Image courtesy Canadian War Museum
The hazy images take up just one small corner of a massive new exhibition on revered Canadian artist Alex Colville at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
But his depictions of corpses at Bergen-Belsen, where a young Colville was dispatched to document World War II atrocities, hold the key to understanding the artist’s worldview and work.
“Seeing that really marked Colville for the rest of his life,” Andrew Hunter, the AGO’s curator of Canadian art, told the Forward. “More than just seeing war, what he saw at Belsen really cast a shadow over his view of the world and of what people are capable of doing.”
The experience also shaped the signatures that came to define Colville’s painting, said Hunter, who curated the exhibition. “He thought a lot about the chaos that lies under the surface of order,” Hunter said. “It sounds simple, but those who ran the camps did it in a way that was very structured. On the surface, it was all highly rational. He was conscious of how order could also lead to great evil.”
In Colville’s iconic 1967 painting “Pacific,” a shirtless man, visible from the back, stares at the ocean while a gun rests on an old sewing table in the foreground. The gun, Hunter explained, represents the possibility of chaos; the ruler built into the sewing table presents a symbol of order.