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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19 Robert Ayre, 'Canadian Painting', Museums Journal (London, the Museums Association, Vol. 26, No.4., March 1963, p. 264.) The 'accounts of arrested time' have been dealt with very perceptively by Helen J. Dow in her article 'The Magic Realism of Alex Colville' (see Bibliography); critical interest in this aspect of Colville's work will no doubt be stimulated by his splendid, dynamic designs for the Centennial Coinage, in which six kinds of movement have been arrested in instants of perfection.

We shall argue in the second part of the article that Colville is not, essentially, a surrealist; but it might be said with considerable truth that Colville trumps the  surrealists, so to speak, at their own game. His superb ability to freeze movement without killing it, satisfies, better perhaps than Breton could have imagined, his demand for l'art convulsif: 'le mot "convulsive", que j'ai employé pour qualifier la beauté qui seule selon moi doive être servie, perdait à mes yeux tout sens s'il était conçu dans le mouvement et non à l'expiration exacte de ce mouvement même: The expressions convulsive and l'expiration du mouvement define one another, and both smack too much of the death wish for my taste; even making every allowance for the relative inefficiency of the high speed cameras of the 1930's, I prefer Colville's swimming girls or his rabbit on the 50 piece to the dancer in Breton's illustration, Explosante fixe: see André Breton, L'Amourfou, Paris, NRF / Gallimard, 1937; pp. 15-16 & 26; and Fig, 1 facing page 16.

The theme of loneliness, a dominant one in North American painting (see especially 'The landscape' in American Tradition in Painting by John W. McCoubrey), is generally treated by Colville in social, existential terms; in a previous article the present writer has discussed the social-democratic implications of the composition of Colville's Child Skipping; it is an image of loneliness, in a sense, but one whose social and emotional context is so precisely and exquisitely defined that the theme is transposed. Departure makes a different comment again, still laconic though, and far from the usual landscape - or townscape-angst.

20 'History: said Voltaire,' is only a pack of tricks we play on the dead', and the current critical trick is to make the dead out to be our contemporaries. There are two plates in E. P. Richardson's Painting in America (London, Constable, 1956, Figs. 72 and 73) which might invite us to update them with the tag 'surrealists'; one is Charles Bird King's The Vanity of an Artist's Wishes (1830), the other is Raphaelle Peale's After the Bath (1823). We might very well fit the new label on King's precise but dream like, arbitrary, illogical and haunting assemblage of stock, allegorical objects; it is very much  a Breton Poème-objet. But the Peale, one towel painted with Netherlandish exactness, is not really surrealistic at all. It is simply hyper-realistic, and only the imperialism of the idée fixe, from which many of the surrealists were not entirely free, would make anyone settle for the 'surrealist' ascription here.

The parallel here is between Peale and Colville, not between King and Colville.

21 "Manifeste du Surréalisme, p. 28. Quoted by Waldberg, op. cit. p, 23.

22 Breton, op. cit. p. 29,

23 Quoted by Waldberg in Surrealism, p. 26.

24 Henry Thoreau, Walden, N.Y., Random House (The Illustrated Modern library), 1937/1946, p.110.

25 Alex Colville, quoted by Helen Dow in 'The Magic of Realism' (see Bibliography).

26 Thoreau, op. cit.

27 Alex Colville, letter to the present writer, 25 September 1965.

28 The essential difference between Colville and the surrealists may be brought out in another way again, by means of a parable. Patrick Waldberg tells this story: 'One day on a large canvas, Magritte painted a pipe, quite an ordinary pipe, much as it might have been presented in a school book or a dictionary. Then below it he wrote 'this is not a pipe...'

Now this is just the kind of thing that Colville would  never do, and the difference between the two painters here is fundamental. Waldberg goes on:

'Magritte...divests the object represented of its meaning by depriving it of its name: (Surrealism, p. 78.) Legitimate of course; but this is not Colville's kind of concern at all. On the contrary Colville might, were the issue of names raised for him, find himself very close to Claudel for whom names and meanings are not arbitrary, but, in some obscure sense, essential:

'...toute chose, tout être est son nom propre, son poids spécifique dans le milieu où il est immergé...' ('Art Poetique., Oeuvres complètes de Paul Claudel,  Vol. V, Connaissances. Paris. NRF / Gallimard,1953, p, 37, cf. also pp. 22 and 106.)

Colville would calculate les poids spécifiques more socially and pragmatically. and less mystically and poetically, than Claudel, but both have the same sense of things taking value, place and significance, all together, in a context.

Curiously enough, the poet Scutenaire seems to find some elements akin to magic realism within the larger pattern of Magritte's surrealism, and he has this to say' 'Ce peintre, au même titre que le savant, ouvre une fenêtre dans le noir, sur le jour. Car les choses quotidiennes. les souliers, l'oeuf, la porte, à la longue deviennent si familières qu'elles passent à l'invisible ou  à la transcendance. Magritte a entendu disputer les objets au néant-elle monde lentement se repeuple, (Scutenaire, Magritte, Monographies de l'art Belge, Sikkel, Anvers, pour le ministère de l'instruction publique, 1948, p. 8) (Italics mine).

Colville's objects are less threatened with disappearance perhaps, and he is not driven to the same lengths as Magritte, who must use the extremes of fantasy to combat le néant.

29 Alex Colville, in the Introduction to the Catalogue of the Exhibition New images from Canada (Glenn Adams. D. P. Brown, William Kurelek, Robert Markle, Willis Romanow, Roger Savage, Kenneth Tolmie), at the Banfer Gallery, 23 East 67th Street, New York, September 1963.

Next PageNotes 30 to 34

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