Robert Fulford's column about a self-portrait by Alex Colville

(The National Post, October 31, 2000)

Two months ago, in the week he turned 80, Alex Colville put the finishing touches to a painting that will unsettle many of his admirers and demonstrate that even in old age he remains amazingly unpredictable. It's a full-length nude self-portrait, titled Studio, about two feet high by one foot wide, in which the naked Colville looks ancient, battered and alone. Gigantic scars run down his body, souvenirs of three successful major operations in recent years, made necessary by cancer and a heart condition.

The painting portrays old age without mercy or visual euphemism, and it seems even more powerful when we reflect that the vulnerable, bow-legged old man it depicts is the same determined, articulate Alex Colville who has always seemed entirely in control of his life.

If this picture indicated a surprising turn in Colville's work, its immediate fate was equally unexpected. When Colville shipped it from his home in Wolfville, N.S., to the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto, he predicted that it would be hard to sell; after all, it lacked both the charm of many Colville pictures and the mysterious situations they often contain. And it was forbidding: Many Colvilles are death-haunted, but this time death leaps off the canvas and hits the viewer between the eyes.

Nevertheless, a serious inquiry came from a collector in England only a few days after Godard put it on her Web site. Phone calls followed, a clear photograph was sent, and he bought Studio for $150,000, the same price the National Gallery recently paid for Living Room, a somewhat gentler study of old age that Colville finished in January. The British collector (who prefers to remain anonymous, at least for the moment) owns no other Colvilles but apparently knows something about him.

Possibly the collector's interest was stimulated by the phrase "one of the greatest modern realist painters," which Jeffrey Myers applies to Colville in the current issue of Modern Painters, an excellent art magazine published in London. Myers, a much-admired biographer (most recently of George Orwell), spent several days at Colville's home, interviewing him and analyzing his paintings. He calls his article "Dangerously Real: Clarity and mystery in the work of Canadian painter Alex Colville." Myers discovered Colville's work only a couple of years ago, and his article has the enthusiasm and fresh insights of a recent convert.

There was something wonderfully right about an 80-year-old's work on old age selling across the Atlantic on the Web. No doubt something like this has happened before, but not to Colville. "I was astonished," he said -- astonished that it sold in a twinkling, astonished that it sold on the Web.

Curiously, the painting shows Colville older than he seems in real life. When I last saw him, in May, he was obviously a young 80-year-old; you could sell him for 75, maybe 70. He hasn't changed, but in the painting he looks like a weary 90. I called him on Saturday to raise this point. His answer was that in Studio he's alone, which is of course the way that neither I nor anyone else can see him. "When one is alone, and not in conversation, one tends to look older, more melancholy, perhaps."

Tonight at 7 on CBC the new painting will makes its TV debut, appearing briefly in a documentary with the same title, Studio: The Life and Times of Alex Colville. Andrew Gregg, the director, has made successful films on Christopher and Mary Pratt and on Robert Bateman. He draws a warm and reflective portrait of his subject in Wolfville and at the opening of his 80th-birthday exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Colville comes across as one of those people who are humble before the tasks that confront them, yet confident, or more than confident, about their work. He talks about the necessary egotism of the painter: "The very decision to become an artist means you are egocentric. The basic assumption is that your life is interesting or that you have something to say about life."

At one point he shows us a series of German books whose publishers have put his paintings on their covers, just as many Canadian publishers do. It's not hard to guess why: Colville paintings fit comfortably with fiction because they often hint at an imagined world of relationships and a subliminal level of emotions. His symbols register as fragments of stories that are never entirely told, rather the way Paul Simon writes lyrics as fragments of narrative. What Colville shows is engaging, but he hints that something even more gripping is happening offstage, not that he would be so literal as to show it. In the TV program, he quotes with evident pleasure a French critic who remarked that in Colville there is always something terrible happening, over the horizon, just out of sight.

Unlike many interviewers, Gregg had the nerve to ask Rhoda Colville (the artist's wife, model and muse for 58 years) how she has felt about being the nude model in so many of his paintings. She admits to a little discomfort. When she goes into a store in Wolfville, she knows that everyone there has seen her naked, in print or on TV. Furthermore, modelling is hard work. But for the first time, so far as I know, she explains that for emotional reasons it was probably the right choice. She admits to a streak of jealousy, acknowledging that maybe she wouldn't have been altogether happy if Alex had been spending that much time with another nude model.

She also provides the most touching moment in the documentary. There's a reference to their youth having been spent in more sexually conservative times, and she mentions that she met Alex when they were students at Mount Allison University. They were friendly, they talked together, they exchanged opinions on art, but there was evidently no romance. It was a platonic friendship, as people used to say. Then something exciting happened. As they were crossing the road one day, Alex took her hand. "That was quite a thrill," she says. "Can you imagine that? That was the beginning of the end of the platonic friendship." Colville has always been full of surprises, many of them quite exciting.

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