Skip to main content

Seven Crows (1980).ALEX COLVILLE

There's a way in which, when artists take on the designation of national treasure – be they Tom Thomson, Emily Carr or Alex Colville – people stop really seeing their work and see instead the carapace of conventional interpretation that has hardened around them. With Mr. Colville's death, perhaps, comes liberation from those sorts of narratives, and the opportunity for revision. As his paintings have ascended into the realms of the ultra blue-chip, so too has his reputation solidified as a purveyor of scenes of tranquil rural life and domestic ritual.

But Mr. Colville's painting Pacific, from 1967, tells us otherwise. The picture is one of the artist's finest, a compositional clenched fist that is organized around the dynamic between a man (fleshy, vulnerable) and a gun (cold, clinical, an instrument of termination). The scene is still, but it could hardly be described as peaceful. Instead, like many of Mr. Colville's best works, it is motionless, but taut with feeling.

The idea of men and their weapons haunted Mr. Colville throughout his life. Having witnessed the heaped corpses in the concentration camp at Belsen, he had sustained some early shocks. We now have words for these sorts of feelings – post-traumatic stress disorder, the inability to shake off the trauma, to see life again as whole and good, and the unnerving awareness of how close to the cliff edge of mortality we walk every day, whether we acknowledge it or not. That knowledge trembles beneath the surface of the world as he perceives it.

Rather than preparing to defend himself from outside assault, though, Mr. Colville's subject here seems to contemplate his own extinction, and is positioned at the threshold between the structure of daily life and the flux and freedom of eternity, sky and sea. Positioned, perhaps even captive, within an architecture that is rigid, and made to seem more so by the ruler on the drafting table, he contemplates release. His body, perhaps soon to fall victim to a ballistic blow, is modelled tenderly, taking on the light of day with a luminous sheen. One imagines the sensation of the ocean air on his naked flesh as he weighs his options. The sweep of the horizon has halted him in this moment, and our eye is drawn to the watch on his wrist, which signals the fatefulness of this instant that can never be regained or repaired.

But the gun also sits near to us, its handle seeming ready for our grip. Are we the threat? Do we have it in us to kill? Human history tells us that we do, of course, and barbarously. I can recall hearing Mr. Colville speak in Toronto 20 years ago, taking special pains to explain his interest in painting his family's pets – the dogs and cats. These pictures are often seen as Colville-lite, yet his interest in these subjects is rooted in his curiosity about the human species. "They are angels in our midst," he said that day, pure goodness, without guile, without vengeance or malice or pride, attentive and capable of selfless love in ways that we can only aspire to. Their example underscores the complexity and darkness of our own natures.

"I see life as inherently dangerous. I have an essentially dark view of the world and human affairs. ... Anxiety is the normality of our age," Mr. Colville was quoted as saying.

In Mr. Colville's later years, his paintings softened, often seeming to celebrate daily life in ways that were less charged. Perhaps the ghosts of war had left him at last, and with them the driving, anxious force behind his most accomplished works. But we are indebted to him for his record of his experience, one shared by thousands of Canadians, then and now, who witnessed the harrowing truths of human capability, and lived to tell the tale.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article referenced Mr. Colville's presence on Juno Beach on D-Day. He was not present at the event.