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The vision of Alex Colville

The Story

In a twilight image, a black horse runs along railway tracks, toward the light of an oncoming train. A woman on a boat gazes out through her binoculars and into your eyes. These curious points of life (and, some say, death) mark the hyper-realist vision of Alex Colville, one of Canada's most celebrated modern painters. In this 1962 CBC Television interview, the enigmatic artist discusses where he draws his inspiration, the importance of living in the environment he does, and his working processes.

Medium: Television
Program: The Lively Arts
Guests: Alex Colville, Michel Lambeth
Interviewer: Henry Comor
Broadcast Date: Jan. 23, 1962
length: 16:00

Did You know?

• Alex Colville has been a preeminent figure on Canada's art scene since the Second World War. His works celebrate what he calls "the idea that ordinary things are important" - staring fixedly at commonplace moments of middle-class life. But his meticulous, calculated "hyper-realist" style creates a mood of disquiet that both attracts and disturbs.

• Alex Colville was born on born on Aug. 24, 1920 in Toronto. In 1929 he moved with his family to Nova Scotia. He graduated from Mount Allison University in 1942.  He died July 16, 2013, aged 92.

• In 1942 Colville married Rhoda Wright. In 1973 they moved into the Wolfville, N.S. house where Rhoda was born. The couple had three sons and a daughter, and Colville's wife and children have all been used as models for his paintings. Rhoda Colville died Dec. 29, 2012.

• During the Second World War, Colville enlisted and in 1944 was chosen to serve as a member of the elite Canadian War Art Program. For two years he was given almost free rein to travel and paint Allied activities throughout Europe. He painted English training camps, the Canadian Navy landing at Toulon, and the 3rd Infantry in Belgium.

• At war's end, Colville was sent to paint images of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Bergen-Belsen (where teen diarist Anne Frank was killed in March 1945) became a refugee camp for "displaced persons" immediately following the war.

• Colville's work became very popular in Germany. He once told CBC Radio that Germans know how bad things can (and did) get. "Everything in my paintings that frightens Canadians seems to appeal to Germans."

• After the war Colville took a job teaching art and art history at Mount Allison. He said he chose teaching instead of working as a commercial artist so that he could continue to paint on the side. He also considered becoming an architect. In 1963 he devoted himself to painting full time.

• Alex Colville has a particular fondness for painting animals. "I have a great rapport with animals," he once said. "I don't have a great rapport with people."

• Colville was chosen to design a set of coins to celebrate Canada's centennial in 1967. The same year he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada (he was elevated to Companion, the order's highest level, in 1982).

• In 2000 the National Gallery of Canada mounted a major retrospective of his life's work called Alex Colville: Milestones. In 2003 he was honoured with a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.

• Many of Colville's paintings, including To Prince Edward Island, Nude and Dummy, Church and Horse, Hound in Field, Pacific, Couple On Beach, Woman With Revolver and Horse and Train are familiar to art lovers worldwide. His work can be found in gallery collections including the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou in Paris.



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