Beach Girl, 1974, pencil
One feels a bit silly saying that one’s wife was an important, perhaps a very important, artist, that her work was undervalued during her lifetime, that her reputation will grow, and that her work will endure.
“My wife writes poetry, you know. I’m no expert myself, but some of it looks pretty good to me. Would you care to take a look at it?” One’s heart sinks. Poor silly man. Or perhaps nice simple innocent man. One know the odds against literary distinction, he doesn’t.
There have been some dreadful widower husbands: John Middleton Murry, Ted Hughes….
At one point, in my opinion, the two best painters in the Atlantic Provinces were Alex Colville and Carol Hoorn Fraser. Was Fraser as good as Colville, who has an international reputation? She would have hated that kind of question, with its invitation to mental competition. She preferred her own art to Colville’s, which she found cold, and she disliked Colville’s au dessus de la melée attitude towards local art politics. But she respected his concentration and his power to create images. She also respected the way in which he had essentially gone it alone and made his way outside of the conventional grant-oriented Canadian system.
I walked with her around the large Colville show in the Dalhousie Art Gallery. I would say that for her he was definitely an international artist. We were not simply looking at that ambiguous phenomenon A Canadian Artist. She may have felt the same way about the deliberately outrageous sculptures of Mark Prent, who charmed her with his modesty when he came round to our house in the Seventies after a talk. Colville, to my surprise and pleasure, came to her memorial service, or so I was told—one of the few artists to do so.
Back in the Sixties, our friend Jim Clark told us about a no doubt fictional Montreal reporter whose editor felt that he wasn’t sufficiently enthusiastic about Canadian writing. He began his next piece, on some conference, with the words, “Two hundred of Canada’s greatest living poets….” We appropriated the phrase.
Though she liked and/or respected the work of individual Canadian artists, among them the Bobaks, Colville, Prent, Town, Blackwood, Metson, Milne, I think she felt that to be labelled A Canadian Artist and to be promoted to the status of a sort of national resource was to be condemned to the B team. Moreover, it was to be condemned to a team in which more and more effort went into finding reasons why more and more Canadian artists were Significant Artists, so that Canada had its own galaxy of stars, a galaxy that was just as real as that of the States.
And the influences went one way—north.
In so far as Canadian art works looked like American art works, they were serious, they were mainstream, When they differed from American art works, they might still be treated respectfully in Canadian terms, but they were marginal, and they were not going to influence any American artists. Colville has come to seem to me better than Wyeth, but he obviously partly owed the breakthrough award of a prize at an international show to the fact that his painting of a youth and a black Labrador out duck hunting looked rather like Wyeth and had Wyeth’s air, at least in his best works, of absolute self-assurance.
Was Carol Hoorn Fraser a better artist than Alex Colville? I would say so. She created her own bank of unforgettable images—the Couple paintings, the Grandparent paintings, Headwound, and so on—, and they seem to me more interesting, more lastingly interesting, than Colville’s, such as the horse on the tracks, or the girl running beside a bus. C. was also a lot more versatile and exploratory than Colville, and a much more accomplished draughtsman.
It would be unfair to say that when you’ve seen twenty Colvilles you’ve seen them all. But I suspect that you need see only a relative handful of works in order to pick up the major tones and tenors of his oeuvre—its odd cool creepiness, and so on—, and that to talk about Colville’s development is to talk essentially about a growing mastery of his craft and certitude of form, rather than about any very complex intellectual development. C.’s work, in contrast, feels to me more and more like a continent.
Of course, it might be that Colville doesn’t count in terms of the Big Picture of Art, but I don’t think so. Any artist who speaks so strongly to so many gallery goers and reproduction-buyers counts. Wyeth’s Joanna’ s Field deservedly hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When I spoke above of C. being an artist whose work would endure, I meant the kind of enduring that comes because a lot of people, not all of them lovers of Norman Rockwell, enjoy looking at one’s work, or at least some of it.
One of the numerous things that she liked about Van Gogh was that once they had been given a fair chance to be visible, his works were loved. She liked the fact that Dalhousie students at the annual or biannual sale of reproductions in the Student Union Building were still buying the Sunflowers, the painting of Van Gogh’s bedroom, and others to hang on their dormitory walls. For that matter, I think she liked the fact that people still went on enjoying Dali’s watches. She respected Grandma Moses.
In its formal richness and the weightiness of its subject matter, C.’s Couple 2 seems to me a sort of Guernica for our time, a Guernica of the sex war. There is nothing else like it, I am sure. It would be interesting to follow up the idea that if Colville’s works are quintessentially those of a man, C.’s work as a whole could only be that of a woman. Certainly a man could not have painted Couple 2, or a number of other works by her.
Her couples series (it extends across thirty years) is not a simple celebration of heterosexual relationships. But the feminists never took her up.
Nocturne, 1982, w.c.