Colin McCahon: An Essay on the Centenary of His Birth

Here, on these isles, in tussock country, in Man Alone country, there lived a painter who decided that New Zealanders were closer to God, whatever he or that is, precisely for being further from London and New York. In the metropolis one may indeed be closer to Christie’s and Sotheby’s, MoMA and the Tate. But because of that God is a little hard to hear; our own lives, our inner selves, are somewhat harder to find amidst the bustle and din. Colin McCahon brought New Zealanders closer to the “centre”, not of culture but of life. 

Of course, “provincials” have always liked to purport such things. When your system of values, created by and imported from the metropolis, leaves you with little to boast, it makes sense to speak of what you have and what the metropolis doesn’t. Well, New Zealand has space, and hills, and mountains; Kauri reaching for the sky, Tui singing in the rain, Manuka in bloom breeding existentialism. We have a natural ruggedness that metropolitans dream of when looking at the oppressive walls of their Kafkaesque cubicle. There is something transcendent in our landscape, after all, something that speaks to the spiritual sensibility. So capture it. Twist it and wrangle it and grab it and get it on the canvas and once you’ve got it there it can’t escape; we’ll know then what we have that the metropolis doesn’t. Or, in the jingoist’s parlance, we’ll know then “who we are”. 

If it wasn’t McCahon it would have been someone else. Toss Woollaston probably would’ve stepped into the shoes. Though Rita Angus was more than talented enough, this was post-war New Zealand we are speaking of; it would be giving our forebears a little too much credit to think that in the 1940s they would have allowed a female fill those large, rugged military-esque marching boots of the title New Zealand National Painter. The point is that “Colin McCahon” was historically necessary—as necessary, I’m tempted to say, as Sidney Nolan was for Australia, and Jackson Pollock for post-war America. New Zealand needed this painter, at this particular time, just as much as it needed a flag, a national anthem and the Statute of Westminster.

The task in writing about McCahon, then, is to be transparent about whether one is speaking of McCahon or “McCahon”—McCahon the painter or “McCahon” the nationalistic idea. I am to write here of the former, of Colin McCahon, a painter who lived in a province, was limited by it, but whose Renaissance-like vision always found a way through. 

And “finding a way through” was what this born-in-Timaru son of a company manager did best. Finding a way through—from what, to what? From nothing less than ignorance to wisdom; traditionalism to modernism; from the aesthetic to the ethical, and then the ethical to the religious; muteness to eloquence; war to peace; blindness to sight. In our postmodern times we might be inclined to read such grand and sincere aims cynically, with the wry expression of Damien Hirst’s stuffed-shark. But the elementary requirement in approaching Colin McCahon’s art is to force oneself to believe once again in the mysteries of life and the grandeur of the artist’s intentions. This was a painter who believed unequivocally in art—believed in it not as someone like Hirst does, but as Giotto did, as a way to a different relationship with both the world and the sublime. To see McCahon’s ways through we must therefore find our own way through, setting aside our postmodern baggage and retrieving, as much as possible, the spirit of sincerity and determination that for so long was essential to the contemplation of religious painting.

Here I give thanks to Mondrian by Colin McCahon
Here I give thanks to Mondrian, 1961. Oil on board. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

At times during his career McCahon took such a challenge literally, and tried to find his own way through: his early 1960s Gate series—flat surfaces mediating between lightness and darkness, and playing at the edges of the canvas to give the effect of depth, of a surface to be passed through or beyond—are emblematic of his project. These 28-odd paintings glow with McCahon’s distinctive use of white paint, where the brushstrokes are discernible and so is the masterly wrist that produced them; there are glazes of luminescent white, and the brush has been twisted and swirled onto the canvas to create a glowing and tactile surface. One wants to touch McCahon’s canvases, the ragged threads, fibres and acrylic, and in the Gate series this adds a corporeal element to the recurring idea of a gate or passageway. By touching them, might we pass through them? And McCahon’s titles, too, give a sense of passage and journey—like his Here I Give Thanks to Mondrian (1961) from the same series, where this painter expresses appreciation for an earlier modernist’s conceptual  breakthroughs that made his own Gate modernism possible. Painting these works at the height of Cold War tensions while himself living in Auckland and working at the City Art Gallery, the Gates were also about the possibility of humanity finding a way through the nuclear weapons impasse that seemed to engulf the entire world. McCahon indeed lived in what still seemed then a province, but again, he was not limited by it; his painterly concerns were the world’s concerns.

Like Picasso, long-lived and prolific in style, McCahon leaves a little something for everyone. His journey through so many styles over such a long career during such a critical priod in the development of modernism leaves us everything from Cezannesque nudes (McCahon’s Bather from 1951, for instance) to white-on-black pure abstraction (his Angels and Bed series from the late ‘70s). He is difficult to pin down, beyond ‘periods’: his early religious works, his Cubist “Titirangi years”, his post-1958-America-visit colour field landscapes, his late religious work, to name just a few. And even this chronology inevitably simplifies matters, for McCahon’s development was never linear, and always he referenced his own earlier work.

Angels and bed no. 2 by Colin McCahon
Angels and bed no. 2, 1976. Acrylic on paper. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. 

With modernism we were conditioned to seek to understand an artist’s development: the teleological progression from emerging artist to mature artist to, in  McCahon’s case anyway, something of a high priest. What comes later is meant to have incorporated all that has come before; what was left was meant to have been pushed aside because there was a better way of describing things, a newer or more ‘developed’ visual vocabulary. The earlier can still be good work, and in some cases it can even be better than what came later. But this doesn’t change the fact that the artist got to where they were at the end because they saw it as a movement forwards.

McCahon disrupts these expectations. We find that at the end of his career he was still trying to say the same things as he was at the beginning. Gone were the Rinso-packet speech bubbles with religious quotations (seen in his very early religious paintings, like the 1947 Crucifixion According to St. Mark at the Christchurch Art Gallery)—and instead now we have a whole canvas filled with text. All his life he was simply trying to discover a better way of communicating with New Zealanders. It was not newness his art aspired to, for its own sake; none of the New York School avant-gardist bluster of the likes of Pollock and Rothko. What he sought was understanding, for himself and for New Zealanders—understanding of human life, of truth, and, to an extent, of what it meant to live in this country. With that aim there is no forwards nor backwards, merely different means and different effects.

— — — — 

In the art of Colin McCahon we discover the gulf between the expectations of how we are ‘meant’ to interact with a painting, and how this artist wants us to interact specifically with his own. We take for granted that art offers us some form of enlightenment, but in our next act of deciphering—“But what did he mean?”—we destroy precisely the opportunity for enlightenment that McCahon offers to us so much more directly. McCahon is not like Mark Rothko, who expects his viewers to sit long enough before his paintings in a dimly-lit room to recreate the kind of magic that might have once existed in Giotto’s Arena Chapel. Instead, he is literal: he means precisely what his paintings say. 

Case in point is the “Practical Religion” series. McCahon created canvas upon canvas and scroll upon scroll quoting Biblical passages that he believed people needed to be reminded of: James 3 from the series, at Christchurch, begins with “as the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from deeds is lifeless as a corpse”, scrawled on the upper half. It is black text on a luminescent white-cream background—hurriedly, excitedly, McCahon seems like a student diligently copying out passages that he thinks he should take with him throughout life. At the bottom of the same canvas, in a small box to the right where one might expect the artist’s signature to be, he has copied out, “”GOOD LUCK TO YOU, KEEP YOURSELVES WARM, HAVE PLENTY TO EAT.”” He reminds us of life’s essentials, and in the process short-circuits the need for interpretation. What is there to  interpret, if McCahon tells you—and tells you in words, in the English language!—what he has to say? What is there to decipher, if it is all written out in front of you?

McCahon James 3 Practical Religion
James 3: Practical religion, 1969. Acrylic on board. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Yet this language of religion that McCahon uses to attempt communication with us is, in these times, a double-edged sword. Those already familiar with the bible, perhaps through a religious upbringing, might be drawn immediately closer to McCahon’s work, but those like myself for whom religion was wholly absent might refuse to engage with the work out of a fear of being preached to. And yet McCahon’s religiosity is borne not from evangelism, and instead from the pursuit of wisdom. Religion, and Christianity specifically, was the only vocabulary this artist found he had to communicate deep truths about life; it is used not preachingly, but rather because the alternative was to remain mute. Mark Rothko and Colin McCahon are, after all, remarkably similar artists, both believing deeply and intensely that art might be an antidote to the ills of modernity. But where Rothko’s time and place pushed him towards a secular art, Colin McCahon’s post-Great-War New Zealand gave him in Christianity precisely a spiritual vocabulary. Rothko’s colour fields leave his viewers to place onto them and into them whatever spirituality we might have. McCahon’s leave far less to chance, speaking directly and unashamedly. In another time or place McCahon’s vocabulary might have been secular, like Rothko’s, or of a different religion entirely. For those of us not raised religiously, all that matters is that we see McCahon’s religiosity as a language of humanity where otherwise we have none, a way through (it all comes back to that) where otherwise we might remain stuck.

His paintings, including their religiosity, do something remarkable: they transform a “white cube” gallery into a church and a school. McCahon knew, always, that his were secular times, and that the location where the majority of his works were to be displayed would be secular spaces. But to give that meaningless space meaning, to inject it with some kind of significance, was what so many of his paintings attempted. His Teaching Aids of 1975, for instance—large two by three-metre “blackboards” upon which he explores numeracy, literacy and theology—consciously alter the nature of the space in which they are hung, and consciously mimic the nature of an education. McCahon surely knew that a viewer’s first encounter with one of these works of his would be likely to produce feelings of confusion and ignorance; we don’t know how to interpret the seemingly random lines separating numbers written both in Roman and Arabic numerals and their corresponding English words. But over time—time spent in a classroom—the ignorance and frustration turns into a slowly dawning awareness and knowledge. We see this student, McCahon, exploring the possibilities and limits of words and numbers. We realise that each number between one and fourteen is imbued with the significance of the stations of the cross—perhaps McCahon’s most recurring motif—which are a means of undertaking a kind of internal spiritual journey by reflecting on the life of Christ before the crucifixion. We see different numbers highlighted and then backgrounded as this student struggles  with some and comes to understand others. All the while our minds are following, in almost real-time, the mind of the artist: we are doing what McCahon spent his life doing, which is seeking greater understanding, seeking meaning and order in our turbulent lives. In these paintings Colin McCahon refutes the idea that there exists an art that is not didactic, that there could ever be such a thing as art for its own sake.

McCahon Teaching Aids
Teaching Aids 3, 1975. Acrylic on 10 sheets of paper. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

Luckily McCahon, who died in 1987 after a difficult final decade defined by alcoholism and dementia, did not live to read an interview with one of our former Arts Ministers in which the public reception of his art was summed up and summarily dispatched: “”He’s a strange one, isn’t he? I just find it all a bit… bleak.” But then again, McCahon had to face the charge of bleakness during his lifetime too; “Death has been this artist’s overriding subject,” one of our most distinguished critics wrote in 1984. And one can see the tendency towards that interpretation: the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes in burnt umbers; the solitary journeys in remembrance of a friend through a landscape whose only feature is the horizon (his masterful Walk (Series C), held by Te Papa); or most  clearly, in his final paintings, discovered after his death face-down in his studio, which declare the hopelessness of life in their quotation of Ecclesiastes—“I Counted the dead happy / because they were dead…” Yet an insistence upon McCahon’s obsession with death is to reduce him, to explain him away, to note only nighttime even when summertime days in New Zealand are two-thirds daylight. Bleakness did break through in McCahon’s work at times, but it was the exception. Far more he insisted upon life. To even bother to lift a brush, to daub its fibres with luminescent white and to form human words and symbols through darkness is an insistence on affirmation. His Waterfalls of 1964—single curving, expanding, finely modulated comets of human-created light through nothingness—are McCahon’s own I AM, his statement of existence, and his refusal to be seen as concerned only with death. 

Waterfall by Colin McCahon
Waterfall, 1964. Oil on board. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

In 1942 Allen Curnow asked, “Who reaches / A future down for us from the high shelf / Of spiritual daring?” Before New Zealand had a culture of its own, who would give us one deep enough to make these islands sustain our spirits? By now most New Zealanders have their answer. Colin McCahon did. It took decades too long to realise it; it is still an idea resisted by those who have only engaged with “McCahon”, that nationalistic idea; but we can most of us now say, emphatically, that Colin McCahon was the most spiritually daring of them all. Much of the painter’s reputation rests not on his art but on our art historical nationalism. The rest, however, is pure painting—a kind as soulful and as gutsy as anyone, in any country, will ever see.


Essay completed 2018-2019 in Wellington, Oxford, Venice and Florence.