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Colin McCahon at French Bay, c. 1957-58, photo by Barry Miller. Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

Moving heaven and earth: The books marking one hundred years of Colin McCahon

The centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth is being marked by two major books examining the artist’s life and legacy and how the landscape of Aotearoa was a constant inspiration.

Christmas 1947. Driving up and over Takaka hill towards Farewell Spit, Colin McCahon is captivated by the sculpted limestone hills, the undulating valleys, the scalloped bays. In this landscape, he later writes to his friend Charles Brasch, he sees “real splendour”. Not so his travelling companion at the time, a man, he says, of “normal vision”. His friend sees no such splendour, “no Heaven & Hell”, just “a good place for farming.”

One hundred years after his birth, McCahon’s insistence on this vision of splendour in the landscape continues to stalk our art, our art history and our ways of seeing. Always, says writer and critic Peter Simpson, “McCahon is driving towards that sense of the numinous. Always, there was that impulse to go beyond the literal.”

It is half a century since Simpson first encountered McCahon’s works. As he writes in his new book, There Is Only One Direction, they grabbed him then “and grab me still. It is hard to put into words exactly the appeal of such works. It has something to do with the bold simplicity and beauty of their imagery – the restriction to a few colours and forms and the subtle relationships between various parts of a sequence or group.”

Colin McCahon, The Valley of Dry Bones, 1947, oil on canvas, 885 x 868 mm. Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

They are not all great works of art, he says, “but even the merest scribble on paper has something about it. I don’t think he ever painted an uninteresting work.”

In his book, Simpson uses letters, reviews, exhibition histories and superbly reproduced photographs to trace a chronological path through the first 20 years of McCahon’s art practice. It is a survey publication, noting the consistent themes and seemingly abrupt turns through an impressive number of paintings (his stage sets and painted glass windows are only touched on). But always – in his biblical paintings, abstract works, even his word and number paintings – landscape looms consistently and insistently, a connective thread running through the rolling, rhythmic undulations of Otago, the glowing hills of Takaka, the bold geometries of the Canterbury Plains and the fractured colours and forms in the looming kauri forests of the Waitākeres.

The popular idea of a steady progression from landscape and figuration to abstract art, text and numbers, says Simpson, does not add up. “The land was homeground for McCahon, always. It was the glue that holds the career together. He deviates from it into words and numbers and abstraction but, even when he is at his most abstract, he never abandons landscape.”

Colin McCahon, Crucifixion: The apple branch, 1950, oil on unstretched canvas, 890 x 1170 mm. Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

But landscape for McCahon was always more than hills, plains, trees and water; more, too, than the earnest search for a distinctly New Zealand character driving the cultural nationalist project in the 1940s and 50s. In the hills and valleys of New Zealand, in the play of light on land stripped bare of extraneous detail, in the flight of tūī or the emphatic recitation of biblical text, he continuously plays out his ongoing vacillation between faith and doubt.

“I first became aware of my own particular god, perhaps an Egyptian god, but standing far from the sun of Egypt in the Otago cold,” McCahon wrote in Landfall in 1966, recalling a drive across Otago’s Taieri Plain. “Big hills stood in front of the little hills, which rose up distantly across the plain from the flat land: there was a landscape of splendour, and order and peace … I saw something logical, orderly and beautiful belonging to the land and not yet to its people. Not yet understood or communicated, not even really yet invented.”

Always, says Simpson, there is a nexus of landscape, religion and art; a vision of splendour, order and peace. But faith has never sat comfortably in academic and art criticism discourse. There is the sceptical view, says Simpson, that tempers the religious aspect of McCahon’s work to little more than a structuring device, and the more fundamentalist view that argues only a Christian can really understand his work. He takes a middle road. “I am not a Christian, but I don’t want to play down the level of religious content in Colin’s work because it is so obviously central.

Peter Simpson. Photo/Supplied

“But it is never settled for him. He is always re-opening things for debate. It is an ongoing existential conflict between faith and doubt, but that debate is never resolved. That is the engine that drives his work and what makes his work so interesting.”

Not everyone thought so. His innovative synthesis of so-called high art and popular culture – the graphic speech bubbles, the looming text, the brevity of line, the persistent symbols of religiosity in an identifiably local landscape were, from the 1940s to the 1970s, a red rag to the arbiters of “high culture” and “good taste”.

ARD Fairburn decried his “homespun pretentiousness”. Denis Glover muttered about his “dreadfully dishonest work”. Even Brasch was selective in his praise. Sometimes it got to him: “A lifetime of bash,” McCahon wrote in 1966, “doesn’t make you happy.”

But rarely did he deviate from his path. “He believed in what he was doing and he understood things so well,” says Simpson, “things the rest of us might have got to 20 years later. That is one of the things that impresses me – the shining intelligence of the man.”

And he did have support, from gallerists, collectors, poets and fellow artists. Janet Paul eloquently praised his “almost monumental gravity and calm”. Toss Woollaston, reviewing the remarkable Elias series with its searing expression of religious uncertainty, wrote the “matter of the painted word” was perhaps the most argued aspect of the show. “But how do we know the rules for this sort of painting? When a whole sky cries ‘Elias’ … who shall say lettering should not be big in a picture?”

“I wanted to dispel this notion that he was rejected throughout his lifetime,” says Simpson. “Right from when he was a boy, people thought he was exceptionally gifted – Russell Clark taught him when he was 14 and said his paintings were extraordinary for a young man. He never lacked that kind of recognition. The general public were often contemptuous, because modernism was a completely foreign language to them, but he always had good support from newspaper critics and fellow artists.”

And poets such as Hubert Witheford, John Caselberg and James K Baxter. “I think you put on to canvas something I know about New Zealand but have not learnt to say,” Baxter wrote to the artist in 1947. “The raw vitality and brutal simplification.”

A key work, says Simpson, is A Candle in a Dark Room in 1947, a response to McCahon’s first meeting with the young Baxter in which almost half the surface is taken up with text, so anticipating the all-word paintings of 1954-55. “It was painted in celebration of a poet and it was the first work in which he really used words on a large scale. In honouring Baxter symbolically through that candle, he was honouring the word.”

Following his move to Auckland, in 1953, the radical simplification of hill, plain and valley gave way to the proximity of the bush, shattered into mosaics of light, colour and text in a constant “push-pull”, says Simpson, between realism and total abstraction. He quotes McCahon: “Am swinging between greater realism and much freer abstraction and just can’t settle either way … this mānuka flowering season is always hard, my paint becomes romantic and it just doesn’t seem to suit me.” Then, in 1954, the monumental “I AM”, a fist-on-the-pulpit reiteration of divine faith or a declaration of personal identity, drawing on Hollywood movie credits, signwriting and an unabashed privileging of the written word over the visual symbol – as out of the blue, writes Simpson, as his first biblical painting in 1946.

The book ends five years later, in 1959, when McCahon is 40. He and his wife, Anne, have just sold their house in Titirangi to move into the city. His work has reached a hiatus after a prolific period following his “career-changing” four-month visit to the US. Yet to come is his immersion in te ao Māori, his extraordinary Gate series, the furore over the selection of his Painting (1958) as co-winner of the 1960 Hays Prize and Robert Muldoon’s barbed comments over the gifting of McCahon’s Victory over Death 2 (1970) to Australia in 1978.

This territory will be covered in Simpson’s second volume, Is This the Promised Land?, due out next year, but it will not be the last word on a painter recognised as our most important 20th-century artist. Next month, Auckland Art Gallery will launch Justin Paton’s book McCahon Country.

Despite the wording of the publisher’s blurb on the flyleaf, says Simpson, his book is not a definitive study. “Can you have a definitive study of Shakespeare or Cézanne? I don’t think you can. I have tried to make it as comprehensive as possible, but there is room for lots of books on Colin McCahon.”

Including, he agrees, the much-awaited biography. “But that won’t be me. To write a biography you have to get inside the head – it requires an intimacy, which I wouldn’t feel comfortable with. I decided to take a leaf out of Colin’s book: ‘It’s the painting that may be useful,’ he said. ‘Never the artist – he just made the thing.’”

Colin McCahon, Ligar Bay, 1948, oil on canvas, 876 x 1259 mm. Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

“The light of our inevitable mortality”

Travelling in the footsteps of Colin McCahon.

In his centenary tribute to the art of Colin McCahon, Justin Paton, critic, writer and curator of international art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, abandons the archives, grabs the car keys and hits the road. McCahon Country is an evocative and empathetic exercise in “being there”.

He begins in the shadowed greenness of the Otago hills, seemingly carved out of the landscape by the artist’s brush. From there, he heads to the light-filled valleys of Nelson and Golden Bay, where we meet McCahon the “visual lay preacher”, staging Christian stories down on the farm. South again, to the mosaic geometry of Canterbury’s flatlands, then north to the edge of the Waitākeres and the luminous profusion of kauri and nīkau, where light shatters “into thousands of pieces on its way down through the forest canopy”. Then to the cliffs and skyscapes of Muriwai, the “slip and scarg” of Northland farmland, then down to Te Urewera with its dark history of dispossession and struggle.

All along the way, the journey, real and metaphorical, is the thing, routes taken by McCahon by foot, bike, motor scooter and a red Austin convertible – from the sudden encounter with new vistas to the painted lines of te reo flying “from the land straight up into the sky”, the darkness of night, the gradual draining of colour as the beauty of the world recedes into “the light of our inevitable mortality”. It was a lifetime of “painterly jump cuts”, writes Paton, “that give a sense of staggered time and accumulating consciousness”.

Justin Paton. Photo/Supplied

Even the trip by McCahon and his wife, Anne, to the US in 1958, although a transformative opportunity to see original works of art, was also about “the sense of travelling always onwards towards another destination, the landscapes accumulating in memory”.

Paton is an engaging guide, revealing a land, sky and seascape as experienced by an artist, showing us not just the place seen “but the challenging joy of seeing it”.

COLIN McCAHON: There Is Only One Direction VOL 1 1919-1959, by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $75)

McCAHON COUNTRY, by Justin Paton (Penguin, $75, available November 5)

 A PLACE TO PAINT: Colin McCahon In Auckland, Auckland Art Gallery until January 27, 2020.

This article was first published in the October 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.