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LOT 044

Alexander Colville
1920 - 2013

acrylic polymer emulsion on paper
titled and on verso titled, dated 1974 and inscribed "by Alex Colville" / "acrylic polymer emulsion"
7 7/8 x 7 7/8 in 20 x 20 cm

Estimate: $125,000 - $175,000

Sold for: $91,250

Preview at:

Douglas Udell Gallery, Edmonton / Vancouver
A.K. Prakash & Associates, Toronto
Private Collection, Toronto

David Burnett, Colville, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1983, the print from this work reproduced page 8
David Burnett, Alex Colville: Prints, 1985, the print from this work reproduced page 18
Mark A. Cheetham, Alex Colville: The Observer Observed, 1994, page 96

January is the original painting that Alex Colville subsequently developed into one of 12 “labours” of the months of the year and reproduced in a limited series titled A Book of Hours, Labours of the Months in 1979. Always thoughtful and purposeful, he explained his motivations in the notes to this portfolio: “In 1971, someone suggested that I do a series of paintings for reproduction in a desk diary. I decided that I would like to do twelve little paintings - one for each month. I wanted to continue the medieval tradition of Books of Hours and Labours of the Months.…What seems important is that the idea for a particular month should have the kind of significance for the artist which enables him, one might say propels him, to make an image which is substantial enough, coherent enough, to be received by the viewer as a valid concept of the month even if, to the viewer, that particular image seems at first strange or incongruous.”

The labour for January shows a man working in a fruit tree, pruning it in the off-season. We notice that this tree is one of many in an orchard. What we might not register at first is the orange saw the man uses, yet its frame is the only straight line amidst a welter of natural forms. Winter pruning is specific to areas such as the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia where Colville lived, where fruit trees are abundant. While this activity may not be something many of us do, typically for Colville, the image is, as he planned, also legible enough for us to generalize and thus to identify with as a distinctly seasonal activity.

The image is visibly complex yet conceptually direct; in his terms, “coherent.” Although the worker might remind us of Colville himself, self-portraiture was something he rarely did. Especially given the need for the image to typify a month, then, we must be careful not to read in too much biography.

Colville was always self-effacing in person and in his paintings; we might well see more than what he called coherence in January. Here and throughout his much-loved oeuvre, he not only depicted everyday activities in their almost spiritual grace and dignity, but articulated a philosophy of the ordinary as extraordinary. This image suggests that what happens daily in our immediate familial and physical surroundings, including work, is what is important. These facts are all around us; the precision of Colville’s technique and his images’ often uncanny stillness help us to see more profoundly what we often ignore. “People in the arts have something in common with philosophers,” he has said. Both seek “the meaning of life, the essential.” We derive more from his paintings than we see.

While general enough to stand for a month, January is formally and visually arresting. The nearest tree’s “limbs” are cognate with those of the man; they offer both handholds and challenges to the worker. His obvious dexterity overcomes what might otherwise be a fraught situation, suggesting both a mastery of and harmony with domesticated nature that we may extrapolate beyond this seasonal context into an ideal of husbandry, coexistence and responsibility, “labours” in which Colville firmly believed.

We thank Mark Cheetham, Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto and author of Alex Colville: The Observer Observed, for contributing the above essay.

The dimensions of the paper sheet are 10 1/4 x 8 3/4 inches.

Estimate: $125,000 - $175,000

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

Although great care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information posted, errors and omissions may occur. All bids are subject to our Terms and Conditions of Business.