A retired war artist who had documented the acceleration of technology and the destruction of flesh, both around battlefields and in Auschwitz, Alex Colville abandoned the figure for years after the Second World War. He finally re-introduced it with a series of nude, Grace type figures, dotting the shore to which he had returned. As his career progressed, Colville drew far closer to the technological theodicy promulgated by Marshall McLuhan, carrying on the vitalist fantasies of Bertram Brooker. Like the latter, and for much the same reasons, he regarded his work as a very special kind of primitivism, claiming that his own work has the “characteristics of an essentially unsophisticated, that is to say, primitive art” (quoted in Burnett 18) one which was intrinsically bound to a spiritual understanding of a new and technologically advanced world. But where Brooker’s figures exuded a vital quality that radiated through space and frequently fragmented it, Colville’s are only devices for measurement that flatten the figure as an ‘arrested happening’ (Dow 127) intended to testify to the eternity of Being: The hallucinatory re-codification of space and time with the irreality of a neo-Thomist theodicy. And yet, in spite of Colville’s (and many of his commentators’) insistence on the unity, harmony and measure of his work, built right into this hallucination of eternal order is its immanent collapse. And it is this, as much as the tension which he manages in the ambiguous, decontextualized moments he creates, that causes a further problem, one less moral than logico-mathematical.
The trinity of the measure, the machine and the animal that runs throughout so much of his oeuvre is present in the nudes that have spanned his career. In general, he portrays the female body in much the same manner as he renders the domestic animals that populate his work. His male figures function more like the machines which dot his landscapes. The female is a figure and the male is a device, but both are only means to the establishment of measurement for the territorial markings of God. These markings, whether objects (ladders, furniture etc.) or figures (human or animal, vegetation is rare) provide delimiting zones within which the ‘free’ can operate. Its codification into a frozen, statuesque gesture is a means to mark the presence of God within the domain of the quotidian.
Colville’s figures do not perch on the landscape, surveying it from a domestic vantage as in the nudes of Edwin Holgate; it has already been completely domesticated. They aren’t tourists; they are always at home. There is no wilderness, no alterity. Colville’s nudes rarely have faces; they have minimally articulated heads which serve as totemic indexes of both personal history and the presence of Divinity. Their eyes are dim and their features, regardless of light sources, are bathed in an obscuring dankness. When they are not cut off at the neck, they are deliberately obscured by the heads of animals or by either a technical device or its simulacra. Burnett explains that “his love of animals is matched by his easy acceptance of the mechanized modern world.” (Burnett 113) They are both Innocent facets of the world from which the figure and the device can calculate the ambit of their possibly instances of Grace.
In a sense, Colville’s bodies are always nude. It is a recovery of the Innocence which was sought by everyone from Paul Peel to Prudence Heward, but it is given a very different tenor. Covered in light from all angles with minimal or no projected shadow, they are bathed in the light of God, an illumination which allows nothing to be hidden. It is here that their eroticism resides, the eroticism of a couple who are constantly being watched by the Divine. This variety of supernatural voyeurism approximates Colvilleꞌs notion of freedom – the space of minimal distinction for the prisoner of Godꞌs love. It is for this reason that there is such a stark contrast between the two basic models of nude figures in his work. There are the idealized, extraordinarily sedentary figures that seem to be constructed from the sand and are comparable to the maternal fantasies of Henry Moore. And then there are the figures of a positive banality – usually the artist and his wife in various states of undress – the occasional presence of undergarments operating as the fetish object of an existential choice; a fetish object, not so much in the sexual sense, but in the spiritual one, as the signature of the Divine in a space which might otherwise be transgressed.
Like nearly everything else in his world, the nude is a matter for, and of, measurement. The dummy is its double. The nude figure, regardless of whatever biographical marks it may bear, is fundamentally a unit of measure within the grid. Their nudity registers as the redundant echo of this grid, the feedback mechanism that allows for the denuding of space as the manifestation of the Divine. It is for this reason in part that Colville took such exception to non-objective art and its denudation of space. For the non-objective presents space voyeuristically – the viewer surveys it as spectacle or reverie, not as the entrance into a discipline of understanding to attain Grace. Voyeurism is the reserve of the Divine. The non-objective is exhibitionistic rather than humble. For Colville, the nude body serves as the expression of this necessary humbleness. This is the meaning of Colville’s figures and their space, the intermingling and reversibility between these two terms as components of the calculus of God. And yet, in spite of Colville’s oft-professed love for Nietzsche’s notion of amor fati, and his insistence on a teleological optimism, his work has been consistently met with impressions of doom and death. In fact, it’s odd that someone with such and affection for the German philosopher would have such blinders on when it came to his quite active use of some of the more perverse and sadistic aspects of Christian imagery, all carefully sublimated and cleansed before being monumentalized. “It is indeed an architectonic realism, based on a very logical understanding of the world which it imitates.” (Dow 82) The architectural aspects of Holgate are thoroughly exasperated in Colville. Doubled up by their surroundings, the figure no longer is an avenue of escape, but one of totalization in a space whose horizon negates any possibility of escape.
Burnett, David G. Colville. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1983.
Colville, Alex. A Book of Hours: Labours of the Months. London: Fischer Fine Art, 1979.
Dow, Helen J. The Art of Alex Colville. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972.