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Realism and Dualism of Human Nature: Alex Colville, Soldier and Girl at Station

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The underlying philosophy of Alex Colvilles paintings is widely debated. While some art historians have stated that Colville was an existential artist, others have argued that he was a realist. For instance, in her article Magic Realism of Alex Colville, Dow categorically states that Colvilles paintings belong to the category of magic realism, which appeared approximately in the 1920s, in the era of post-expressionism art movement . Many contemporary art historians supported the idea of realism and naturalism of his paintings but few of them still believed in existentialism of these works. The argument of the last group primarily based on the fact that during the period of Alex Colvilles career, many artists including Hopper were existentialist painters, and their style of work closely resembles Colvilles one. This paper, however, supports the concept of realism in the broader sense of the word. Alex Colvilles paintings, specifically, Soldier and Girl at Station depict the dualism of nature and demonstrate the elements of magic realism.

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To interpret Alex Colvilles paintings correctly, one should establish the time of their creation first. Alex Colville is a Canadian artist born in 1920. According to Dow, he lived during a period commonly referred to as post-expressionistic art era . At that time, however, two competing philosophies influenced art: existentialism and realism. According to Hawes, for instance, Norman Rockwell, a renowned American painter whose major works appeared in 1930s, was a realist painter. Many art historians have argued that Rockwell inspired Colville because many paintings of the latter closely resemble Rockwells style of painting . According to overwhelming historical evidence, Colville began to paint when he was around 20 after studying European painting .

According to the research by Art Story Foundation, existentialism influenced artists from 1945 to 1965 . This philosophy, which explored how vision and thinking process impacted on the perception of artworks, stressed the importance of expressing individuality in the works for artists. Modern art historians have noted that most European artists adopted existentialist philosophy in their artworks . Existentialists argued that painters should capture not only the reality but also the personal view of things. Thus, they explored the ways of bringing life to paintings. For example, when someone draws a person, he/she creates not just an object in the painting but depicts the fate and whole humanity in this person. As Wolf argues, it was an attempt to restore the dignity of man after the Second World War . Thus, art historians have used this principle as the ground for defining the underlying philosophy of Alex Colvilles works. However, before showing the weakness of this premise, it is important to research the concepts of realist art. Realist painters mainly focused on factual depiction of various phenomena. Being closely related to naturalism, realism goes beyond showing real nature to illustrate other aspects of human, for example, emotions and morality. Koln, however, argues that the misinterpretation of Colvilles paintings have emerged from a lack of clear understanding of difference between a realist painter and a naturalist painter . According to Koln, realist painters aim to represent reality subjectively, while the naturalists do it objectively . It explain the reason why Alex Colvilles paintings hold the concept he calls myths of mundanity.

To deconstruct the philosophy of Colvilles paintings, this study analyzes one of his works Soldier and Girl at Station. The painting was created in 1950, which reveals that Colville was under the influence of recent emotional experience that the soldiers who returned to their families got during the Second World War. The painters careful use of background and foreground for emphasizing the subject is evident. As the contextual analysis shows, the subject matters of the painting are love and loneliness. For example, the sparse objects in the painting clearly illustrate the loneliness theme. Only two people, soldier and girl, are on the foreground. The use of perspective technique makes the viewers feel the loneliness coupled with the feeling of love. What is more, careful use of colors underlines the contrast between loneliness and love. The bright colors used for the foreground and the dark ones used for the background aim to show contrasting feelings to the viewer. The dark colors symbolize loneliness while the brightness of the foreground reminds of hope and anxiety associated with soldiers who returned from war to meet their loved ones again. In order to attract the attention of the viewer to the elements on the background, the painter uses color contrast and the play of light and shadow.

The given image is static, which is characteristic to the style of Alex Colvilles paintings. All elements of the painting train, soldier, and girl are not in motion. It attracts the interest of the viewer who analyzes the possibility of finding hidden meaning of the painting. The static images call both simple and complex thoughts. They force the viewers to think and make conclusions after analyzing the theme of the painting.

One can clearly see the concept of dualism in the authors paintings. Koln explains that according to Colville, human perception becomes meaningful only when subjected to contrasting views . It means that depicting two sides is the only way of demonstrating human beings social needs, and in this case, loneliness and love are used. A soldier and a girl hugging each other after long separation demonstrate the dualism of human nature; the strong feeling of love finds expression after a period of loneliness. Colville uses high contrast of colors and sparse populated in order to emphasize on dualism. Analyzing Colvilles work, Howes states that it depicts dualism not only in nature but also in humans . Ann Marie Todkill who observed that Colvilles paintings present contrasting sides gives another argument in support of the dualism. Analyzing Colvilles painting Woman with a Revolver,she notes that the two themes victimization and confidence have been touched through portraying a nude woman who, probably, is a potential victim with the gun in her hand, which, in its turn, demonstrates complete confidence. In addition, the use of highly contrasting colors as well as light and shadow reveals the theme of fear and assurance at the same time. Woman with a Revolver clearly demonstrates the concept of dualism of human nature to the viewer.

The painting Soldier and Girl at Station belongs to the category of magic realism. Magic realism is closely related to realism but it is the movement, the representatives of which mix realism with the elements of fantasy. Unlike existentialism that supports the depiction of artists personal feelings in the paintings, it aims to abstract reality through allowing the audience to create different mental pictures while looking on the paintings. For example, the painting Soldier and Girl at Station hides emotions of loneliness and love in the ordinary scene. This concept, also known as the myths of mundanity, is common for all Colvilles paintings. For example, Woman with a Revolver is a painting that depicts an ordinary event: a woman is ready to defend herself from potential attack. However, the two themes fear and confidence are risen. The research by Howes found that Colvilles paintings are not purely realistic but own the elements of fantasy due to the concept of dualism .

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On the other hand, Todkill argued that the sense of being and the sense of time two concepts that defined existentialism explained the underlying philosophy of Alex Colvilles paintings. To support her argument, she uses the painting Woman with a Revolver. According to Howes, Colville himself indicated that it was based on realism. Howes notes that the painter stated that through abstracting reality, he applied justice to it. Koln, in his turn, argues that the realist is the one who rather analyzes reality than depicts it . In this regard, Colvilles paintings are not supposed to depict reality but should analyze it instead. It contradicts with Todkills argument but supports the idea that Colvilles paintings should be interpreted. In other works, for example, Horse and Train, the author demonstrates the realism of ordinary life. However, the element of fantasy is also portrayed here: the horse is running directly towards the train. The viewer can form his or her own mental picture of the possibilities.

In conclusion, the study has established the underlying philosophy of Colvilles paintings. According to the results of the analysis, realism and dualism of nature are the main philosophical principles of his works. Realist does not focus on depicting reality nature, family life, and social issues but analyzes the events or scenes. Colvilles paintings and especially Soldier and Girl at Station are the examples of showing realism and dualism of human nature. The paintings touch the themes of loneliness and love, which are the important aspects of ordinary life of human beings.

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