My houseguest, visiting from Mexico City for TIFF, had the Alex Colville show at the Ontario Art Gallery at the top of her list of sights to see in Toronto. She spent a morning at the exhibit and loved it. I nodded sagely and, somewhat uncharacteristically, said nothing. Alex Colville? Of course. But, truth be told, I couldn’t quite place him. Three weeks ago, a friend and I decided to remedy that situation and visit the show ourselves. We recognized instantly some of Colville’s most iconic paintings and, for the first time, learned about the life and influence of one of Canada’s most famous painters. What we anticipated would be a morning dip into the AGO became an all-day venture. The Alex Colville exhibit is wonderful and well worth a visit.
The show is the largest of Colville’s work ever assembled and includes many paintings and sketches not before exhibited. From his beginnings as a war artist during the Second World War, there are many paintings of Holland in 1944, including the famous “Infantry, near Nijmegen Holland,” (1946). Sent to record the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, his disturbing “Bodies in a Grave, Belsen,” (1946) is haunting. Studies for the mural of the Sackville Train Station are part of a series showing what led up to the compelling “Soldier and Girl at Station,” (1953). Other sketches illustrate how he developed his “Athletes,” which have become icons for outstanding athletes at Mount Allison University. These sketches add dimension to many of the paintings in the show, and well illustrate his craftsmanship.
After the war, he settled into the tranquility of the Maritimes, first in Sackville New Brunswick, where he taught at Mount Allison, and later in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the ancestral home of his wife, Rhoda. His wife was his only model; we see her at work, around the house, at play, at the seashore; her figure as lovingly portrayed in her late seventies and eighties as earlier. We see the children, the dogs, the horses, the wild animals and birds, the street scenes, the countryside, the bridges and the railroads. The apparent tranquility of each scene is often disturbed by a hint of underlying menace, a threat of what could come. The iconic “Horse and Train” (1954) shocks by the power of the surprisingly small image and the impending doom. “Church and Horse” (1964) resonates with its inspiration: JFK’s Black Jack, the spirited, riderless horse in the Kennedy cortege.
A major strength of the show is its portrayal of Colville’s influence, direct and indirect, on other artists, writers, photographers and movie makers. Nobel prize winner Alice Munro and novelist Ann-Marie MacDonald acknowledge the philosophy they shared with Colville and the images derived from him. Inuit artist Itee Pootoogook shares his love of local life and his capacity to find strength in ordinary scenes. There are explicit links shown between Colville’s woman with binoculars in “To Prince Edward Island” (1965) and Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012); between Colville and the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” (2007), and between Colville’s paintings and the drama in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980).
This show is a winner. On until January 4, 2015 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Don’t miss it.