Live and let die

The Alex Colville retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario is spectacular. It is huge, half a dozen rooms worth, all of his best works. Everyone knows at least one: the horse racing toward the train, the woman staring through binoculars, Colville with a pistol on the table. Like any good art, his individual pieces get engraved into your mind. 

Colville seems like a modern painter because of his realistic style, but in fact he is from another era. He was a war artist during the Second World War, painting in The Netherlands with Canadian troops and rendering horrific scenes from Belsen concentration camp. When he was teaching at Mount Allison University in the 1950s and 1960s his work was already so renowned that the National Gallery of Canada acquired half a dozen of his canvases. The country supported artists in those days to an extent it no longer does, and we are the lesser for it.

To be sure, Alex Colville was a unique talent. Colville’s work in 1940 when he was a student at the Ontario College of Art was already fluid and powerful. Few students since have matched Colville’s God-given gift. 

But some aspects of the exhibit are wrong-headed. For reasons best known to the curators, they decided his work could not simply stand on its own. As a result, there’s a video discussing writer Alice Munro, prose panels about Colville paintings that appear in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and strangest of all, an attempt to tie Colville’s interest in guns to the Coen brothers movie, No Country for Old Men. Here we have a superstar and feel a need to bolster his genius by aligning him with others. So Canadian; so unnecessary. 

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