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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The words 'existential' and 'ontological' may be useful, but they sound a bit pretentious: Colville himself makes the same kind of point about his own work, in much simpler language. And he draws out the implications. Writing to a critic, he says:

'I remember reading recently that Günter Grass the novelist, speaking of symbolism, said that when he wrote of potatoes he was interested in potatoes, and I think you seem to have expressed my concern for the actual. Also the almost sociological concern with what life is like now, and also the matter of making art which is accessible, on some level, to almost anyone - I really hate the idea of "art for art-appreciators".' (27)

It is all here: the 'concern for the actual' and the 'almost sociological concern' for life as it is, (28) which might be summed up neatly enough in a Canadian pun: from actuality to actualités, and the consequent cultural concern, to show reality in its ontological fullness and importance, to ordinary people, in an ordinary idiom.

Some things are quite splendid; the magic realist sees this and he makes us see it too: his paintings are realizations of moments of splendour, and they celebrate existence.

In a critical essay such as this some attempt ought, no doubt, be made to fit Colville in to the history of painting and to label him by school: the only difficulty is that his historical antecedents are altogether obvious, and there is nothing much to say, only lists to give.

As Colville himself said, in the catalogue to an exhibition by a group of his younger contemporaries:

'...essentially our art is North American...It seems to me that one of the unique elements in the complex of North American art is that of American Realism, which is substantially different from any manifestations of realism in European art. I am thinking of paintings by Copley and Eakins, some of the beautiful "primitive" paintings such as one finds in the Karolik Collection, and in our century, works by Hopper and Wyeth. There were no equivalents to Copley and Eakins in Canada, although there were some impressive painters. But Canadians in this exhibition belong to the tradition of North American realism, which has been underground for the last fifteen years'. (29)

Clearly, though one could quote European parallels, (30) and speculate on sources and influences, (31) we do not have to go outside the great North American tradition of realism to find Colville's roots: a realism which took on a new life no doubt from its role as recorder and commentator on new societies, and so survived the extinction that is always said to have overtaken representational painting in the Old World.

Colville's technique shows affinities with George Tooker and Robert Vickery, (32) or with Bernard Perlin, (33) and with the 'precise realists'; his technique and feeling both relate, though indirectly, (34) to the work of the 'immaculates' and 'precisionists', Scheeler for example and Demuth on the one hand, and to the 'romantic realism' of Hopper on the other. But Colville's own tone and sensibility are, like his painterly handwriting, unique and personal, and specifically Canadian.

The sharp realism, physically and psychologically hard edged, of Dulongpré's Portrait of a Lady (1840) (35) can be traced out again in aspects of Colville's painting, and these early parallels could be multiplied; in our own century, comparisons with the work of Lionel le Moine FitzGerald and Lawren Stewart Harris are too obvious perhaps to need to be pressed.

Colville's work is very much part of a continuing Canadian tradition of clear, celebrative realism, a realism which skirts the picturesque, not out of any puritanical fear of its prettiness, but out of a positive concern for a formal elegance which underlies the merely commonplace. And if I were to have to settle for just one other Canadian painter to match Colville's spirit and line against, then my choice would be Antoine Plamondon. Robert H. Hubbard writes this about him: 'Plamondon, though he brought considerable technical accomplishment to the painting of his portraits, always retained his typically Canadian restraint of composition and sincerity of expression...his rare still life compositions, with their almost mesmeric realism, perhaps hold the secret of his artistic make up: he based his art squarely on the reality of the objects before his eyes'. (36) And we find in Colville precisely the same capacity, 'to base art squarely on the reality of objects', on the reality of their surfaces, and of their inwardness.

Again, in Plamondon just as in Colville, there is the sociological concern, the passionate impulse to penetrate the present moment to its very centre and make it permanent, to plumb it and celebrate it. Plamondon's Chasse aux tourtes (1853) reveals for us, sharply and with a rather geometrical (37) elegance, a group of boys resting under a tree but just about to spring up and continue their hunt: the moment is as commonplace as any of Colville's, and the instant as dynamic. These boys are caught forever, like Colville's family with their automobile or his diving girls, in a very ordinary human gesture; and these moments are worthy of absolute permanence, not because they are commonplace but because they are human: c'est ainsi que nous en vivons notre vie.


Helen J. Dow

'The Magic Realism of Alex Colville', The Art Journal (Bloomington, Indiana), Summer 1965. Vol. XXIV, No.4,pp.318-329 (ten illustrations) 

The Magic of Realism,
catalogue to an exhibition at the Banfer Gallery, 23 East 67th Street, New York, December 1965.
Patrick A. E. Hutchings

'The Celebrative Realism of Alex Colville', Westerly (University of Western Australia Press), 2 / 65 (August 1965), pp. 55-65 (ten illustrations; two, plus cover picture, in colour). The present article is based on this earlier one, though new matter has been added and a lengthy discussion of Chi/d Skipping (collection of Mr and Mrs Mort Lesser) has been omitted. The original article was written as an interpretation of the set of Colville's paintings which the author saw in the exhibition of contemporary Canadian painting at the Tate Gallery, London, 1964.

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