You know Alex Colville. Perhaps not by name, but you already know the painting. A pair of binoculars dominates the canvas, belonging to a flaxen haired woman who is combing the horizon in search of something. Her perch on the upper deck of a ferry obscures her man behind her, with both figures framed by the startling blues of the sea and the sky. Colville’s painting, To Prince Edward Island, is oh-so-Canadian in its subject matter, and possessive of just the right amount of frisson to make it unforgettable.
For the uninitiated, Colville is important: he represented Canada at the 1966 Venice Biennale, has exhibited across the globe, and received a Governor General’s Award in 2003. No small feats. The centenary of Colville’s birth is later this month, on Aug. 24, and in celebration, the Canadian Mint has re-imagined the artist’s 1967 circulation coin designs in pure gold. But what arguably comes as more of a delight is that the Colville family is releasing 10 of his paintings.
These are special works; of the lot, many were unframed until now, and the majority has never been exhibited. The late Toronto-born Colville, who spent most of his life in Nova Scotia, got his start as an artist during World War II. These unseen paintings hail from around that time, 1939 to 1946.
When folks think of artists, perhaps an image of someone working frenetically against the clock comes to mind. Colville was the opposite; his meticulous, obsessive approach yielded but a couple paintings per year, each one addressed with the eye of an architect. Paint was applied in a painstaking manner — one dot followed by the next — with the artwork cautiously fleshed out until deemed finished. Capturing anxiety on canvas long before the word was synonymous with modern day life, Colville’s paintings have a disquieting quality, as if hanging onto the moment before the disaster struck.
“There’s no doubt he was an important artist and the work draws many people in,” says Gisella Giacalone, owner-director of the Mira Godard Gallery in Yorkville, which has represented Colville’s work for more than four decades. “Even if you don’t know a lot about Canadian art, they’re quite lasting.”
Giacalone notes that Colville would spend his time quietly painting in Nova Scotia, without ever dropping any hints to the gallery as to the subject matter.
“We would just know there would be a painting every year or so,” she says. One morning they’d arrive at the gallery and a fax from Colville would announce the imminent arrival of a new painting. No matter the work, Giacalone says they were “always very thought provoking, very challenging, very lasting.”
The uncovered paintings act as omens for Colville’s future works.
“They show the confidence of a young artist,” says Giacalone. She rattles off the subjects the pieces address; a number are landscapes, some are nocturnal scenes, yet another features a standing figure. All are painted in oil and demonstrate Colville’s yearning to be taken seriously as an artist.
Winter Scene (1940) examines a singular tree positioned in front of a blood red building, with the snow-filled ground dramatizing the contrast between the rhythms of the natural and the strictness of the man-made.
Meanwhile Seascape (1939) brings life to a summery Nova Scotian seascape, gently reminding the viewer of the power of nature. Giacalone says that these paintings will be unfamiliar to most people — even to collectors of Colville’s work.
“Here was an artist who was not very prolific, but his work was appreciated, collected and exhibited outside of Canada,” Giacalone says. “There’s always a quiet elegance in the work; that’s been there from the beginning.”
Mira Godard Gallery will be holding an Alex Colville exhibit in Spring 2021. Prices are available at the gallery.