Meditations on Being and Morality: The Existential Art of Alex Colville
By Sara Foster
At first glance, Alex Colville’s pictures provide simple scenes of Canadian life and landscape. A couple shares a kiss at dusk through the car window, a man sits on his veranda overlooking the water, a woman walks her dog alongside the frozen river. They are quiet moments, ordinary in subject matter, though saturated with an intimacy so great that each image becomes increasingly voyeuristic. Colville’s viewer is made to feel ill at ease, but still compelled to look closer. Within his images an acute anxiety permeates, a fraught foreboding that transforms a humble subject matter into a premonition. Colville is advising his viewer to see beyond surface realities; beneath his representations of everyday life are serious reflections on questions concerning morality, meaning, and the inherent tension of existence.
One of Canada’s most iconic artists, Colville was a thinker as much as he was a maker. To him, art was not a soliloquy or a statement, but a means of communication: “I regard paintings as things produced not to relieve the artist, not to serve him, but to serve other people who will look at them.” A man of quiet faith from rural Eastern Canada, Colville held a deep respect for the created world and all its inhabitants. If art was a means of communication, his message was driven by morality and imbued with ethical considerations, and almost always his images focused on people and animals whom he considered to be wholly good, acting properly within the world. Art to Colville was a profound endeavour, as human creation is an expression of respect for divine creation, and on this account, painting itself becomes an act of worship.
In perhaps his most famous painting, Horse and Train, a black horse, representing creativity, forges ahead on the tracks toward an oncoming train, the symbol of war and destruction. As Colville consistently employed animals in his work as the epitome of goodness, it is bothmorality and creativity, inextricably entwined, threatened by the vigour of the machine. The image is emblematic of Colville’s artistic pursuit in the wake of World War Two. Exposed to its horrific aftermath as an official war artist of the Third Canadian Infantry Division, his assignment to the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp proved a naturally traumatic and lasting encounter. Within the postwar climate of disquiet and confusion, Colville, like many others, became attracted to the existentialist writings of Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger in the early 1950s. Existentialism, the philosophy formulated by such texts, insisted upon man as a free and responsible agent and viewed art as the attempt to give coherence, order, and unity to a world that had been ravaged with chaos. As Ray Cronin observes, postwar thought was attempting to overcome the trauma of the war while articulating moral and ethical responses. Existentialism asked the significant question of why,in a world emptied of certainty and morality, it was truly worth it to live.
This became the central enquiry of Colville’s art, as his drive to make sense of life resulted in images concerned primarily with ideas about what it is to be human, and what it is to be virtuous. While the art scene of 1950s and 60s Canada was dominated by movements and groups drawing influence from Abstract Expressionism – the Automatistes, Regina Five, and Painters Eleven amongst them – Colville forged his own path, pursuing a blend of realism and idealism that situated him alongside the likes of Lucian Freud or Edward Hopper. In his snapshots of everyday life, Colville encourages his viewer to see more deeply than usual, to perceive the intrinsic value and purpose of man’s natural environment, and in seeing it, comprehend one’s relationship with it. With this aim, vision is significant in his images: the woman of To Prince Edward Island points her binoculars directly at the viewer in a rather uncomfortable affront, while the closed eyes of his self-portrait in Living Room creates a haven of personal escape. Ultimately, Colville believed in the world’s inherent value, and knew there was still meaning to be located within it despite the savage distortions of the war. This meaning, however, had to be searched for beneath obvious appearances and in spite of daunting ambiguities.
And so, Alex Colville’s quiet pictures transfigure into profound meditations on ‘being’. What is it to exist, and moreover to be good, in such a chaotic world? Positing moments of stasis amidst instability, anchors amidst turmoil, and insisting upon order, Colville echoes Camus’ ‘metaphysical rebel’ who ‘attacks a shattered world in order to demand unity from it’. His painted world is one in which order and chaos are equal possibilities, and though there is inherent tension in this fact, there is also serenity. In Pacific, a man looks out over the ocean, his back to the viewer, while a handgun lies on the table in the foreground. The man’s pose is relaxed, the ocean calm, and yet the handgun is an obvious indicator that something could go wrong quickly. In Skater, a woman teeters on the ice, silently gliding within this liminal space between balance and imbalance, two possible states of being. “It is about controlled but relaxed conscious movement in a kind of elemental, void-like aspect of nature,” Colville has said, “a kind of environment which I think many people find frightening. However, the Skater is not frightened.”
In the face of potential threat and uncertainty, Colville’s art urges us to consider the humility and value that is to be found within the natural world. As significant his artistic contribution is, he is also rightfully positioned within the intellectual history of Canada alongside thinkers such as George Grant or Northrop Frye. Martin Kemp has said, “He is a local painter in the sense that Constable was local, creating art that has to draw nourishment from scenes known intimately in order to find a wider truth.” It is the simplest and quietest moments of life, Colville reminds us, that often have the most to say.
Dow, Helen. “The Magic Realism of Alex Colville,” Art Journal, vol. 24 no. 4 (1965) pp. 318-329.
Cronin, Ray. Alex Colville: Life and Work, Toronto: Art Canada Institute, 2013.
Cheetham, Mark. “The World, the Work, and the Artist: Colville and the Communality of Vision”, Canadian Art Review, vol. 15 no. 1 (1988): pp. 58-63.