July 19, 2013

A Tribute to Alex Colville 1920-2013

The death of Canada's "Painter Laureate" Alex Colville a few days ago leaves a huge void not only in the art world but is a loss that I feel personally as well.  You see, Alex Colville, beside being  a giant among 20th century realist painters, was also a big benefactor to the small town where he lived for most of his life and where I spent four very happy years at university, Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

"Soldier and Girl at Station", 1953

Alex Colville was born in Toronto in 1920 but the family moved to Nova Scotia when he was a young boy.  He was graduated from Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, in 1942 and married his wife Rhoda that same year.  Shortly after he was deployed overseas as an artist with the Canadian Army where he gained recognition for his moving documentation of the troops landing at Juno Beach on D-Day.

His experience as a military artist during World War II had a profound and lasting effect on him both personally and in his art.  He returned to Nova Scotia and began painting in earnest while his wife raised their four children.  In 1951 he was offered his first solo exhibition at the New Brunswick Museum and the rest, as they say, is history.

"Horse and Train", 1954

To call Alex Colville's painting style "hyper realistic" is not really doing it justice.  Yes, the works are meticulously crafted and the images are startlingly real, but it is the sense of foreboding and the incongruity of the compositions that leave the viewer disturbed.  Although sometimes referred to as "Canada's Norman Rockwell" Colville's scenes do not have happy endings.  Indeed, I would suggest a better comparison would be Edward Hopper whose images often have a similar haunting quality.

"Pacific", 1967

Colville's paintings are the images of my youth, especially after I graduated high school and went on to study at Acadia University in the beautiful Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia.  Alex and Rhoda Colville were long time residents of Wolfville and could be seen "in town" doing errands.  Halfway through my four year program, Alex Colville was appointed Chancellor of the university - another distinguished honor, in addition to Companion of the Order of Canada, numerous awards and prizes and a plethora of honorary degrees, earned by this living legend.

"Refrigerator", 1977

I cannot remember the name of the university President while I was there, but I was always proud of the fact that the famous artist and very nice man, Alex Colville, was Chancellor.  He held the position for 10 years and continued to actively paint even when beset with health issues.  His beloved wife of 70 years passed away last December and Mr. Colville ended his great career and life last Tuesday.  He will be greatly missed.

"Embarkation", 1994

July 12, 2013

"Hopper Drawings" @ The Whitney

I love a chance to go behind the scenes - backstage at the theater, the kitchen at a restaurant, a greenhouse at a botanical garden - to see up close how something is created.  It puts the end result in a whole new context and I find myself with a much keener appreciation for the finished product.

The same idea applies to art as well.  A visit to an atelier opens up a fresh perspective on the artist's work - where it comes from, how it was created, and a glimpse at the artistic process in action.  So when the Whitney Museum of American Art announced its upcoming exhibition "Hopper Drawing" I thought it would present a new viewpoint and consequently a better understanding of this iconic artist's work.

The American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is probably best known as a painter and print-maker of unsettling, even haunting, pictures.  Both his urban and rural scenes and landscapes are imbued with a sense of solitude, even foreboding, that leave the viewer wondering just what exactly is going on behind the deceptively simple image.

What is not very well known about Hopper is that he was also a superb draftsman and his seemingly stark and straightforward paintings are the result of countless preparatory drawings.  In fact, he drew all his life and began his artistic career as a commercial illustrator, a field he abandoned as soon as he sold his first watercolor!  The Whitney holds a large collection of his drawings, bequeathed by the artist's widow, and is now for the first time presenting them alongside the eventual paintings.

Like most East Coasters, I am familiar with the works of Edward Hopper, his lonely houses, near empty late night diners, tension filled offices and suggestive bedroom scenes.  I find many of his images quite disturbing but appreciate his ability to pose a thousand questions in a very uncomplicated - although beautifully executed - canvas.  But seeing the lead-up to these atmospheric oils added an entirely different dimension.  It was fascinating to see the sketches, his experiments with positions and composition and how they related to the finished oil painting. 

Take, for instance, Hopper's most important work, "Nighthawks", 1942.  According to his sketchbooks, he spent several months preparing to paint this image.  From the most abstract early chalk "scribble" to a finished drawing, one can clearly see how he tested different formats and perfected important details until he was ready to put the oil paint on the canvas...

The result is one of the most famous paintings by an American artist in the 20th century!

As well as presenting about a dozen iconic paintings with their accompanying drawings, the exhibition also shows some of his early works, some self portraits, a group of watercolor sketches done in Paris as well as landscapes and few drawings of his wife.  "Hopper Drawings" is a most interesting and informative show and truly opened my eyes to the genius of Edward Hopper.

July 02, 2013

"Foundations of Freedom" on view at the NYPL

In celebration of Independence Day, the New York Public Library is treating its visitors to an unprecedented viewing of two of the most important and rarest documents relating to the founding of the nation.

For the first time ever, and for three days only, the NYPL is placing its copy of both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights on public view at the Library's main building on Fifth Avenue.  So, in honor of the 237th birthday of the United States of America, I took a bus down to 42nd Street and stood in line with about a hundred other people to have a look.

After a brief wait and a nice chat with the young man who was right behind me, we were ushered into the Wachenheim Trustees Room, an elegantly appointed salon on the second floor, seldom open to the public.  Here, surrounded by walnut paneling hung with 17th Century Flemish tapestries of the five continents, were three plexiglass cases, each holding the hand-written documents that are the foundation of this country's independence from England.

The first and second cases each held one of the two sheets of handmade laid paper that constitute the Declaration of Independence.  Covered on both sides with Thomas Jefferson's neat and very legible handwriting, this example is in remarkably good condition, the ink only slightly faded and with just a few areas of discoloration mainly on the creases. 

This was Jefferson's own copy, and is one of only two that have survived intact.  Most interesting were the author's notations including underlined words and passages that were ultimately edited out of the final text - the most significant omission being Jefferson's condemnation of slavery which was excised to placate the delegates from Georgia and South Carolina.

The third case contained the Library's original copy of the Bill of Rights, sent to the states for ratification in 1789.  This remarkable document was written on a very large sheet of parchment and comprises twelve amendments to the Constitution although only ten were actually adopted.  This example is in a superb state of preservation and is surprisingly easy to read.

The Library's examples of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were gifts of a trustee, John S. Kennedy, and presented in 1896.  Given their fragility and historical significance, these priceless artifacts are generally kept in a secure environment and seldom put on public display.  It was a pleasure and a privilege to be able to view these treasures and to be reminded again of the great commitment and foresight of our Founding Fathers that allows us to live in freedom to this day.