Alex Colville
Biography of Canadian Painter, Magic Realism School.
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The Swimming Race (1959)
National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa.

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Alex Colville (1920-2013)

Contents

Biography
Early Life
Painting Technique
Magic Realism
The Swimming Race and Other Paintings
Family and Rainstorm; To Prince Edward Island
Other Themes
Exhibitions and Collections
Most Expensive Painting by Alex Colville


Biography

An important contributor to modern art of the 1950s and 60s, and one of the greatest 20th century painters from Canada, Alex Colville is the foremost exponent of sharp-focus Magic Realism - a style close to Surrealism. In his offbeat genre painting he demonstrates an extraordinary ability to inject a sense of haunting mystery into mundane situations. His greatest masterpiece is probably The Swimming Race (1959, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa), while others include his record-breaking work Man on Verandah (1953), Horse and Train (1954, Art Gallery of Hamilton), and To Prince Edward Island (1965, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa). Colville also excels at mural painting - see his work The Circuit Rider, officially entitled History of Mount Allison (1948, Mount Allison University) - as well as design - see, for instance, his designs for Canadian coins commemorating Canada's Centenary in 1967.

Early Life

As a child, the Toronto-born Canadian painter David Alexander Colville moved to Amherst, Nova Scotia, where the desolate landscape and the luminous grey light peculiar to the eastern provinces of Canada had a profound effect on him. Apart from a period in the Canadian army from 1942 to 1946 (the last two years as an official war artist), a stint as a visiting artist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1967-8 and six months spent in West Berlin in 1971, Colville has lived his entire life in the Maritime Provinces.

Painting Technique

From 1938 to 1942 he studied and worked very closely with Stanley Royle (1888-1961) at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. It was Royle who interested him in Post-Impressionism and it could be said that Colville's technique owes a debt to Neo-Impressionism, specifically the Divisionism of Georges Seurat (1859-91). In this technique, small, cross-hatched touches of colour are built up on the picture surface with fine sable brushes. It is a painstaking method and requires three or four months to finish a canvas. The touches are only visible upon close examination; from a distance they give the effect of luminosity. Colville began by applying the technique to tempera, but around 1958 he extended it to oil painting. He has also experimented with acrylic emulsion on masonite, and oil and synthetic resin on masonite.

In 1942, Colville became a War Artist with the Canadian Army, painting scenes of troops landing at Juno Beach on D-Day, and visiting Belsen concentration camp. On his return from the war Colville joined the teaching staff at the Fine Arts Department of Mount Allison University, where he remained a member until 1963. He has continued to live in Sackville with his wife and four children, preferring the stillness and solitude of a small town and the austerity of the surrounding landscape.

 

 

Magic Realism

Colville is strongly associated with a style of painting called Magic Realism, of which he is the leading exponent in Canada. The term magic realism - first coined in 1925 by the German art critic Franz Roh (1890-1965), to describe a style of painting known as Die Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) - is used today to describe a form of sharp-focus naturalism, with minimal distortion or non-naturalistic features. It is related to, but distinctive from, Surrealism. The unique characteristic of Magic Realist painting is the sense of mystery or strangeness it harbours within its true-to-life format. It differs from Surrealism due to its focus on the actual existence of things in the world, as opposed to the more psychological plane explored by Surrealist artists. Magic Realism gained traction with modern artists following the celebrated art exhibition entitled "American Realists and Magic Realists" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1943. However, the movement remains relatively undefined, and many artists have been associated with it, including Rene Magritte (1888-1978), Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and Peter Doig (b.1959).

Colville's work has influenced a whole young generation of Canadian magic realist painters - like Christopher Pratt (b.1935), Ken Danby (1940-2007) and Tom Forrestall.

The Swimming Race and Other Paintings

In The Swimming Race (1959), the relationship between time and space is suggested in a way characteristic of Colville. Four swimmers are seen at four different stages of diving into a pool. They are portrayed at the moment that the referee has blown his whistle and yet they seem motionless. Only one figure has disturbed the still surface of the water and the splash she creates seems to be equally frozen in time. As in many of his pictures, the details in The Swimming Race are quite meticulous and correct, even though he does not use photographs. This theme of four figures portrayed in four different states of motion was used by Colville in an earlier work, Four Figures on Wharf (1952), which shows his wife in four stages of undress standing on a wharf surrounded by a motionless sea. The waiting figure at the edge of the sea is, in fact, a reference to Colville's return from the war, but it is much more hermetic than The Swimming Race, which depicts a specific event at a local swimming pool. However, by deliberately excluding the spectators, by positioning the referee in the distance and by lining the swimmers up on the vanishing point of the perspective of the pool Colville has given a feeling of disquieting permanence to what is essentially an ephemeral moment.

Family and Rainstorm; To Prince Edward Island

Colville usually uses members of his family for his models but they are not meant to be specific and personal images; rather they epitomize ordinary middle-class people involved in common and shared experiences. Family and Rainstorm (1955) shows a mother and her two children hurrying into a car to escape an approaching rainstorm. The details of the car and the clothing of the figures are meticulously painted, but this concession to the particular is then denied by portraying the figures as they turn away from the spectator, thus making the image timeless. Colville's paintings often convey a sense of the extremes of temperature to be found in the Canadian climate. This is especially noticeable in To Prince Edward Island (1965), which shows a woman staring at the spectator through huge binoculars, watched by a man behind her partially hidden from view. There is an overwhelming feeling of the intense heat of a summer day, while the touches of yellowish-green and dull red convey a sensation of the light which accompanies this extreme heat. This particular light seems to be unique to North America and may be seen in 19th-century luminism landscape painting.

Other Themes

Colville often uses calm and arrested motion to suggest alienation and loneliness. In Woman at Clothes-Line a housewife stands with one foot poised for its next step, obviously not enjoying the task of hanging out wet clothes to dry on a cold autumn day, but nevertheless doing it because she is trapped by her predicament.

In another category of paintings - his female nudes - Colville has portrayed his wife in intimate, often revealing poses. One of the earliest of these, Nude and Dummy (1950), is one of the first works which he clearly articulated his mature style. A later work, June Day (1962), shows his wife with her back turned, undressing in a tent on the beach. The images are depersonalized, symbolizing the eternal and timeless presence of woman.

Exhibitions and Collections

Although his work has not always received the attention it deserves in Canada, his stature as artist had been officially recognized. In 1966 he represented Canada at the Venice Biennale; in 1967 he designed the coinage to commemorate Canada's Centennial and he has received honorary degrees from a number of Canadian universities. Since 1952, when he showed for the first time in New York, he has had many exhibitions abroad, including ones in London (Tate Gallery), Paris, Cologne and Hanover, and as far afield as the Beijing Exhibition Centre in China. In 1983 the National Gallery of Canada organized an international touring retrospective of his pictures.

Paintings by Alex Colville's work are represented in many collections around the world, including: the Cape Breton University Art Gallery in Nova Scotia; the Art Gallery of Hamilton; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York; the Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne; and the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover, Germany.

Most Expensive Painting by Alex Colville

In 2010, Colville's Man on Verandah (1953) was sold by Heffel Fine Art Auction House at their auction of Canadian post-war and contemporary art for a whopping $1.287 million - a record for any painting or sculpture by a living Canadian artist. See also: Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings and the expanded Top 20 Most Expensive Paintings.

• For biographies of other Magic Realist painters, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of 20th century painting, see: Homepage.


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