The Canadian painter Alex Colville (1920-2013) was that most curious of artistic hybrids, both a realist and a modernist. Art critic Jeffrey Myers, in an article entitled “Dangerously Real,” called Colville “one of the greatest modern realist painters.”
Colville’s paintings reproduce ordinary objects, people, scenes—indeed the more ordinary, the better—with near-photographic realism. Each of his works took months to produce, with layer upon layer of thinned paint painstakingly applied dot by dot to a primed wooden panel, and the opaque surface finally sealed with transparent lacquer—all with the purpose of depicting reality.
But what kind of reality? That of surface appearances? Here is where Colville’s modernism comes in. With deceptively simple means, his art draws us far beyond the surface into much deeper waters. Beneath the ordinary veneer, always something odd, sombre, or ominous lurks, suggesting loneliness, isolation, anxiety, even violence or doom. Thus his use of realistic content has little to do with naturalism; more than just reflecting reality, he parses it, producing pictorial parables, or what he himself called “myths of mundanity.”
Consider the painting “Dog and Priest.” The figure of the man is in a relaxed pose and the water appears relatively calm; at first glance this may seem but a quiet, reflective interlude. But wait: The man’s face is completely obscured by a troubled-looking black dog with overly-red eyes. We know the man is a priest from the painting’s title, but we might also guess this from his black clerical suit. His priest’s collar, however, is invisible, hidden (humorously) by the dog’s collar. (In fact a priest’s collar is known colloquially as a “dog collar.”) Moreover the two collars together form the shape of a cross.
What is going on here? It may help to know that Colville believed that people are evil by nature but that animals are innocent, and that animals accordingly can have the effect of protecting and purifying us. Add to this the fact that a dog is a symbol of faithfulness. In this painting the dog seems actively on guard, watching out for the priest, even absorbing his anxiety so that the man can enjoy a few tranquil moments. By entitling the painting “Dog and Priest” (note the word order), Colville invites the question, “Which is which?” The two figures are so similarly garbed as to suggest that the dog may be serving as priest to the man.
This is a far cry from the sort of Christianity that believes animals have no souls and will not gain entrance to heaven. We know that there are trees in heaven—why wouldn’t there be animals? Are there really no fish in the River of Life? Indeed “wherever the river flows swams of living creatures will live and there will be multitudes of fish” (Ez 47:9). Again, if the kingdom of heaven is devoid of animals, how is it possible that “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat” (Is 11:6)? And what are we to make of the fact that the beings closest to God’s throne are neither humans nor angels but four “living creatures”? As Psalm 84:3 puts it:
Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near Your altar,
O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
In Colville’s painting, without the presence of the dog with his collar there would be no cross, no evidence of sanctifying grace. Indeed the two bodies of the man and the dog produce the shape of a triangle—perhaps hinting at the Trinity? Or if not the Trinity, they certainly suggest a shared unity and stability. Thanks to Fido, these two of God’s creatures will be saved (if at all) together.
Colville’s work, it turns out, is full of black animals: dogs, cats, crows, horses. Consider his most famous painting, “Horse and Train.” Note again the word order of the title: Just as the dog obscured the priest, in this picture the horse, far larger than the train, dominates.
This horse is big and black and it is loping down the tracks. Immediately the realistic illusion is interrupted by a modernist mystery: Why is a riderless horse cantering straight toward an oncoming train? One answer: Because an invisible rider is bent on forcing a confrontation with the human world and its technology. (Another of Colville’s paintings portrays the black, riderless horse from John F. Kennedy’s funeral cortège, prancing before a white church.)
Who will win this encounter between horse and train? Common sense says that a speeding train will destroy a horse. But that is not what the painting says. On the contrary, the painting suggests an entirely unexpected, irrational outcome.
Look closely at the train: Is it really speeding? To my eye, it seems almost hesitant, as if slowing down. Its steam is an enigmatic violet, color of the unconscious. Perhaps it is beginning to wonder: Who is this who is rushing so purposefully toward me? Even the curve of the tracks (viewed from the train’s perspective) suggests a question mark. The horse, by contrast, has a strong aura of purpose. It is focused, quietly determined, relentless. This is a “dark horse”—an expression that describes a competitor about whom little is known but who comes out of nowhere to be victorious. In fact Colville’s original title for this work was “A Dark Horse Against an Armored Train,” a line borrowed from a poem by Roy Campbell:
Against a regiment I oppose a brain
and a dark horse against an armored train.
In short, my money is on the horse to win. For this is no ordinary horse; it is an apocalyptic, angelic horse.
Colville’s animals do indeed play a role similar to that of angels in earlier art: They are warners, watchers, witnesses, messengers. No chubby, comfy cherubs, these; they are holy ones. Colville himself remarked, “Part of my fascination with animals is that I think of them as incapable of evil. For me, a cat, cow, or dog is really like an angel in a certain way. My admiration for animals is unconditional.”
Now look back at the dog in “Dog and Priest.” Unlike the horse, he seems worried. Very worried. He is seeing something, or aware of something, that the man is not. At the deepest level, this dog is a realist. He senses what is at stake in human life, and he desires not only to guard the priest but to warn him, to wake him up. The relaxed priest gazes out upon a scene that he probably sees as calm, when actually the water and the sky look as troubled as the dog. Nature is trying to communicate with this man through its angelic messengers, but the man is oblivious.
In this age of both widespread crisis and numbed indifference, Alex Colville gives us new eyes with which to see the dark horse galloping toward us down the tracks.