Alex Colville, born in Toronto, was one of Canada’s most renowned artists. He was known for his distinctive figure-painting style and his stark juxtaposition. Colville moved to Nova Scotia at the age of nine and was exposed to the lifestyle there, which influenced many of his paintings. In 1942, Colville joined the Canadian Army and was commissioned as a war artist two years later. His works were a result of meticulous studies and consistent reworking, often taking months to complete. He continued painting into his old age and died in July 2013 as one of Canada’s major icons.
The Colville exhibit at the AGO displays over 100 pieces created between 1920 and 2013. The exhibit moves through a number of themes that outline the course of Colville’s life: Everyday Colville, War Artist, Animals, Inherent Danger, Love, Life, and Loss. Each section of the exhibit contains a short blurb on Colville’s life at that point in time and displays a few of his paintings. The best parts about this exhibit are all the studies and sketches on display alongside the completed products. This really gives the viewer a better understanding of the composition as well as the concepts that drove Colville in each of his works.
Many of the paintings are accompanied by inspired works by other artists. Colville’s “To Prince Edward Island”, painted in 1965, shows a woman looking through a pair of binoculars. This painting is paired with a short segment of American director Wes Anderson’s indie film Moonrise Kingdom. In the scene, Suzy, one of the film’s main characters, is looking through a pair of binoculars on top of a lighthouse desperately trying to discover what is beyond her small town in New England. Colville comments, “The woman sees, I suppose, and the man does not.”
Among other motifs, Colville relies on the image of the handgun to provide a sense of surrealism and danger. His interest in the psychological is expressed through the many works categorized in the Inherent Danger portion of the exhibit. The canvas provides a window into the unsettling nature of control and order. His experience as a war artist provides insight on Colville’s views of war: “Total collapse of any kind of control or order. Anything could happen. If you’ve seen this once, you know you may see it again.” He implements these ideas of danger in scenes of everyday life. One of the many nudes Colville painted of his wife is among these paintings of Inherent Danger. A nude woman fixes her hair in a small handheld mirror and her face is hidden by the arm reaching up to her head. A man in a suit stands rigidly behind her. His face is also cut off by the top of the canvas. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to the handgun placed on the vanity. This style of Colville is unsettling and mysterious and raises many questions for the viewer.
Overall, the Colville exhibit was an interesting look into Canadian subculture and the impact that Colville had and still has on pop culture nationwide.