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  You are in: Home > Art History > The Mystery of the Real  

The Mystery of the Real
Letters of the Canadian Artist Alex Colville and Biographer Jeffrey Meyers
Edited, with Four Essays, by Jeffrey Meyers

Jeffrey Meyers

Jeffrey Meyers taught for thirty years at universities in America, England and Japan. He has published 53 books and 900 articles on art, film and modern American, English and European literature. Anthony Powell and Anthony Burgess praised his life of Hemingway, and Tom Stoppard chose it as the “Best Book of the Year” in 1986. Thirty-one of his books have been translated into14 languages. He is one of ten Americans who are Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature.


The work of Alex Colville, O.C. (1920-2013), one of the great modern realist painters, combines the Flemish detail of Andrew Wyeth, the eerie foreboding of George Tooker and the anguished confrontations of Lucian Freud. Behind the North Americans stands their common master, Edward Hopper. Colville’s works are in many museums in Canada and Germany. He has affinities with Max Beckmann and appeals to the German “secondary virtues”: cleanliness, punctuality, love of order. In a long life he resolutely opposed the fashionable currents of abstract and expressionistic art. In contrast to Jackson Pollock’s wild action painting, Colville created paintings of contemplation and reflection.

As Jeffrey Meyers writes: I spent several days with Colville on each of three visits from California to Wolfville. I received seventy letters from him between August 1998 and April 2010, and kept thirty-six of my letters to him. He sent me photographs and slides of his work and, in his eighties, discussed the progress and meaning of the paintings he completed during the last decade of his life. His handwritten letters, precisely explaining his thoughts and feelings, provide a rare and enlightening opportunity to compare my insights and interpretations with his own intentions and ideas. He also discussed his family, health, sexuality, politics, reading, travels, literary interests, our mutual friend Iris Murdoch, response to my writing, his work, exhibitions, sales of his pictures and of course the meaning of his art. His letters reveal the challenges he faced during aging and illness, and his determination to keep painting as health difficulties mounted. He stopped writing to me when he became seriously ill two years before his death. In this context the late paintings, presented in colour in this book, take on a new poignancy.

The Illustrations

Part I
ONE Meeting Alex Colville
TWO Dangerously Real
THREE Order and Angst

Part II
FOUR Introduction to the Letters
FIVE The Letters

Index of Colville’s Art Works Discussed in this Book
The Biographer Jeffrey Meyers

We are at last getting to know Alex Colville, who was the most popular painter in Canada at his death in 2013. First, the Art Gallery of Ontario organized an excellent show that focussed on his private life and left a strong impression of his passionate relationship with his wife and frequent model. Now we have a selection of letters, the first Colville letters published. They reveal a man more expansive, literary and self-reflective than we might have guessed.
Reviewed by Robert Fulford, National Post, December 2016


Publication Details

Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
224 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
September 2016
  Illustrated:   Yes
Paperback Price:
£27.50 / $39.95

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