Alex Colville at the Art Gallery of Ontario

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To Prince Edward Island, 1965 by Alex Colville
To Prince Edward Island, 1965, by Alex Colville

Animals, bridges, World War II and man in isolation: These subjects dominated Canadian artist Alex Colville’s realist paintings as he came to grips with his experience as a war artist during World War II and contemplated humanity. Alex Colville opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on August 23, 2014. Torontonicity attended a media preview on August 19, 2014 to take in the 100-plus paintings of this Toronto-born artist, who died in July 2013. Many of the works in the collection are on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, as well as private owners.

Alex Colville working as a war artist in 1945
Alex Colville working as a war artist in 1945

Colville’s daughter, Ann Kitz, who was present at the media event, was thrilled to see the collection. She advised that she “doesn’t see them very often in the flesh because they are in private collections.” Mark Mayer, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, noted that Colville’s works were represented in films such as “The Shining”. Mayer stated about Colville’s work: “Visual arts are the R&D of so many other arts. This shows how art can have tentacles throughout other works.”

Alex Colville’s Early Life

Colville was born in Toronto in 1920, moved to St. Catharines at age 7, then to Amherst, Nova Scotia at age 9. He attended Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, then married Rhoda Wright before enlisting in the army. Colville rose to the position of lieutenant and then was recruited to become a war artist depicting scenes at Nijmegen, Netherlands then was drafted to the army where he painted scenes at the camp in Germany. Colville notes that his war depictions were like letters home to soldiers’ families describing the conditions.

Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland by Alex Colville
Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland by Alex Colville

Colville’s work has been described as realist; however, Andrew Hunter, the AGO’s curator of Canadian art says, “[Colville’s] realism was about how he saw the world, not how he painted.” Certainly, he makes the ordinary extraordinary in photos such as Woman at Clothesline.

Woman at Clothesline by Alex Colville
Woman at Clothesline by Alex Colville
Family and Rainstorm by Alex Colville
Family and Rainstorm by Alex Colville

His portraits tell a story of everyday life. For example, in Family and Rainstorm, one imagines the family has packed up their picnic at the beach after being caught in a storm.

Horse and Train by Alex Colville
Horse and Train by Alex Colville

One of his most famous paintings is Horse and Train. Director Stanley Kubrick included the painting in his 1980 film, The Shining, to symbolize a dramatic turning point in the protagonists’ lives. Will the horse get off the tracks in time?

Dog and Groom by Alex Colville
Dog and Groom by Alex Colville

Colville’s love and respect for animals was openly expressed in his paintings, including Dog and Groom. Colville stated: “If it were a question of reincarnation – that is, being embodied again, literally – I wouldn’t mind just being a dog. Their lives seem to me to be entirely innocent.”

Headstand by Alex Colville
Headstand by Alex Colville

The exhibit includes several Colville nudes, including self-portraits he painted in his later years. His reluctant wife, Rhoda, was the subject more often than not including in the painting, Headstand.

Colville stated: “Only by living in a little place for a long time can one build up a sort of complex knowledge of what goes on.” His love of small town Eastern Canada, with its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, infuses his work with joy.

Alex Colville is on exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West, 416-979-6648, until January 4, 2015. Tickets may be purchased online.

 

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