Column by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
I was 16 when Alex Colville‘s work crept into my life. I was into The Doors and the darker lyrics of The Tragically Hip and Hemingway’s war prose and Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre poems. If it was sinister, it intrigued me, because so much of childhood is spent being shielded from anything ghastly or grim.
Until I encountered a lithograph of “Pacific” — a 1967 painting of a shirtless man standing carefree and staring out to the ocean with his back turned to a handgun on a table — I believed Canadian art was benign. Group of Seven landscapes were beautiful, but they were neither riveting nor cool in the way a 16-year-old would think art is cool.
“Pacific” was Miami Vice cool. Colville’s work, some of it at least, had edge and drama. The iconic “Horse and Train” shows a black thoroughbred racing head on toward an onrushing locomotive. “Woman with Revolver” depicts a naked woman (Colville showed humans naked, not nude) clutching a weapon at her side while standing at the top of a staircase with house lights on beneath her.
“I see life as inherently dangerous. I have an essentially dark view of the world and human affairs,” Colville is quoted as saying in a report in the National Post. “Anxiety is the normality of our age.”
Colville passed away in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where he lived for much of his 92 years.
His work isn’t all dark. Some of it is quite sweet. “Moon and Cow,” for example, is reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s pastoral pieces from the United States. All of Colville’s oeuvre is stylistically unique, a lot of it shows Canada the way no one had ever imagined before him.
Whenever I visit one of the nation’s art galleries, I am on the lookout for Colville’s art. It has inspired more than one piece of fiction of mine, including the first short story I had published, “Canada Geese Mate for Life.” Many of Colville’s greatest pieces are scattered throughout Canada’s museums and public collections. His works can pop up where you don’t expect them to and in several places where you would anticipate they would be found, including some of the spots on this list.
Top 5 Places to See Alex Colville’s Art
1. Colville House, Sackville, New Brunswick
Colville’s former residence was turned into an interpretive centre in 2009. It is on the campus of his alma mater, Mount Allison University, and part of the Owens Art Gallery. In the home, visitors can see original sketches for “Horse & Train” and “Nude and Dummy.” Colville lived in the home from 1948-73 with his wife and four children. The Colville House is small, with white clapboard panelling, bay windows, and a steeped roof.
2. National Gallery, Ottawa, Ontario
“To Prince Edward Island” is one of those Colville works that draws you in like a book, because there is a mood that makes you think there is so much else going on despite the innocuous setting. The painting shows a tight-lipped, ferry-riding woman with binoculars that appear to have very wide blue eyes. It is one of several Colville pieces on display at the National Gallery. “Hound in Field” is another well-known painting to be found here.
3. Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax
Among the Colville masterpieces at this museum are “Ocean Limited,” “Dog in Car,” and the celebrated “Studio,” a self-portrait painted in 2000 that shows an old and declining Colville standing nude and unflinching.
4. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
The AGO held the first retrospective of Colville’s art back in 1983 and it holds several of his sketches, paintings, and drawings among its Canadian Art collection.
5. Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario
“Horse and Train” was painted in 1954 and was on the 1973 album cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Night Vision.” It landed in the Art Gallery of Hamilton thanks to the Dominion Foundries and Steel, Ltd. Of this captivating piece, the museum writes: “This painting invokes feelings of helplessness, and tension as a horse runs full gallop towards an oncoming train. This anxiety is heightened, because we are not shown the outcome. However, we can see that the results will be disastrous if the subject remains on his or her current course. In this painting Colville has created a melancholy (sad) atmosphere through the use of dark colours.”
More About Alex Colville
Born: August 24, 1920 in Toronto, Ontario
Died: July 16, 2013 in Wolfville, Nova Scotia
Awards: Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award (2003), Companion of the Order of Canada (1982), Officer of the Order of Canada (1967).
Canadian Record: “Man on Verandah” sold at auction in 2010 for $1.29 million, a new milestone for a living Canadian artist.