When he was living in Toronto, an American friend of mine brought some of his visiting family to the Art Gallery of Ontario’s permanent collection. They loved the Group of Sevens. Of the Lawren Harrises he said, “They’re so great, so… cartoonish.” My friend is a graphic designer, though perhaps not readily familiar with the Group’s predilection for design: the important influence of that (by turns equally “cartoonish”) Scandinavian painting show at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1913, which some of the Group visited, and of the Arts and Crafts movement, or that many of the Group, including Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson and J.E.H. MacDonald, had themselves worked as commercial designers and illustrators.
MacDonald said of Swedish painter Otto Hesselbom’s Our Country – Motif From Dalsland, exhibited in that 1913 Albright show, that he liked it “not only for its suggestion of Muskoka or Temiskamingue in its water design and wide spaces, but also for the decorative treatment…the rich quiet colour, the detailed drawing of the forest masses, and the fine receding values of the distances shimmering into the sky.” The Group was interested in iconography, populism, archetype, symbolism. Its members made nature plastic; their vision was rapt, even afraid, yet also compartmentalizing. They wanted to live with nature, not to conquer or be subsumed by it.
This genteel, tamped view is in abundance in the paintings of the late Alex Colville, and the AGO’s recently opened retrospective of his work. The show’s curator is Andrew Hunter, who has engaged with the work of Thomson as an artist as well as a curator, collaborating with the AGO on their 2003 Thomson retrospective, which emphasized design work. Hunter has done some quirky stuff but is foremost a populist, and so a good fit for Colville, who is widely loved. Indeed, Colville could not, given the abstraction and conceptualism that dominated the art scene in his heyday, be described as critically acclaimed. His technique, like that of fellow Maritimer David Blackwood, is impressive but old, and craft-oriented. Colville loved egg tempera, which, as Michael McNay in The Guardian’s 2013 obituary of the artist put it, “represents stasis superbly,” recalling early Renaissance works by Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, in which perspective and shading in Western art were more or less invented. Colville pecked at the canvas. He was a whittler of paint.
Colville’s fine strokes are accompanied by broad thematics, which can be unsubtle, even kitschy. This is where Hunter and the AGO falter: why would the ultra-accessible Colville need extra underlining with analogous contemporary artworks, films and literature? More of these comparisons succeed than I had anticipated (more on this later) but there are some unfortunate faceplants. The first room of the exhibition contains the well-known 1965 work To Prince Edward Island, depicting Colville’s wife Rhoda, a frequent figure in his paintings, who, here, is holding binoculars on a boat and facing the viewer, with a man, presumably Alex, behind her. In a huge projection adjacent to the painting, a scene from director Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom shows heroine Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) on top of a lighthouse, also directing binoculars at the viewer. The panel tells us that Anderson’s film “reverberates with visual references to Colville’s works” and that both images “[compel] you to face the scrutiny of the sustained female gaze.”
Yet the differences are more interesting. Rhoda is an older woman and Suzy is a girl; Suzy is alone while Rhoda’s husband is behind her, his body looking attached to hers; Colville’s image unbalances, with the line of the bench Rhoda peers over canted against the picture frame, while Anderson’s is symmetrically stable; Rhoda, as in many Colville paintings, looks beyond us in the manner of an adventurer while Suzy seems direct, and skeptical. The more you think about it, the more the alliance dissolves, becoming, like so much of Anderson’s work, a gimmick.
After this, we get our real start: “Coming of Age as a War Artist,” a chapter depicting Colville’s tenure during the last years of WWII as one of Canada’s official war artists. The painting from this period is mediocre but the experience Colville had doing it is central, a didactic rightly telling us it was “profoundly affecting,” with Colville’s dispatch to Bergen-Belsen to depict the aftermath of the Holocaust “[haunting] him for his entire life.” Colville tried to live with and universalize war in images and, like so many others before and after him, failed. In Soldier and Girl at Station, we see neurotically bordered sexuality and intimacy, the embracing figures appearing like ice sculptures. Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland is, like a lot of Colvilles, a rudimentary exercise in perspective, naively rendered yet at the same time void of sentiment. It is not surprising that Bodies in a Grave, Belsen, is likely Colville’s most abstract painting (many connections have been made between abstraction and the Holocaust), nor, perhaps, that it is one of his weakest. There is bluntness to all of Colville but this is the bluntness of the obfuscator, the obfuscated. The subject here is too direct.
And so it is that Colville and his work become metonyms for the Greatest Generation, those who came of age during WWII—who bore witness and kept at bay—spending the rest of their lives marked by trauma, and in turn fastidiously cultivating bourgeois safety. You have to look for it, but, late in the show, we are given a revelation about Rhoda via a panel extracted and displayed from David Collier’s cute biographical Colville Comics, commissioned by the AGO for this retrospective. “When Rhoda Wright was eight years old, her father, brother, sister, mother’s father and an aunt were killed [after a train hit their car]. The sight of their coffins in the family’s living room haunted Rhoda for life. As if to escape all this death, Rhoda embraced her physicality. She seemed to be always swimming, skating, cycling, playing piano…” Rhoda may not have gone to war, but, like many of her peers, saw her share of tragedy. Her response to it, versus that of her husband, is the key to this exhibition.
Alex Colville made the transition from war artist to domestic artist slowly, even clumsily. Hunter organizes by themes, but these loosely correspond with chronological development, giving us a proper and unfussy trajectory. A grouping of works from the 1950s shows Colville operating under that Group of Seven–ish design aesthetic, by then conservative and outdated. The Social Realism is still being shaken off, the influence of art deco and Magritte, as well as of totalitarian aesthetics, readily apparent in works such as 1950’s Nudes on Shore, its bodies mannered in their elongation, impossibly hard and statuesque. Nude and Dummy, also from 1950, which Colville regarded as one of his first successful paintings, appears later in the exhibition, and is novel for breaking apart these oppressive interests, the nude looking backwards at the dummy in weary identification, the perspective so exaggerated as to seem to tilt the picture plane upward.
In this period Colville’s treatment of people and landscape is so hardened as to prompt ideas classically associated with sculpture, the famous Horse and Train from 1954 and Child Skipping from 1958 showing us frozen motion, the first an anti-industrialist allegory asking viewers to anticipate with dread, the second an implied elliptical loop. Inklings of what is to come in better work include Woman at Clothesline, in which the titular figure is monolithically calm, stepping over dead leaves that look like broken glass, and the stunning Family and Rainstorm from 1955, in which Colville’s focus turns inward, getting more consciously domestic, tackling his powerful, simple theme of the resolute yet fragile manner in which the middle class shepherds itself away from threatening nature.
At this point Hunter presents other comparisons, more effective than the one to Anderson because they show differences rather than similarities. There is Alice Munro, a natural counterpoint, who, as urban geographer Amy Lavender Harris explains in a video, is not exactly like Colville because her (restless, female) characters yearn to escape the parochial, while Colville’s (scarred, male) characters have retreated to it. Another provocative comparison is to Cape Dorset’s Itee Pootoogook, whose drawing of a hunting scene on a boat is juxtaposed with a similar one from Colville, with a panel telling us that “for Pootoogook, boating was a practical pursuit” whereas “for Colville, it was a leisure activity.” An Aboriginal perspective belongs here, and one can bring it to bear on the next room, “On Good and Evil,” in which Colville’s paintings of animals (notably his theme of animals-as-witnesses) are, if not quite treacly, redolent of an idealism and symbolic romanticism one might associate with the colonial eye.
It is Rhoda who is the dominant creature in Colville’s life, the one to whom he is most intimately and studiously attached. She fills the remainder of the exhibition in two large rooms that contain his best work—sustained yet taut meditations on the poignant, mortal dimensions of extended coupling. Round the corner into this section and you are hit with January (1971), my favourite Colville, in which a couple pauses while snowshoeing, the male figure staring at the viewer through aviators with his hood up (a selfie avant la lettre), while the woman, head turned in a fur hat, looks away. Colville wasn’t the best painter of faces, and also seemed to wish to respect Rhoda’s anonymity, but her frequently obscured expression obviously suggests a durable, vigorous soul, one that pulls him along. We have all met such straight couples (many of us have been raised by them), in which the affable, voluble, sociable woman coaxes out the gruff, unavailable man. The painting’s emotional admission comes like a gust of wind from that chilly scene: he needs her; he doesn’t really know what to do without her; he is afraid.
Colville’s gun paintings are aptly placed in this section, though they are not my thing, really. Hunter uses them as an opportunity for comparison with the cinema of the Coen Brothers (also not my thing, really), prompting us to look for an overlapping interest in still scenes of potential violence and, more basically, to look beneath the surface of an image (which, as attendees at an art gallery, we are all presumably ready to do anyway). Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, that surrealist film of domestic disintegration, is acknowledged, for Colville has paintings in it (as does fellow Canadian Norval Morrisseau), although Warner Brothers has forbidden us to see these scenes due to copyright reasons. Ultimately Colville’s guns are superfluous and heavy-handed, for an uncertain air of sexuality and the menace of mortality already exist so strongly in all of his work.
The last paintings of Rhoda, whose death, by many accounts, left Alex mortally bereft, brought tears to my eyes. Hunter’s insertion at this point of footage from Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell seemed, to me, deeply off. The film is a game, a postmodern inquiry into the authenticity of memory; Colville’s paintings are more sincere. Contemporary culture now endorses successive separating and recoupling, which can be psychologically punishing. We denigrate the viability of long-term dyadic relationships: their apparent staleness, confinement, and evolutionary-biological unnaturalness. Colville shows us the opposite. His couple ages together like a pair of fused mushrooms. Their increasingly shameless display of private nakedness is a freedom rather than a neutering. The man uses the presence of the woman as a primitive shelter, her ease with existence contrasting with his unease. It adds up to nothing less: Rhoda and Alex are one of the great love stories this country’s art has told. And, like our landscapes, it is a rather rational motif—love by decision, love by design.