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Colin McCahon: A rare interview with our modernist master

Colin McCahon, pictured in 1961. Photo/Bernie Hill/EH McCormick Research Library/Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

This interview with Colin McCahon, by Sheridan Keith, ran in the May 17, 1980, Listener, towards the end of the celebrated painter’s career. McCahon’s centennial year started on August 1, his birthday, and is being marked with exhibitions and events around the country.

Colin McCahon is said, by those who know him, to be a modest man, yet his paintings are often vast, both in size and impact. He has been referred to as New Zealand’s only major painter, and as a prophet in our midst, yet he is reluctant to talk about his work and lives in seclusion. His paintings now cover a span of 40 years.

He lives, with his wife, Anne, in a very ordinary house in a rather run-down area of Auckland. His four children have all grown up and left home. I visited one evening. Although it was mid-summer, it had been raining for weeks. The front door was open and McCahon was standing there looking at the sky. The light was strange and striking, and many times during the evening he would get up and walk down the hall to look out the open front door.

The first surprise is to find that he is such a slight, frail-looking man. His manner is lively and shy at the same time. He took me through into the back room, where Anne was sitting. We sat down. (It is hard to get started, I am looking around the room taking it all in – a large sculpture of a strange-looking cross on the mantelpiece, a tiny scrap of paper with a miniature painting on it pinned up, pebbles, piles of books, papers, unpretentious furniture …)

I began by asking him why he didn’t like talking about his paintings. I felt that was probably a mistake, as he took a long time to reply. He said that it was really because he didn’t have anything he wanted to say about them, that once he had finished painting them, he really lost interest, that he hardly even looked at them.

I wondered if he felt that using words to describe his paintings limited them, interpreted them in a particular way, and he agreed. He went on to say that many of the explanations of his work and his influences offered up by art critics he found quite incredible. Anne thought so, too, and it was obvious they felt quite strongly about this. He said that it was all right with him, that that was their thing, that it was interesting, but that often art critics seemed to be attempting to show their own cleverness. Anyway, he felt that it was all quite irrelevant to him, and to his work.

I asked how he painted. He said that he worked in “painting periods” during which he would paint 40 or 50 pictures; then he would have a long period devoid of painting. I asked if these arid periods worried him.

“You’re damn right, of course they worry me. I start to think there won’t be any more paintings, that I’ve got nothing left … But then it will start again, for no apparent reason, except perhaps Anne hanging out the washing …” He laughed at that idea.

May His Light Shine (Tau Cross): one of the last landscapes of urban Auckland by McCahon.

Was he in a painting period at the moment? He said that he was, and that really I was interrupting him. I said, “You should have told me not to come.” But Anne said that he’d been interrupted anyway, as they had had relatives visiting.

He went on to say that he thought a tremendous amount about what he was going to paint, that there was a great deal of time that he spent just in thinking about the work he was doing. He said that the painting itself was very hard work, also that he threw out a large amount of his work at an early stage. He stressed how much he rejected, that he threw out far more than he kept. He talked about his paintings needing to be truthful.

I asked what he painted. He said that he painted beauty, and that he thought a lot about Christ, and Christ’s life, and that he painted that. He said, “No one seems to know what I’m on about. It amazes me. No one seems to know that I am painting Christ.”

There was silence in the room. I wanted to see if he would elaborate on that idea, but he didn’t. I said that, for me, his paintings gave a tremendous feeling of serenity, and he said: “That is what they are supposed to do.”

I asked about his religion. I had assumed that he was a Roman Catholic, I suppose from the name, and from the fact that he often uses Roman Catholic imagery, but he said no, that he wasn’t a Catholic, though he would have liked to be one, that it would have fitted in with his emotional philosophy, but that they wouldn’t have him …

I asked him to explain, but he just said: “They didn’t consider that I was a suitable person.” He laughed and wouldn’t say any more. He did say that he has carried out numerous commissions for the Roman Catholic Church. We joked that he would probably be beatified later on.

From religion we moved on to death, although it was quite some time before he used the word. He said that he thought a lot about the end, that it ends, the process of the ending of one’s life. He didn’t worry about death, nor did he fear it, but he was very interested in the process. What happened after he died, he felt, was irrelevant.

I asked if he had always wanted to be an artist. He answered very simply. “I couldn’t have been anything else.” He went on to say that he thought being an artist was a sort of madness; didn’t I agree? I said I thought perhaps it was an obsession, but he didn’t like that. No, not an obsession.

Māori myth and legend: McCahon’s Urewera Triptych (1975).

Had he grown up in an artistic environment? Yes, although not particularly from his parents, but his grandfather had been a superb photographer. He went and got me old books of photographs his grandfather had taken. There was one amazing photograph of people sitting in caves of ice.

Did he still like his early paintings? He liked some, but many he didn’t. He kept a few special paintings, paintings that still interested him, in a front room, where he would go and look at them. He showed me these a little later. He wouldn’t show me his new paintings, the ones for his exhibition, nor would he show me his studio, out the back. (He has another large studio at Muriwai where he does his big paintings.) It seemed that his studio was a sanctuary and a sacred place, and that his new paintings there (lying about on the floor, he said) still required his protection, although soon they would have an independent life. Certainly, I had no wish to invade his privacy.

He took me down the hall to look at the paintings in the front room, the ones that still interested him. He had trouble finding the light switch – it was getting dark now. There were three paintings: two, fairly small, propped up on the mantelpiece, another larger one hung to one side. They were very beautiful, abstracts, shapes reaching towards each other without meeting; two were very calm paintings in subdued greys and cream and white, the third was larger, darker, browner.

There were paintings by other artists as well. He said he felt it was important to buy paintings by other artists, to cherish other people. He made a gesture of an embrace with his thin arms.

I asked him how it felt to have achieved fame, and did he feel that people’s attitudes to him had changed over the years. He said that what people thought about his work had always been irrelevant to him, and that, anyway, he didn’t think that people’s attitudes had changed towards him; the people who hated his paintings still hated them, those who had always admired his work still admired it.

I asked him what he cared about. He said that he cared about people, that it was important to cherish people, and that he cared about his painting, he cared very much indeed about his painting.

I AM 100

Events marking lauded New Zealand modernist Colin McCahon’s centennial year.

A Place to Paint: Colin McCahon in Auckland
Auckland Art Gallery, August 10 to January 27

An exhibition tracing the artist’s 30 years in Auckland features 25 key paintings drawn from the gallery’s collection and private holdings. It also marks the first public display of painted windows from the convent chapel of the Sisters of our Lady of the Missions in Remuera, which were gifted to the people of Auckland after the chapel was decommissioned in 1989. The event runs in parallel with From the Archive: Colin McCahon in Auckland, which charts McCahon’s relationship with Auckland Art Gallery, where he worked before teaching at Elam School of Fine Arts.

Across the Earth: 100 Years of Colin McCahon
Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland, showing now.

An exhibition of McCahon’s paintings on loose canvas of his “Muriwai period”, which includes the Urewera Triptych (1975), a sister painting to the Urewera Mural the work McCahon was commissioned to paint for Te Urewera’s Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre that was famously stolen in 1997. It was recovered two years later.

Colin McCahon: A Constant Flow of Light
Hocken Library, Dunedin, February 29 to June 6, 2020.

Next year’s exhibition draws from the institution’s collection and focuses on McCahon’s work between the mid-1930s and mid-1970s. It will coincide with a exhibition at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, the two shows a recognition of McCahon’s Dunedin roots.

Colin McCahon: A Centenary Exhibition
Te Manawa Museum of Art, Science and History, Palmerston North, July 27 to November 3.

The Palmerston North institution is mounting an exhibition of 20 or so McCahon works from Te Manawa Art Society’s collection as well as two 1937 pen-and-ink portraits of McCahon by Toss Woollaston, whose 1936 exhibition at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery helped inspire the young McCahon’s painting.

Colin McCahon: There Is Only One Direction, Vol. I 1919-1959
Published by Auckland University Press in October.

Art historian Peter Simpson follows his 2007 Colin McCahon: The Titirangi Years, 1953-1959 with the first of an illustrated two-volume work that will chronicle the artist’s work over his 45-year career.

Curnow on McCahon and Pilgrim’s Progress.
Colin McCahon’s Journey towards the Promised Land
Christchurch Art Gallery, August 4.

Art critic and academic Wystan Curnow talks about the artist, whom he first knew as a family friend and whose work he curated. Curnow will draw from research for a book he is writing about McCahon. On the same afternoon, a talk by John Woolf looks at McCahon’s religious convictions.

A Way Through: Colin McCahon’s Gate III
Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, August 24 to October 20 2019

Usually hanging  at Victoria University’s Adam Gallery, McCahon’s epic 1970 mural, Gate III, makes its first appearance in Auckland since it was originally commissioned for Auckland City Art Gallery’s Ten Big Paintings exhibition in 1971. 

The Listener turns 80 this year and in celebration of reaching that milestone we're delving back into the treasures of our archive. Pick up a copy of the 80th Anniversary Bumper Issue and see for yourself.

This article was first published in the May 17, 1980 issue of the New Zealand Listener.