You are on page 1of 13

The Magic Realism of Alex Colville Author(s): Helen J. Dow Source: Art Journal, Vol. 24, No.

4 (Summer, 1965), pp. 318-329 Published by: College Art Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 19/08/2013 11:22
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

College Art Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Art Journal.

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Helen J. Dow The Magic Realism of Alex Colville

Paul Cezanne and Georges Seurat were both latenineteenth century French painters who attempted to give to the brilliance and luminosity of Impresssionism a solid and permanent structure, but it was only Cezanne who dared to compare this concern for mass and volume with the architectonic classicism of the great Norman artist, Nicolas Poussin. His aim was "to do Poussin over again from nature," he said, and "to make of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art in the museums." It was apparently a goal too monumental for his reach, however, for toward the end of his life, in March, 1904, he admitted that he had failed. There were simply too many obstacles to cope with, the problem of insufficient models, of carrying about a large canvas, of unfavourable weather, a thousand difficulties, he concluded; "So I was obliged to give up my project of doing Poussin over entirely from nature, and not constructed piece-meal from notes, drawings, and fragments of studies; in short, of painting a living Poussin in the open air, with colour and light."1x In truth, Cezanne's difficulty was more than that of mere technical limitations. In his analytical approach inherited from Manet whereby form was conceived as a succession of flat coloured planes, he became increasingly aware of the need to describe the world in more than three dimensions, so that by September 8, 1906, he wrote to his son: "Here on the river bank motifs are more frequent, the same subject seen from a different angle, suggests a subject for study of the greatest interest, and so varied that I think I could keep busy for months without changing my place, just by leaning at one time more to the right and at another more to the left.'"2 In this statement, as in his mature paintings, he recognized that objects observed from several angles are more fully understood as extensions in space than those observed from one stationary position. A truly comprehensive view relies on time, the time it takes to move around an object in order to see it from several angles. The result, of course, will always be a distortion, since it is only through distortion that both ends of an object can

p. 363.

Goldwater and Marco Treves, Artists on Art from the XIV to the XX Century, New York, 1945,

be embraced within a single glance. Nevertheless, because the sequence in depth must also imply a sequence in time if a geometrically solid world is to be portrayed, Cezanne was forced to depict a multiple view which could be nothing short of destructive in its negative attack on form, breaking it down into its component parts. This fluctuating portrayal of the world came to be known as Cubism, and the arch-exponent of the style, Pablo Picasso, was to confess in 1935 that while "A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case a picture is a sum of destructions. I do a picture-then I destroy it."3 Such a negative violation of form could scarcely be further from the structural assertion which Cezanne had recognized as the very essence of Poussin. Yet how, indeed, was the modern artist to cope with the new dimension of time, which he could no more ignore than could the modern physicist?4Time, after all, had not been a basic consideration in artistic composition since the Medieval period, when the narrative emphasis of Christian art had dictated that the sequence of events should take precedence over spatial considerations. In the manuscript illuminations of the twelfth century, for example, figures normally trangressed the boundaries of their frame, which obviously did not function as an enclosure for the picture space. The common denominator uniting such a composition was instead an abstract, patterned background on which all the figures in the scene were made to depend for their stability, and in relation to which they gained their spatial definition. This unifying factor was destroyed, however, when the Italian Renaissance superimposed upon the infinite backdrop a system of vanishing-point perspective according to which space and form became rationally comprehensible and therefore measurable within the limits of the picture frame and the vanishing point in the distance. Raphael's School of Athens, for example, establishes a descriptive space; but in so doing the element of time has been abandoned. In order to grasp such a scene rationally the spectator must stand exactly in the centre; to shift his viewpoint even slightly would require a new vanishing point to bring the picture back into focus. The Renaissance artist thus sacrificed the Mediaeval expres' Artists on Art, Op. cit., p. 419.

Heard Hamilton, "Ce'zanne, Bergson 'and the Image of Time," College Art Journal, Vol. XVI, No. I, 1956, p. 11.

"Albert Einstein published his Spezielle Relativitiitestheorie in 1905, while Picasso was painting his Demoiselles d'Avignon between 1906 and 1907.

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Fig. 1. Alex Colville, ATHLETES,Mural triptych in oil and synthetic resin, 5' X 9' -

71/4", 1961 (Athletic Centre, Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick.

sion of time in preference for an emphasis on space. For the twentieth century, however, the only adequate comprehension of the world must be made not merely in terms of space nor merely in terms of time, but in relation to both these elements together. As the mathematician Hermann Minkowski stated in 1908, "Henceforth space by itself and time by itself are doomed to fade away into mere shadows and only a kind of union of both will preserve their existence."'5 It is extremely significant, therefore, that the Canadian painter Alex Colville of Sackville, New Brunswick, has been able to achieve a completely whole and truly solid definition of form, which yet remains within the frame of this space-time continuum. Significantly, too, he is the true successor to Seurat's Pointillism. Born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1920, of a Scottish father, David Harrower Colville, who could trace his ancestry back to the Norman settlement of the Fifeshire coast under William the Conqueror, Colville has spent most of his life on the edge of the Tantramar Marshes which separate the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It was here, at Amherst, Nova Scotia, that he grew up, and here, between 1938 and 1942, that he studied under the English Post-Impressionist landscape painter SSigfried Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture, the growth of a new tradition, 3rd edition, Harvard University Press, 1954, p. 439.
319 Dow: The Magic Realism of Alex Colville

Stanley Royle (1888-1961), who was then Director of the School of Fine and Applied Arts at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. Upon graduation from university, Colville joined the Canadian Army, in which he was ultimately appointed a war artist, but he returned to Mount Allison in 1946 to teach until 1963, when he was finally able to devote all his time to painting. Over the years he has continued to read widely, particularly the best of contemporary American and French literature, so that in spite of his isolated location he has kept well abreast of his time. Meanwhile, several important events have greatly contributed to the maturing of his painting style. In 1945, for example, he was able to visit the Louvre, where he saw Manet's Olympia, a painting he had already long admired. There he also made his first acquaintance with Ancient Egyptian art, and its qualities of precision and permanence were to have a lasting effect on his own art. By 1950 he had adopted a variation of the geometric grid system used by Ancient Egyptian artists to establish the disposition of every element in a design. He realized, of course, that the geometric network was also employed in the carefully calculated compositions of Seurat,6 and in the autumn of 1959, Colville made a special trip ex' Seurat especially used the Golden Section. See: Matila A Practical Handbook of Geometrical ComposiGhyka, tion and Design, London, 1956, p. 15 and pl. I.

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

plicitly to see Seurat's greatest work, La Grande Jatte in the Chicago Art Institute, in order to study its crystallized light and balanced colour, although already his own style was becoming an ever-increasing refinement of Seurat's Divisionism. Particularly from the year 1950, when his style rapidly matured with the adoption of a geometric network as a basis for his composition, all Colville's paintings are profound expressions of his Aristotelian outlook, which like that of St. Francis of Assisi, contains a deep respect for the created world. Small wonder that Colville's style remains realistic! It is, however, especially in his monumental triptych Athletes (fig. 1) painted during the summer of 1961 for the new Athletic Centre of Mount Allison University, that he achieved an unusually convincing though entirely new interpretation of the modern space-time continuum. The three separate panels represent three separate scenes, on the left a swimmer, in the centre a jumper, and on the right a runner, each scene with its own system of perspective. Although the individual panels are related to each other by their common horizon-line, uniform colour scheme, and an interdependence on their adjacent vanishing-points, their scale of measurement is established, not by the vanishing points, but by a narrow band in the middle ground of each panel, which actually coincides with and defines the middle plane in the spatial recession. On the left, the swimmer is seen in front of this line, which forms the railing around the pool into which she is diving forward and actually into the space in front of the picture plane. Behind this railing, an unlimited area lacks any object by which its dimensions could be comprehended, so that only the space in front of the barrier is defined. In the right panel, on the other hand, a runner completes a race at the finish-line, a thin cord which terminates the vast space plunging into the background through which the figure has just travelled. Thus the foreground space is confined even before the picture plane is reached, and the area in front of the white cord is actually flat simply because the runner is not moving through this space. In the central panel (60"x 461/8"),wider than the other two, a jumper bridges both sides of the spatial barrier, marked this time by a hurdle placed on an angle. Time is an element common to all three panels. It is suggested first of all by the theme, on the left the beginning of an action, in the middle the height of an action, and on the right the completion of an action. Together they portray the past, the present and the future, in fact the abstraction of time in general. Moreover, by the exquisite poise of each figure, the beginning, peak and finish of each event is implied. Furthermore, time is, in every case, an element necessary to the description of the space through which the figure moves, since this space is defined as enclosed between the bar-

rier in the middle ground and the moving figure. These are the boundaries of the measured space. In each panel, a synthesized movement takes place in relation to a barrier, either away from it, towards it, or around it. In keeping with the views of modern physics, therefore, time and space are inseparable, but they are also limited and consequently measurable. Here, then, we have a very positive and meaningful description of a measurable space-time continuum which is at the same time a profound expression of human limitation as the common denominator of all finite perception of the world. In Colville's triptych, only part of the space in each panel is defined, and that always in relation to the white line in each middle ground, which acts as the spatial yardstick. Even this yardstick would fail to define three dimensions, however, if it were not for the inclusion of the fourth dimension implied by the moving figures. Pockets of space thus appear to be hollowed out in relation to a moving scale. The remaining area operates as a flat, unmeasured and therefore infinite envelope for the action, so that time is placed, as it were, against eternity. The resulting emphasis on the basic two-dimensionality of the masonite panels on which the picture was painted is enhanced by the absence of detail in the background, in which shadows have been eliminated and even the roofline of the building is placed at such an angle that it looks flat. Nevertheless, this infinite backdrop is not without rotundity, for although it is incalculable in mathematical terms, its realistic colourscheme is intensified in relation to the reduced key of the foreground, so that its presence, like the actual sky of the real world, is powerfully felt even while its dimensions cannot be rationally fathomed. In addition to the middle-ground frame of reference for the measurable space, the chromatic plasticity for the unlimited areas, and a complex intermingling of threepoint perspective criss-crossing all three panels, yet a fourth system, an arbitrary modular scheme based on a V/3 rectangle has been used to establish the geometric network which determined the specific arrangement of every detail in the triptych's composition, the size of the panels, as well as the scale and disposition of the figures. Consequently, the four-dimensional composition is organized on the basis of a thoroughly architectonic structure which is itself two-dimensional. Colville's next painting, done in 1962, was likewise based on a system of /3 rectangles. Entitled Ocean Limited (fig. 2) after the name of the diesel train which runs between Montreal and Halifax, it represents this train as it crosses the Tantramar Marshes near the artist's home. This time, however, the space is not defined simply by the relationship between a moving figure and a fixed plane in the middle ground, but by that between two moving objects, both travelling parallel to the picture plane, though in opposite directions. This insisART JOURNALXXIV 4 320

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Fig. 2. Alex. Colville, OCEAN LIMITED, Oil and synthetic resin, 27 X 473/4", 1962 (Collection of William A. M. Burden, New York City).

Fig. 3. Alex Colville, SWIMMER, Egg tempera, 21" X 28", Helen J. Dow, New Paltz; New York).

1962 (Collection of Dr.

tence on the horizontal relationship markedly contributes to the dominant expression of speed, so that there is a strong illusion of the train moving rapidly across the picture plane. Even the intrusion of shadows has been eliminated, while the one strong upright form, a plodding man to the left, provides the foil against which the motion of this speeding engine can be measured. Although the thirty-degree angle of the diagonal separating the red nose of the locomotive from the black and white stripes along its side is actually true to life, this line is so placed that it coincides with the diagonal of the V3 rectangle which comprises the entire panel. Thus everything in the composition is made to assist the emphatic expression of speed, yet there is none of the fragmentation of either form or space which the Cubist and Futurist artists had found necessary. In the whole history of art this definitive image of speed is unique. The side-to-side movement is the exact counterpart of the back-to-front movement of the figures in the triptych. Colville combined both types of motion in one composition, however, in his next panel, a three to four rectangle entitled Swimmer (fig. 3), in which all frames of reference have been given up save for the single figure of a woman swimming across the picture space from right to left, against the back-to-front movement of the waves, whose never-ending rhythm seems to be the distillation of all seas. Since the figure is placed in the right middle ground, the spectator, approaching the picture-space by the wave on the left, is drawn into a vast, unlimited ocean full of ceaseless motion, before focusing on the solitary woman which alone can provide a scale of measurement. The dimensions of this space can only be comprehended in terms of the swimmer's passage through it. The analogy is, of course, to human life, so that the painting becomes a powerful expression of both man's responsibility and man's limitation.
321 Dow: The Magic Realism of Alex Colville

Colville's concern for the preservation of the wholeness of form especially when it is in motion is already apparent some years earlier, for example in his panel Horse and Train (fig. 4) of 1954, which was inspired by two lines from Dedication to Mary Campbell by the South African poet, Roy Campbell: Against a regiment I oppose a brain And a dark horse against an armoured train. In the painting, as in the context of the poem, the horse symbolically represents the artist, man as creator. Barebacked, he gallops into the picture-space, along a railway track on which a- train is speeding in the opposite direction, while the reflection of a twilight sky on the rails and the ominous headlight of the steam locomotive set a mood of intense foreboding. The two contrasting forces, creation and destruction, are thus made to oppose each other directly. Nothing short of a miracle can save this beautiful horse, the representative of creativity, from complete annihilation by the oncoming machine, the symbol of war and destruction. The poignant question which Colville makes in this imagery would seem therefore to have only a negative answer. Yet in his triptych, painted in 1961, the painter seems to have found an affirmative reply-the miracle has taken place. By turning with reverence to the objective world of daily experience, Colville has calmly and rationally shown us the constructive path into a realistic future in which all creation has an ordered place. As Poussin said: "Art is not a different thing from nature, nor can it pass beyond nature's boundaries. For that light of knowledge which by natural gifts is scattered here and there and appears in different men in different times and places is collected into one body by art."7 'Artists on Art, Opt. cit., p. 154.

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Fig. 4. Alex Colville,


153/4" X 21",

1954 (Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario).

In his rationality and objectivity of approach, as much as in the structural soundness of his composition, Colville can himself be compared with the important Norman classicist whose work he has always admired. Poussin's Tancred and Erminia (fig. 5) in the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad, has long been one of Colville's particular favourites, and in fact, although he knows this work only from reproductions, the horse in his own Horse and Train panel stems ultimately from the horse on the left of the Hermitage painting. The back-to-front pose used by Colville, however, is intended to establish an immediate relationship with the spectator, who automatically identifies himself with the animal. To Colville all subhuman creatures represent an ideal moral standard, since, lacking the freedom of choice which exalts man with his heavy responsibility, they automatically perform as their Creator has willed, and in so doing they become the moral example for humanity itself, but in the Horse and Train, the animal has an additional symbolic function. Placed well in the foreground, he brings the spectator into a humble position relative to the landscape, and therefore inspires in him the sense of humility and mystery which for Colville constitute the intrinsic qualities of every true artist. That Poussin had a similar respect for divinely created form is implicit in the parallel he drew between nature and art, and it is in this basic concern for form that Colville's real affinity with the great French classicist lies.

Recently Colville found reason to use the horse symbol again, in his panel Church and Horse (fig. 6), in which a sleek dark steed is depicted galloping swiftly towards an open wire gate in front of a deserted white church silvered by the half-light of an oncoming storm. One lone tombstone in the churchyard, overshadowed by a heavy grey sky about to dissolve in rain, strikes an ominous note, but in this painting the horse is apparently aware of the danger which threatens him. The agility of his lithe body and the speed with which he rushes forward are accentuated by his very asymmetrical position to the right of the picture, counterbalanced by the empty space opened up by the gate across the opposite half of the panel. This dynamic arrangement is heightened further by contrast with the rigidly symmetrical backdrop provided by the church set squarely in the centre of the composition. The picture space is consequently measured by the horse's path between the back plane established by the facade of the church, and the picture plane marked off by the wire fence at the front. Since this fence is half out of the picture, however, and it is obvious that the spirited animal is at the point of escaping through its wide-open gate into the free space clearly implied in front of the picture plane, the defined area again actually transcends the limits of the frame. The imagery, Colville explains, was inspired by the riderless horse in the funeral cortege of the late President John F. Kennedy, which he witnessed, of

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Fig. 5. Nicolas Poussin, TANCRED AND ERMINIA, Hermitage Museum, Leningrad (Photograph, courtesy of the Director of the Hermitage Museum).

Fig. 6. Alex Colvifle, CHURCH AND HORSE, Acrylic polymer emulsion, 211/16" X 27", 1964 (Banfer Gallery, New York).

course, only by television. We may conclude that the panel portrays a prophetic warning for man to return to the constructive values of life before it is too late. As the artist's thoroughly contemporary paintings demonstrate, his own positive approach already points the way. The solidity of form has been given pronounced emphasis, for example, in his panel June Noon (fig. 7). It depicts a square tent in which a remarkably sculpturesque nude stands out solidly against a diaphonous, atmospheric environment; in one hand she holds a white linen towel with which she appears to have dried herself, implying that she has just been swimming in the serene ocean revealed in the background through a net tent-flap. The straightness of both the horizontal sea and the upright tent-pole provides a strong foil for the graceful undulations of her form, undulations which are reinforced by the blown curves of the transparent
323 Dow: The Magic Realism of Alex Colville

door. The most meaningful foil, however, is the fullyclothed man on the beach who, apparently unconcerned with this arresting nude figure, is absorbed in contemplating the limitless sea through a pair of binoculars. Thus, the measurable or finite space formed by the shadowy enclosure of the tent in the foreground seems to cover the nude woman like a garment, by contrast with the stark outdoors in which the clothed man is literally bared to the intense brilliance of the full noonday sun, under whose revealing rays he discovers that he is face to face with the limitless sea in the background. In such an unprotected position the clothed figure seems more naked than the nude, as though the body, the exquisite cocoon of the soul, were a cherished haven against the spiritual exposure of an enquiring mind. By establishing the limits of the inner space, the tent especially seems to represent this protective cloak of physical reality, which anchors the soul like a tentpole, shielding it from the unfathomable reaches of the unknown realm of pure spirit. As spectators, however, we are invited to pass beyond this veil of measurable physical beauty and identify ourselves with the man as he contemplates the wide sea with the technological assistance of binoculars. Yet, in spite of the spiritual emphasis of his imagery, Coleville's explicit realism essentially represents his unequivocal acceptance of the objective world. Almost three decades ago, the English philosopher R. G. Collingwood had already recognized that there is a new development within the twentieth century which regards subject matter not only as an integral part of a work of art but as valuable for its own sake, quite apart from the artistic form in which it is expressed.8 Such an attitude is the exact antithesis of the art for art's sake theory on which, in general, the modern abstract movement is based. Indeed, the objective approach which Collingwood described, of necessity promotes a realistic style, since realistic art is first of all a declaration of the validity of the objective world, a validity which can never be given artistic recognition apart from some form of imitation. Collingwood, however, linked this new objective art with that of the cave men, the Ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, and the mediaeval Europeans, on the grounds that it is all magical. Magical art is that which evokes emotion for the spectator's benefit, a function which it discharges through its representational character. He claimed that mediaeval and recent modern art is definitely magical, while Renaissance art is not because, when art is proclaimed for its own sake without any subservient or utilitarian end, it ceases to be magical. Magic itself, separate from art, may be explained as representation intended to evoke emotion for some 8R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art, Oxford,

1938, p. 70.

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

F;g. 7. Alex Colville, JUNE NOON, Acrylic polymer emulsion, 30" X 30", 1963 (Collection of D. Erdman, Boston, Massachusetts).

practical function in life. Instead of producing catharsis as amusement does, and thus discharging emotion so that it cannot interfere with practical life, magic focuses emotions so that they are directed in a practical way as effective agents for the benefit of humanity. Magical activity consequently feeds life with the emotional charge it needs to drive it in a specific direction. Similarly, therefore, magical art is representational and controlled art, which evokes selected emotions with the intention of discharging those feelings into practical human affairs. It is, in fact, by this very means that Colville's extremely rational compositions are able to achieve an awesome reality which inspires profound respect in the onlooker. Moreover, to this artist it is these awe-inspiring qualities, properties which he interprets as a magical element, at which he deliberately and consciously aims. For him there are "two qualities which are essential to an artist-the sense of humility and the sense of mystery,"9 but it is equally important to promote a respon'From a lecture given by the artist at the New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, N. B., November, 1951.

sive awareness in the spectator. Just as Colville perceives the world with deep humility, so he requires his audience to offer it their homage also. "I regard paintings," he says, "as things produced not to relieve the artist, not to serve him, but to serve other people who will look at them; a cabinet-maker does not construct a chair in order to sit down in it himself. Thus I regard art not as a means of soliloquizing, but as a means of communication-a means of communication phrased, of course, in the non-verbal language of the plastic arts."10 In Colville's hands, even the common objects of ordinary daily life are able to promote sincere respect; a telephone booth, a milk truck, a sidewalk, or the branch of a tree, all gain a remarkable validity and significance in his paintings. This humble appreciation of the objective world is especially well demonstrated' by his panel Moon and Cow (fig. 8). The scene illustrates a landscape of gently rolling fields over which a luminous moon has just risen, while a sleeping cow in the foreground con-


This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Fig. 8. Alex Colville, MOON AND COW, Oil and synthetic resin, 27" X 36", 1963 (Collection of D. Erdman, Boston, Massachusetts).

tentedly hugs the earth under the vast canopy of a cloud-blown sky. The natural cover which the heavens supply for all earth's creatures is emphasized by the cattle shelter deliberately juxtaposed against the horizon behind the cow, like a man-made microcosm of earth's innate provision. The message is therefore perfectly clear. Each part of the divine creation has its own carefully appointed lot, in which every requirement is met. Even the cow's organic form enhances the idea that the earth is her proper home, for her spotted hide echoes the mottled effect of the cloud-ridden sky, while her sinuous outline mimicks the curving contour of the distant hills. How perfectly she belongs in her native environment! By analogy, man also does not need to reach beyond the planet where God has planted him. The bright moon is there explicitly to give light to the earth at night. It is therefore foolishness for man to attempt to travel to its cold surface or inhabit its airless continents. Like the cow, we too should accept our divinely ordained location in the universe. The remarkably luminous effect achieved by the skilful handling of the tonal contrasts has been calculated to make the representation of moonlight so haunting that it is virtually hypnotic. Bathed in such a glow, the earth becomes too utterly enchanting to allow one to be enticed beyond its sheltering bounds. The scene thus has a gripping impact which draws the onlooker so completely into its accurate world that he is content to acknowledge the limitations inherent in his own humanity. The powerful composition not only expresses a sense of serene satisfaction, but by its magical charge it
325 Dow: The Magic Realism of Alex Colville

generates this feeling in the spectator. In a very logical manner, therefore, the artist has communicated his experience of the real world, while at the same time revealing its significance. The work of art has thus become a medium for the communication of ideas. But it is an emotionally charged medium. Besides being precise in detail, it is intense in mood. Only by this magical combination can it inspire the awe which is the painter's avowed aim. Ever since he exhibited in New York at the Hewitt Gallery between 1953 and 1955, just a decade before he joined the Banfer Gallery in 1963, Colville's style has befrequently been labelled "Magic Realism," largely cause the dealer, Edwin Hewitt, specialized in the work of so-called American Magic Realists, like Jared French and George Tooker. The term seems to have been introduced into American art by Alfred H. Barr Jr., who organized an exhibition of "American Realism and Magic Realism" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1942,11 but the name stemmed from German usage. In 1925, Franz Roh used it in the title of his book on Post Expressionism12 as a reference to a mysterious quality evident in some European painting of that period.'3 This included works executed after World War catalogue by Alfred H. Barr Jr., Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1942. " Nach-Expressionismus Magischer Realismus, Probleme der Neuesten Europaeischen Malerei, Leipzig, 1925. " Ibid, preface. " See

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

I by such German artists as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz, which appeared in an exhibition at the Mannheim Kunsthalle during the summer of 1925 under the title "Die Neue Sachlichkeit,"'4 a term coined by Dr. Hartlaub, then director of the Mannheim Art Gallery. Hartlaub's New Objectivity pertained, however, particularly to contemporary German art, whereas Roh's name Magic Realism was broad enough to include other European styles as well, most notably the Italian Metaphysical Painting developed by Giorgio De Chirico during World War I. In its American application, Barr defined the name Magic Realism in 1942 as "a term sometimes applied to the work of painters who by means of an exact realistic technique try to make plausible and convincing their improbable, dreamlike and fantastic visions."15 The following year, in the catalogue for a second exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, this time entitled "American Realists and Magic Realists," Lincoln Kirstein linked Jerome Bosch with Magic Realism, while he distinguished simple Realism as a style through which, "by a combination of crisp hard edges, tightly indicated forms and the counterfeiting of material surface such as paper, grain of wood, flesh or leaf, our eyes are deceived into believing in the reality of what is rendered, whether factual or imaginary. Magic realism," he explained, "is an application of this technique to the fantastic subject. Magic realists try to convince us that extraordinary things are possible simply by painting them as if they existed. This is, of course, one of the several methods used by Surrealist painters-but none of the artists in this exhibition happens to be a member of the official Surrealist group."'16 Both Barr and Kirstein, therefore, equated Magic Realism with fantastic art, and the emphatic importance which Colville places on the awe-inspiring element would also appear to support the interpretation which links Magic Realism with Surrealism. In the First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, for example, Andre Breton stated that "the marvelous is always beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful." Such a criterion obviously and very appropriately connects Surrealism with the nineteenth-century Romantic outlook which likewise equated beauty with strangeness. Both of these movements, however, showed a subjective and introverted emphasis, and consequently developed an impulsive and emotional form. Nothing could be further from Colville's calculated rationality. Although his intellectual objectivity never adopts the hard realism of Verist art, the sense
11 Ibid, p. 134. 15 Barr, op. cit.

Fig. 9. Alex Colville, SKATER, Acrylic polymer emulsion, 441/2" X 271/2", 1964 (Banfer Gallery, New York).

of wonder which his paintings consistently contain inspires homage and respect rather than the fear and pity of Romantic sentiment. If his art arouses emotion, it does so in recognition and appreciation of his subject as valuable for itself, and not as in the case of the Romantic artist, to stimulate emotion for emotion's sake. Thus Colville's art consistently pays tribute to the validity of the objective world. In 1943, Dorothy C. Miller distinguished Magic Realism from simple Realism by saying that while both entail "sharp focus and precise representation," the subject of Realist art "has been observed in the outer world," whereas in Magic Realism it has been "contrived by the imagination.""17 This is reminiscent of De "I Chirico's statement: paint what I see with my eyes closed."18 George Tooker expressed a similar idea when he said, "I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it recurs as a dream; but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy. . . . Nature is so much richer than anything you can imagine."19 Colville sympathizes with Tooker's view, and explains his own concentrated manner as "observed reality metamor" Op. cit. ' James Thrall Soby, Contemporary Painters, New York, ' Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York,

"Dorothy C. Miller and Alfred H. Barr Jr. (editors), American Realists and Magic Realists, New York, 1943, Introduction by Lincoln Kirstein.

1948, p. 113.

1957,pp. 210-211.

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Fig. 10. Alex Colville, AUGUST,Acrylic polymer emulsion, 17" X 34", 1964 (Banfer Gallery, New York).

phosed by or blended with total experience." As Beckmann said, "If you want to express the invisible, devote yourself entirely to the visible."20 Dorothy Miller, however, also considered the fantastic landscape of the nineteenth-century American painter Thomas Cole a part of what she refers to as "the magic realism which often appears in American folk

Emile Langui,

on the other hand, related

Magic Realism to the intellectual art of Neo-Classicism, "but without its reactionary character."22 Kirstein was more correct when he connected the movement primarily with the contemporary international scene, particularly the work of Otto Dix in Germany, Pierre Roy in France, and Edward Wadsworth in England.23 Colville would also include such Belgian artists as Paul Delvaux. Generally speaking, the style is characterized on an international level by an impersonal insistence on the individual objects of immediate reality so that they preserve their separate and clear identities with a precision which endows them with an emotional presence. It is in just this manner that Colville's subjects seem to gain a haunting validity which not only commands our respect but is almost hypnotic in the power of its impact. It is, however, his ability to see the universal in the particular, and the whole through the part, which imbues his work with its enduring harmony and all-encompassing tranquility. To the catholic appeal of realism itself, he adds that element of magic which makes ordinary things extraordinary by enabling them to transcend the bounds of the specific and gain the monumentality which pertains to all universals. What Jacques Maritain has said of imitation in relation to Aristotle's theory applies well to Colville's art: "What is 'imitated'-or made visibly


Soby, op. cit., p. 91.

Op. cit.

known-is not natural appearances but secret or transapparent reality through natural appearances.'"'24 Having seen the intrinsic purposefulness of man's natural environment, Colville compels us to see it too, and in seeing it to comprehend our relationship to it. In essence, his style is realism within the largest possible context. Referring to the need to recognize the validity of the objective world, he once recalled Eliot's comment that Baudelaire was trying to get to heaven by the back door, "I think any door will do, and this is the virtue of pop art. Of course I think I preceded them in many ways, in the use of cars and trucks and such ordinary things conceived in terms of absolute reality. And my preoccupation with figures in spatial environments is what makes Segal's sculpture set-pieces so interesting to me. Also, the question of vulgarity enters all this; 'pure' art is never vulgar; good art must be vulgar in some way and to some degree. Caravaggio knew this." Man's acceptance of the objective world became in 1964 the actual theme of the panel Skater (fig. 9), a work which took Colville six months to execute. "The 'Skater' is about being," he explains. "It is about controlled but relaxed conscious movement in a kind of elemental, voidlike aspect of nature-a kind of environment which I think many people find frightening. However, the Skater is not frightened." Based on Le Corbusier's Modulor of a square placed in a harmonic position between two contiguous squares, the entire panel forms a golden section rectangle, in which the ice is the top of the square from which the golden section is drawn, while the top and bottom of the Modulor coincides with the top and bottom of the large golden section rectangle which forms the perimeter of the painting, and the supporting leg of the Skater is the angle of the tangent of the Modulor. On this left leg, which also Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (The Mellon Lectures), New York, 1955, p. 164. '

32. p. 23

" Emile Langui, 50 Years of Modern Art, London, 1959, Op. cit.
Dow: The Magic Realism of Alex Colville

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

establishes the edge of the picture-space, she is depicted as a very solid form gliding in an extremely four-dimensional manner away from the picture-plane into the background, her hands clasped behind her, while her right leg is so sculpturesquely raised toward her back that it actually appears to project in front of the pictureplane marked off by the supporting leg. As she skims towards a glacier-like bank of snow whose outline is reflected along the icy path it terminates, the solid form of her entire body echoes the jagged pattern of her cold environment, in much the same way that the cow in the earlier panel echoed the curving contours of her peaceful landscape. The angular shapes in the later panel are deliberately intended to enhance the harsh atmosphere of rock and ice that form the wintery blue-grey setting for the action. Yet the steady aim and unswerving decision of the figure brings her into complete harmony with the rugged elements which form her natural habitat, so that all is grace, serenity, and composure. This is the picture of a human being who has come to grips with reality. For such a person, the problem 'to be or not to be' has been resolved, since courage has overcome the anxiety which according to Paul Tillich is the result of the constant tension existing between being and the non-being which is embraced within it;25 the courage to be is the courage to affirm one's own reasonable nature,26 but the self can only be itself when it is associated with a structured universe, a world to which it belongs even although at the same time it remains a separate individual.27 Self-affirmation as an individual necessarily includes the affirmation of oneself as a 'participant.'28 Thus from a realistic point of view, the particular only has the power to be by its participation in the universal.29 Courage itself is the power to overcome fear, in this case the fear of participation with environment; as the painter has said, "The Skater is not frightened." Tillich tried to express the same idea in theological terms when he said that "Resurrection is not an event that might happen in some remote future, but it is the power of the New Being to create life out of death here and now, today and tomorrow. Where there is a New Being, there is resurrection, namely the creation into eternity out of every moment of time.'"'3 Significantly, Colville does not have to use the abstract terms of Paul Tillich in order to express acceptance and reconciliation. For example, in his panel August (fig. 10), done in 1964 immediately after the Skater and con5

Paul Tillich,

The Courage To Be, New Haven, 1952,

p. 34.

Ibid, p. 13. p. 94.

The New Being, New York, 1955, p. 24.

cerned with the same theme, 'being,' the flowers especially affirm the validity of their existence by the very fact that they grow and blossom regardless of human attention. The artist once described this work as a "lilies of the field" painting. The reference is, of course, to the Sermon on the Mount (St. Matthew, 6:28), so that the calm and tranquillity of the painting must be understood as an expression of that freedom from anxiety which abides in the knowledge of a heavenly Father's love. The extreme objectivity of Colville's entire style is intimately bound up with the sense of destiny which he has for all creation. Pronounced objectivity is, indeed, so consistent an aim for him that he not only refuses to discuss his work or expose it to public view while it is in the process of creation, but he carefully conceals all the technique and labour of its production. Any sort of subjective handling must be scrupulously avoided, since exhibitionism of any kind would detract from the impersonal world which is his true subject-matter. It is an approach which the artist explains as a homage to nature. Yet the sense of wonder with which he regards the objective world logically implies awe and reverence before its Maker as well, in much the same way as it did earlier for St. Francis of Assisi. Human creation as an expression of respect for divine creation is by extension a homage to the divine Creator, so that painting itself becomes an act of worship. Of his choice of themes, Colville has said, "I paint almost always people and animals whom I consider to be wholly good."31To be wholly good in Coville's estimation appears to mean to be acting properly or morally, to be performing right action, which means, of course, that which accords with a divinely appointed purpose. Since it involves right action, this criterion of goodness follows a very Aristotelian concept. Children are supremely themselves when they are playing, hounds are functioning properly when they are hunting, and even inanimate objects like trains are only complete and whole when they are performing to their highest capacity by moving at full speed. Whatever their potential may be, all forms are proclaimed as justifiable in themselves when they are doing what they were created to do. But, within the limitation of his human capacity, creation itself is the proper function of man, what he is destined by Providence to perform; above everything else, man is a creator, one who constructs designs within a human framework, so that it may truly be said that he has been made in the Divine Image. As such a creature himself, Colville's precise faithfulness to the natural order is his humble acknowledgement of its divine origin, since it is through the details of this


Ibid, p. 88. Ibid, p. 89. 1From the artist's statement in the catalogue Six East Coast Painters, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1961.

Paul Tillich, "?

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

world that he has recognized the purposefulness of creation in general. All he wants to do, therefore, is all that he as a man can do, namely imitate the creation of God. Such a destiny is also the natural goal of the two qualities which for Colville constitute the basic essentials of every true artist, for it is in the sense of humility and mystery that the magic of all reality resides. The author is a graduate in art history from Toronto University (B.A.) and Bryn Mawr College (M.A. and Ph.D.), and has also spent several years at the Sorbonne in Paris and the Courtauld Institute in London. Her publications occur in the Journal of the Warburg and

Courtauld Institutes, the Art Bulletin, the Gazette des Beaux Arts, the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and Canadian Art. She is Associate Professor in the School of Art, University of Iowa. She reports that her understanding of Alex Colville's paintings is based on long discussions with him while they were colleagues for two years in the Fine Arts Department of Mount Allison University, and on letters received since that time, both of which are the sources for the undocumented quotations in the text. Because these were essentially private statements, she has not identified which were spoken and which were written, but all are authentic and have been checked by the artist. ,

John Coolidge The Artist and the Art Center

Surely nothing is more obvious than that the arts are booming in America today. Not only are we producing more literature, more music, more painting, more sculpture and more fine architecture, but for the first time in our history the art that we are producing has consistent international importance. Over most of the last three hundred years America has been culturally colonial, that is to say, we imported more ideas than we exported. Now the cultural exchange is at least in balance. We cannot complain of a brain drain. As unbiased and competent an observor as Raymond Aaron recently pointed out that all significant American writing is translated almost at once into French, whereas it may be years before the work of contemporary English writers is translated. This boom in cultural activities deeply involves education-whether one thinks in terms of finger painting in pre-school, or the miniatures the Metropolitan Museum so widely distributes through the Book-of-theMonth Club, or of the concern of college students with contemporary artists. Talk to any well-known artist over fifty, be he a musician, an author or a painter. He will tell you wryly how he and his wife are harassed by the students who are writing theses about his work. Secondary education has been somewhat exempt from this involvement in the arts. There has been a certain suspiciousness about any artistic activity more serious than the high school band. To investigate the reasons for this suspiciousness would take us too far
329 Coolidge: The Artist and the Art Center

afield. Suffice it to say that those who are unenthusiastic about the arts in secondary schools seems about equally divided between those who think the arts, in contrast to say social studies, are not sufficiently serious and those who regard the arts, in contrast to say mathematics, as dangei ously overstimulating. Hopefully this situation is changing. It is characteristic that a handful of the oldest New England boarding schools are making it change, notably Andover, Exeter and Governor Drummer. It is also characteristic that they began by taking action. A building such as this so obviously makes sense that nobody felt the need of philosophizing about why it makes sense. There are, perhaps, three reasons for the existence of a building such as this. The first is that most people begin to form the pattern of their permanent interests during their teens. If a boy is going to be a doctor, he is apt to start thinking about this as a career when he is in high school. If bird-watching is to be a hobby, he is apt to discover at least parallel interests during those same years. This is also true of the arts, but as regards painting and sculpture there is an additional factor of even greater importance. For most of the last five hundred years there has never been an adequate professional program for the training of artists. All of the greatest geniuses have been essentially self-taught, but all of them have received some training, and what training they did receive was during their high school years. To judge by history, if any of the graduates of Governor

This content downloaded from on Mon, 19 Aug 2013 11:22:29 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions