Alex Colville: Of dogs, guns and bathers


Arnaud Maggs, Alex Colville (1983), gelatin silver print, 50.7 x 40.4 cm; image: 32.4 x 32.3 cm. Gift of Eleanor Hurlbut Penticton, British Columbia, in memory of Jim Hurlbut, 2001. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

If it were a question of reincarnation . . . I wouldn’t mind just being a dog. Their lives seem to me to be entirely innocent.

 – Alex Colville

Canadian painter Alex Colville was a lover of dogs and other animals. They are main characters in some of his most memorable paintings. A hound runs in a wintry field. A black horse gallops towards the open gate of a churchyard. A cow rests under a full moon. 

In Colville’s universe, however, such innocence inevitably masks some kind of looming danger. For each outward sign of calm or purity (a woman’s naked body, a golden meadow, a flat expanse of water), there is a corresponding suggestion of menace (a stormy sky, a gun on a table). In a Colville painting, it always seems as if something is about to happen.

The exhibition Alex Colville, on view at the National Gallery from April 23 until September 7, offers an opportunity to peel away the fascinating layers in Colville’s work. First shown last year at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where it broke attendance records, this retrospective is appearing at the National Gallery in an expanded form, including more than a hundred preparatory drawings and other objects that were donated to the NGC Library and Archives by the artist before his death in 2013.


Alex Colville, Church and Horse (1964), acrylic on Masonite, 55.5 x 68.7 cm. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest and anonymous donor. © A.C. Fine Art Inc. Photo © AGO

With over 250 works, this is the largest Colville exhibition ever. It includes icons such as To Prince Edward Island (1965), the famous painting of a woman with binoculars; Horse and Train (1954), once featured on the cover of a Bruce Cockburn album; Colville’s most widely reproduced work, Pacific (1967), in which a shirtless man casually looks out to sea, while a revolver dominates the foreground; and the lapis-lazuli-toned Dog, Boy, and St. John River (1958).

Other works may be less familiar. Taxi (1985) is unusual for its Hong Kong setting. Woman on Ramp (2006) continues Colville’s extraordinary, extended portrayal of Rhoda, his wife and muse of 70 years, shown here returning from a swim. As the couple’s daughter, Ann Kitz, says in a video shown in the exhibition, “He used her for a model from the beginning until the very end. And when you look at Woman on Ramp, that’s a very old woman, and still, for him, a beautiful example of somebody struggling against the ravages of old age and persisting in doing the things that they had done all their lives.”

What makes this exhibition stand out from previous ones, however, is how it sets Colville’s paintings against contemporary works of art, cinema and literature that were either inspired by them or share the same themes.


Alex Colville, To Prince Edward Island (1965), acrylic emulsion on Masonite, 61.9 x 92.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC


Moonrise Kingdom, 2012, Wes Anderson © 2012 Moonrise LLC

Colville’s To Prince Edward Island, for instance, is displayed alongside a looped projection of a scene from Wes Anderson’s quirky 2012 film, Moonrise Kingdom. On the screen, a precocious 12-year-old girl stands on a lighthouse platform, observing the world through binoculars. Beside the painting Couple on Beach (1957), viewers can watch a similar beach scene from Sarah Polley’s film Stories We Tell, also from 2012. They can see Target Pistol and Man (1980) paired with a clip from the Coen brothers’ 2007 film No Country for Old Men. And various paintings evoking notions of home and family share space with a filmed interview about the great Canadian writer Alice Munro, whose short stories examine small-town life.

These “provocative pairings,” says Andrew Hunter, “are essential components of the exhibition. They are not just add-ons.” The engaging and lively Hunter is the AGO’s Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art, and the organizer of the exhibition. His pairings serve to demonstrate how universal and contemporary Colville’s themes are, and how influential his approach has been.


Alex Colville, Living Room (1999–2000), acrylic on Masonite, 41.8 x 58.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © A.C. Fine Art Inc. Photo © NGC

In particular, Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley shares with Colville an interest in blurring the line between realism and invention. For her autobiographical film, which seeks to uncover her family’s deepest secrets, she seamlessly combines real home movies of her mother with original, dramatic performances, leaving the viewer to wonder where reality ends and fiction begins. “Polley was a primary influence on the project,” Hunter says.

Born in Toronto in 1920, Alex Colville moved with his family to Amherst, Nova Scotia in 1929, and lived most of his long and productive life in the Maritimes. He studied Fine Arts at Mount Allison University, in Sackville, New Brunswick, where he met his wife Rhoda. In 1942, shortly after they were married, Colville enlisted in the Canadian Army, later to become an official war artist. He was among the artists sent in to document the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp when it was liberated in April 1945. Bodies in a Grave, Belsen (1946), on view in the exhibition, illustrates the grim scene he witnessed, which would haunt him for the rest of his life.


Alex Colville, Soldier and Girl at Station (1953), glazed tempera on hardboard, 40.6 x 61 cm. The Thomson Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. © A.C. Fine Art Inc. Photo © AGO

After the war, Colville returned to Sackville and taught at Mount Allison until 1963, when he began painting full-time. Over the ensuing decades, he exhibited across the country and internationally, representing Canada at the 1966 Venice Biennale and receiving many honours, including the Governor General’s Award and the Order of Canada. In 1973, Alex and Rhoda Colville moved permanently to her childhood home in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

Many of these details are illustrated in the charming Colville’s Comics, by David Collier, which was commissioned for this show and is on display in the exhibition space (and on sale at

Colville’s paintings inspired a good deal of debate during his lifetime, especially since he did not attach himself to any artistic movements. As Collier writes in Colville’s Comics, “During the Abstract Expressionist era, critics were pretty much uniformly harsh.” This exhibition offers a new understanding of this key Canadian artist, as it celebrates the complexity, contemporaneity and broad influence of his work.

Alex Colville is on view at the National Gallery until September 7, 2015. The National Gallery version of the exhibition is coordinated by Adam Welch, the Gallery’s Associate Curator of Modern Canadian Art. A hardcover catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

Upstairs from Alex Colville is a small exhibition devoted to Mary Pratt, a student and friend of Colville’s. Mary Pratt: This Little Painting focuses on Pratt’s richly luminescent paintings of jelly jars. Organized by Mireille Eagan of The Rooms, St John’s, and Jonathan Shaughnessy, NGC Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Mary Pratt continues until January 4, 2016.

Also on view in the Gallery’s Library until September 7 is the exhibition, An American Patron: Alex Colville and Lincoln Kerstein, drawn from the Colville fonds, and focusing on the professional and personal relationship between Colville and art impresario Lincoln Kerstein.

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