Alex Colville, the Canadian painter, died peacefully on Tuesday at his home in Nova Scotia, at the age of 92. Many of us recognize his most iconic images without, perhaps, even knowing the painter's name. He was an official war artist during WWII who later became an easel painter with a painstaking technique of laying down his pigment in tiny dots. His paintings, with their deceptively mundane subjects that also express feelings of anxiety, tension, and foreboding, say a great deal about life in the later half of the 20th century. An obituary and appreciation published by the CBC remarks that the artist became quite popular in Germany, where he did a residency. Colville is quoted as saying, "Germans know how bad things can (and did) get...Everything in my paintings that frightens Canadians seems to appeal to Germans." In his work I find echoes of the melancholy loneliness of realists such as Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and the British painter Eric Ravilious -- but Colville is uniquely himself.
I became more aware of Colville through my friend Vivian Lewin, who wrote a series of poems about his paintings. Today I asked her to share one with you, and to say a few words about why Alex Colville mattered to her, and also what, if anything, was particularly Canadian about him. Here is her answer, followed by her poem, "Dog and Priest."
Beth, you asked me about Colville. I have always judged myself harshly for not being brilliantly productive, for brooding over unhatched plans and vague intentions, for collecting bits of raw material and feeling incapable or at best unready to use them in any conclusive way. In 1984, the year my marriage ended, I wandered into the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and saw an astonishing exhibit of work by Alex Colville. It included not only a good sample of his paintings, drawings, and prints, but also many excerpts from his notebooks and drawings and sketches collected over many years. I could see how he was patient but not pushy with himself--it seemed to me that he was both relentlessly persistent and resolutely patient, allowing the images that moved him to gather themselves--ripen, as it were--and in good time to find their places in finished work.
If there is anything inherently Canadian about this, I think it is the fundamental refusal to be flashy for the sake of flashiness, but instead to invite time as a partner in the solving of problems. Not to think first of turning a quick profit on a short-term solution to a hard question. And to be unafraid of hard questions--even, at best, humble in the face of them, and in the face of life's real difficulties. I am grateful for his example and his work.
DOG AND PRIEST
“...there is no limbo, purgatory,
or hell for animals.”
Like a present still wrapped up
the man in full clericals reclines
on a bleached wooden dock while past his shoulder
drops down towards the water, a textbook
picture of symbiosis,
scratchy firs rising from it
in northern, diffuse light. The far shore
is delectable. By his side a Black Lab
levels its muzzle
to inhale the horizon and this profile
serves to eclipse the priest's face.
Ripples cover the water
like souls hastening towards a cure,
attracted the more by his ability
to love another best,
and they crowd at the pilings, swirling against
his vow. His inertia
is an achievement. He looks
calmly out and might not see it all –
this body might be only one part of what
opens to the sea
just around that point. For now, sun-warmed dry wood
holds him up. He's in no rush
to put on a simpler suit
like his companion's shinier coat,
this retriever whose heavy collar has worn
who knows no need to dress up or strip down,
just water and plunging in.
--Vivian Lewin (1989)
Poem (c) 2013 by Vivian Lewin; please do not reproduce without permission