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

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