take - then we find that the sur does not answer to the hyper in hyper-realism, but to something else again:

'Je crois à la résolution future de ces deux états, en apparence si contradictoires, que sont le rêve et la réalité, en une sorte de réalité absolue, de surréalité si l'on peut ainsi dire'. (16)

For Breton the important thing is not realism of painterly style heightened into sur realism, but the new surrealité, a fusion of the dream and of waking life into a new synthesis, whatever that might turn out to be. (17)

We may say that Colville's paintings do this, in a sense: that they fuse levels or kinds of reality, that their clarity is the clarity of a waking dream, and that they evince an almost hallucinatory precision of sight. They remind us of the kind of open-eyedness that shock, or certain drugs, or peculiar states of elation or mental dissociation induce in us. But all this is not, in the last resort, their point; it is only means to a further end, and we shall consider this end more fully in a moment.

Though there is this element of waking dream or hallucination in Colville's paintings, there is another and perhaps more crucial sense in which they are not dreamlike at all : they do not, like Breton's poèmes-objets, or Oali's mindscapes, or even Magritte's plausible-looking still lifes and portraits, combine disparate elements from the real world of waking life into tableaux or scenarios of the sort that we meet with if at all only in our dreams. Whatever happens in Colville, if we except the Four Figures, could and does happen in the full light of day, in the very world where we all live and pay our taxes. The logic of Colville's world is the logic of the conscious mind, which grasps and manipulates reality with effort and labour: it is not the autistic logic of the unconscious, which re-arranges objects in accordance with the deep law of its own caprices.

Though a critic's first impulse might be to label Colville a surrealist, he would be wiser to wait for a second; and Robert Ayre in his article 'Canadian Painting" (18) exhibits all the symptoms of prudent indecision: 'Canada has her surrealists', he writes, and names two: and then he goes on, '[and] Alex Colville'. But he changes his tack suddenly and he substitutes another label at the last minute: 'Alex Colville['s] literal accounts of loneliness and arrested time might more properly be called "magic realism".' (19)

'Magic Realism' is an apter tag, but it is not enough just to tie it on and leave the matter there. What, in general and in particular. is the magic of magic realism? This is a question that very much wants asking. and ifs one which we may begin to answer, by bringing out the particular qualities of Colville's paintings. And here. again, a comparison with the surrealists will help us: (20) on one point the magic realists and surrealists agree, profoundly; on another they disagree, just as profoundly. And if we can make these agreements and discrepancies clear we may be able to answer our question.

They agree that beauty is rooted in the marvellous: but they disagree absolutely on their definitions of  'marvellous'. Breton wrote:

'...The Marvellous is always beautiful, everything marvellous is beautiful, and nothing but the Marvellous can be beautiful'; (21) and Colville might very easily agree with him: but their notions of the marvellous would be quite different.

The marvellous for Breton is always the odd, the bizarre: Il y a un homme coupé en deux par la fenêtre: (22) and his surréalisme dislocates the economy of the everyday world, common objects are cut up and re-assembled into chimeras. The marvellous for Colville is just the world, as it is.

Colville's attitude is immensely commonsensical, but that cannot be held against it: certainly art may elevate the fantastic to the status of a principle, but it need not; and Colville's point of view is at least as evidently valid as Bretons.

The odd is really no more marvellous than the commonplace; and the trouble with lautrémonfs beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table' (23) is that it suggests that beauty lies, above all. in recherché combinations of far-fetched objects. Or in second-hand shops. But Colville knows that it does not; he knows on the contrary that the domestic encounter of a small naked child and a large black dog, or the commonplace coming together of a rainstorm and a family swimming party, can be as beautiful as any other coincidence, and more purely meaningful.

Colville's notion of the marvellous is rooted in an autochthonous North American feeling for existence, and it is at once ground and complement of his social-democratic sentiment, his concern for and celebration of the values of common life. The exact species of this 'existentialism' has been noted down already for us by Thoreau'... reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairytale and the "Arabian Nights" Entertainment...' (24)

To put another label on it, Thoreau is sketching the outlines of a kind of ontologism. And the point can be put in scholastic language if we prefer it that way. We may say something like this about Colville's paintings: if beauty is the splendour of being, then to catch the splendour of any being in a permanent image is to preserve and show its beauty. This is what Colville does: he first sees, and then arrests, a moment of splendour which flashes out from some thing or situation, seen as anyone might see it, but as only artists, perhaps, and children do.

Both Colville's painting and his reflections on it illustrate Thoreau's theme almost to the letter. When Colville explains that 'Art tries to compensate for the lack of permanence in life', (25) he is not simply repeating the important commonplace that art can fix some aspects out of the flux of mutability; when he says this, or when he paints one of his lucid canvases, he is expanding Thoreau's insight almost exactly as Thoreau himself expands it:

'...When we are unhurried and wise we perceive that only great worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence...' (26)
By giving 'an absolute and permanent existence' to certain objects and certain moments of our lives, Colville simply recognizes the fact of their greatness and worthiness. He shows us what is there.

Next PageExistential and Ontological

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