The painter Alex Colville (1920–2013) had a passion for order, beginning with the underlying geometry of his image, a rigid skeleton of geometric relationships that dictated every aspect of his compositions. “Geometry seems to be a way into the process,” he said. “If I were a poet I would write sonnets. I would not do what you speak of as ‘free verse.’ I work within existing forms.” His work offers moments of stasis that anchor us in a chaotic world.
Colville’s experience as an official war artist during the Second World War and especially his assignment to document the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp brought him into contact with the full potential of human depravity. The war and its numbing effect profoundly impacted Colville’s work, in which he refuses to accept the eventual triumph of entropy and instead seeks stability, geometric order, and endurance despite knowing they are ephemeral.
There are twenty-one studies for Colville’s painting Ocean Limited, 1962, in the collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The sketches were primarily used to work out the geometric underpinnings of the major compositional elements: how the head of the walking figure and the train engine line up, the relative placement of the horizontal elements of the railway embankment and road, and the vertical elements of telephone poles and the walking figure in the foreground.
Colville often based his paintings on the golden section, a mathematical sense of proportion that has been used in architecture and art from Ancient Egypt to today. As curator Philip Fry noted, Colville used geometry as a “regulatory system”—as a way of imposing coherent, predictable, and orderly relationships between objects in his compositions. Often borrowed from architecture, these systems could be relatively simple or more complex, as in the Modulor system of the modernist architect Le Corbusier (1887–1965) and the ratios derived from the mathematical sequence called the Fibonacci series, for example, in Study for St. Croix Rider, December 30–31, 1996.
Colville’s meticulous sketches show how, before he began to paint, the image and the geometry evolved as he arrived at a composition that communicates the ideas and feelings he looked for. As art historian Martin Kemp writes: “Human proportionality, which is based on a system of head lengths beloved of Renaissance architects and more recently Le Corbusier, has an important role in these paintings that involve his cast of wordless characters.”
Nobel Prize–winning physicist Frank Wilczek sums up the persistent belief that a beautiful order underlies the apparent chaos of the world in a discussion of the Pythagorean aphorism, “All things are number”: “For the true essence of Pythagoras’s credo is not a literal assertion that the world must embody whole numbers, but the optimistic conviction that the world should embody beautiful concepts.”
In organizing the composition by use of “beautiful concepts” to establish an orderly underlying framework, Colville adds a sense of solidity to what at first appears as a scene taken from observation. Geometry determines the perspective, ensuring that the image, however much an invention, feels right to the eye. An almost subliminal sense of proportion and alignment conveys the underlying geometric order. Ultimately, Colville’s geometry is most important not for its specific angles, arcs, or correspondences, but for the foundational rigour that the balanced geometric framework gives to the image itself. Seeking order, one must banish chance.
This Essay is excerpted from Alex Colville: Life & Work by Ray Cronin.