“I felt my job was to simply report. I tried very hard to do the best stuff I could do as a war artist. I thought at least because no one was shooting at me, I could try and do reasonably good work.” —Alex Colville
Serving in World War II was a profoundly affecting experience for Alex Colville. He was 22 years old when he enlisted in 1942, just out of university and newly married. He joined the Canadian Infantry and rose through the ranks to a commission as a second lieutenant. In 1944, he was flown to London to take an appointment as an official War Artist. Travelling to Yorkshire, the Mediterranean, the Netherlands and northern Germany, he worked meticulously to record what he saw: the men, the machines and the devastation. In April 1945, he was dispatched to the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany, where he witnessed graphic evidence of the Holocaust that would haunt him for his entire life.
Alex Colville, Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland 1946 Oil on canvas 101.6 × 121.9 cm Beaverbrook Collection of War Art Canadian War Museum 19710261-2079 © A.C. Fine Art Inc.
“I felt in a certain sense I was writing letters home for these people, depicting their lives, the dugouts, tanks, where they lived. I was making a kind of record. There is always this element in art: ‘Life is short but art is long.’ A lot of these people were killed.”
Colville completed this painting in Ottawa in 1946, after returning home from the front. He based the face of the first soldier on his father, who he saw as the embodiment of a leader. His wife, Rhoda, also recognized the hands of this figure as Colville’s own.
Alex Colville, The Nijmegen Bridge, Holland, 1946. Oil on canvas 91.6 × 122.7 cm. Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum (19710261-2094). © A.C. Fine Art Inc.
Bridges Near and Far
Bridges appeared in Alex Colville’s paintings throughout his career. They signal important transitions – comings and goings, often into the unknown. Colville grew up surrounded by the sights and sounds of steelwork construction: his father, David Colville, worked for the Dominion Bridge Company. Later, as a War Artist, Colville often painted bridges, especially while in the Netherlands. He was drawn to the modern machinery and infrastructure of war, painting crossings but also tanks, guns, planes and jeeps. After arriving home, his keen interest in the way human transportation intersects the landscape continued. For Colville, the flat, open landscape of the marshes surrounding Sackville recalled the Netherlands.
Alex Colville, Bodies in a grave, Belsen, 1946. Oil on canvas 76.3 x 101.6 cm. Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum (19710261-2033) © A.C. Fine Art Inc.
In April 1945, War Artist Colville was sent to bear witness at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany, which had just been liberated. It was an unimaginably horrific scene: piles of bodies filled open mass graves. By this time, more than 35,000 people had died at the camp of disease and malnutrition, and more than 10,000 more would die from illness after its liberation. Colville felt that a painting could never truly capture his feelings about what he saw: “The thing one felt was one felt badly that one didn’t feel worse. That is to say, you see one dead person and it is too bad, but seeing 500 is not 500 times worse. There is a certain point at which you being to feel nothing.… It was a profoundly affecting experience.”
Alex Colville, Belsen Concentration Camp 1946 Watercolour ink on paper Courtesy of A.C. Fine Art Inc. © A.C. Fine Art Inc.
Photo: the Colville Estate.
Second Lieutenant D. Alex Colville.
CWM 20040082-058 © Canadian War Museum.
Official news photo of Lieutenant D.A. Colville painting in western Germany near the borders of Belgium and Holland, January 1945.
CWM 20040082-03, George Metcalf Archival Collection © Canadian War Museum
Captain D.A. Colville at work in Ottawa, in front of his completed Infantry Near Nijmegen, Holland, 1946.
Photo: the Colville Estate.
Colville working on his painting Bodies in a Grave, 1946.
This Canadian Army newsreel from 1945 shows Lieutenant D. Alexander Colville, amongst others, working in the field as a war artist.
Credit: DND-MND, Canadian Armed Forces – Forces armées canadiennes, Canada.