Alex Colville (1920 – 2013)

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I suppose I approach this primitive form of art criticism through a poetic view. I enjoy symbols and getting grubby hands as I attempt to unearth meaning. And whilst there isn’t any rhyme scheme here to laboriously unpack, this painting does contain an irresistible sense of rhythm.

‘Horse and Train’ – 1954


The galloping train curves like a backwards smile into the distance. Its crushing speed made fantastically apparent by the subtle division on the horizon; a small bump between the pulled carriages and the lower grasslands. What once was a simple line it seems, can evolve painfully quick to the onrush and light of a hurtling machine.

To some extent when I look at this piece, I feel ensnared like the horse. The steel of the tracks, brighter than any of the world around them, pull out of the canvas, both backwards to another world, and forwards into ours. Through the charging animal however, Colville draws our eyes downward to its fractious mid hurtle position. Beneath the horse, there is an uneasy quietness before the potential collision. The gravel is painted delicately to the pebble, with the thick pregnant marshland belied by delicate brushstrokes beside the tracks.

Yet amid his subdued palate, Colville draws the two majestic roamers of the landscape in equivocation rather than opposition. The smoke of the train itself too blends into the clouds above, with the horse’s hoof merging to the dark churn of the tracks below.

Rather than the obvious symbolic implication of the painting then, Colville offers a more interesting interpretation upon the idea of choice. Both the train driver and the horse have the ability it seems to get out of the way in some form, but both, for this snapshot moment at least, seem unwilling.



The lid of the piano scores across the female ‘Chanteuse’ singer as an eye patch. Yet viewed more objectively in the disembodied mirror that floats behind the female’s head, we see that all is normal. The instrument splays  wide across the three windows, with the keys eerily fragmented between frame and elbow.

At first I had crudely assumed, both due to the prevalence of skin and the moan, that this was a primarily sexual image. Whilst undoubtedly the connotations are there, I feel Colville presents an even higher, more interesting, level of seclusion – an engagement with art.

Granted, such exultations are displayed are often part and parcel of public artistic exhibitions, but the slightly abstract way in which the singer is shown, suggests an unrehearsed, honest response to the music in front of her. Crucially too, there is no sheet music, she is merely playing, singing. Everything else around is drawn in unwavering precision, whilst amid it all her mouth gapes slightly, open to music we can only imagine.

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