Alex Colville Canada’s Leading Realist Painter Dies In Nova Scotia

The realist painter’s painter Alex Colville, whose scenes of everyday life made him one of the best loved Canadian artists of the 20/21 centuries, has died at the age of 92. Colville was considered by many to be Canada’s leading artist with some of his work hitting the $1m mark at auction.

Alex Colville’s was born in Toronto in 1920. His work bore more of an affinity to the American Precisionists of the 1930s like Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton than to the later hyper-realist genre of painting. His perfected compositions  were based on an abundance of sketches and studies that were first brought into an abstract, geometric scheme. The drawings were made from the live model and proportioned according to the planned format. Only then did the slow and patient process of painting begin. Layer upon layer of thinned paint was applied to a primed wooden panel, and the opaque surface finally sealed with transparent lacquer. The process often took months to produce.(1)

Colville devoted intensive study to European painting. According to him, it took him many years to digest the impressions gained during two days spent in the Louvre. Yet he has also been deeply impressed by the American Luminists. Colville’s paintings were proof of the fact that a realism of content need have nothing in common with naturalism, that the serious realist did not unthinkingly reflect reality, but analyses it. It is this analytical cast of mind, Colville was convinced, that permits him to discover “myths of mundanity” — on the banks of the River Spree, by the seaside, in the circus, at sports events, on a boat or a highway, in a meadow or a swimming pool, in a telephone booth or a bedroom. Colville insisted that the mythical aspect of everyday life is not reserved for authors of the secular rank of a James Joyce, but that the contemporary painter can have access to is as well.(2)

Colville’s silent images were always static. Yet practically all of them told a story, in a brief, concise plot that didn’t always have a resolution. Fundamental human situations were their both simple and complex themes: loneliness, isolation, parting, work, leisure, estrangement, love. The only subliminally dramatic, often melancholy laconism of content corresponded to the absolute precision of form by which it was conveyed. Like hardly another artist, Colville maintained the difficult balance between imagination and sober calculation, formal interest and social commitment. Behind the realistic surface of his imagery lurked the surreal – but a surreal that lacked every trace of theatrical staging or borrowing from psychoanalysis, whose new myths Colville deeply mistrusts. (3)

“No other modern painter was so unconscious of prevailing fashion and so indifferent to what’s new in the art world,” literary critic John Bayley said of Colville in his book “Elegy for Iris.” His son, Graham,, said his father passed away Tuesday at his home in Wolfville, N.S.

(1,2,3 Based on Art of the Twentieth Century, ed.) Ingot. Walther. Vol. I Taschen, Koln, 1998.

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