Alex Colville: Return


144 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-55054-982-0
DDC 759.11






Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is the editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.


Curator Tom Smart firmly situates Alex Colville, an artist who combines
“what is known and recognizable with what is unknown and
mysterious,” in the magic realist camp. In this beautifully produced
book, illustrated with 41 full-colour paintings, 31 black-and-white
paintings, and 24 sketches, he examines Colville’s paintings of the
last decade in the context of his entire oeuvre.

Part 1 discusses Colville’s experiences as a war artist during the
Second World War and the techniques he developed in the service of his
stated objective “to make order out of chaos.” Part 2 traces the
evolution of four themes—ordering, doubling, longing, and
mortality—in Colville’s art. A catalogue of the Colville works in
the exhibition that the book accompanies is included, along with a
selected chronology and bibliography (but, regrettably, no index).

Every Colville painting, print, and drawing, the author argues, “is a
visual testimony to [his] memory” of the mass grave he witnessed in
the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at war’s end. Smart provides
thoughtful and detailed interpretations of paintings ranging from
Racetrack, Sackville (a disquieting representation of absence and loss)
to the recent Living Room (an eerie domestic scene in which Colville
appears to be “portending his own death before his wife’s”). Some
of Smart’s readings (notably of Colville’s 1994 painting
Embarkation) seem too definitive, a quality at odds with his rightful
insistence on the “mystery” and “unreconciled tensions” that are
Colville signatures. Quibble aside, Alex Colville: Return is a
captivating tribute to the singular vision of a Canadian master.


Smart, Tom., “Alex Colville: Return,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 19, 2024,