So it was an especially nice surprise to discover that a major retrospective devoted to his work would be opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario just days before I was planning to visit Toronto. I left nothing to chance and booked timed-entry tickets for the day of my arrival, then waited in great anticipation for the big date!
"To Prince Edward Island", 1965
I was so looking forward to seeing the show that I was afraid I would be disappointed, but that was certainly not the case. Over 100 works from his most iconic paintings to some never before exhibited oils to preparatory sketches and personal photographs filled the large exhibition space on the second floor. Rather than a chronological survey of Alex Colville's œuvre, the curator, Andrew Hunter, chose to group the works according to theme - World War II, animals, guns, love - which gave visitors a chance to see older and newer works side by side.
"Dog and Priest", 1978
The exhibition is further enhanced by a series of "responses" or "echos" - works by other artists, including filmmakers, writers, painters and a cartoonist, who were influenced by Colville's unique vision.
"Moonrise Kingdom", film still by Wes Anderson, 2012
As this major exhibition attests, Alex Colville (1920-2013) was the "Grand Old Man" of Canadian painting. His singular perspective turned everyday occurrences into situations that were intimate, tension-filled moments of a much bigger story. Colville's hyper-realistic depictions were, at the same time, part of an imaginary association with a myriad of possibilities confronting the observer.
There is, however, one subject that is always very easy to read. Alex Colville's portrayals of Rhoda, his wife for over 70 years, were always imbued with a warmth and love that is almost palpable, even if the circumstances of the painting are mysterious. Young or old, naked or clothed, Rhoda was always depicted with a tenderness that comes from years of sharing and trust.
"Woman on Ramp", 2007
This tribute to Alex Colville, a Companion of the Order of Canada and an artist of international renown, confirms his place in the annals of history as both a superb painter and an outstanding human being.