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.

“I’ve Lived for So Many Days Now”: Rinus Van de Velde at König Gallery, Berlin

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition

There are more pleasant places to spend early January than Berlin, but, finding myself there on a particularly bleak day, the thought of visiting the brutalist church that now houses König Gallery seemed to offer some respite. Perhaps only in Berlin would that be said of brutalism—nevertheless, it was palpable relief I felt to step off the wind-and-sleet blasted boulevard and into the gorgeous gallery spaces. I came for the architecture, but stayed for the art.

What I knew of König Gallery before visiting was this: in 2015 they moved into the old St. Agnes Church after renovating it, and now displayed art in two separate gallery spaces, the former chapel and the nave. I also knew that the owner and founder, Johann König, is legally blind (a childhood accident involving gunpowder). These two curious facts were enough to make me think of visiting the place when I had a free afternoon before flying back to London.

What I knew of Rinus van de Velde before visiting the gallery was, on the other hand, precisely nothing, not even his name. In retrospect, this made my unexpected encounter with his art all the more invigorating—it was the art on its own terms. Normally I would research an artist before visiting a new show, ensuring I knew at least the basics of biography and style, but here I walked into the first room figuring I would read the exhibition pamphlet after looking at the art.

The first “room” of the exhibition was more literal than normal. Van de Velde had constructed a room inside the room that is the former church nave: past the gallery reception, you walk through a threshold and into a smaller room that immediately gives the impression of some kind of gamer’s or coder’s lair. The light is dim, cigarette butts are haphazardly put out in an ashtray, computer screens give off their glare, and other contraptions let you know that the person who inhabits this room knows far more about all this technology than you do. The entire room is constructed by the artist using cardboard, wood and paint. Nothing is “real”, not the computers nor the cigarette butts, but everything is real enough that you feel you’ve entered a different space, a different frame of mind, a different world. You can walk around the room, jostle with other bodies (it’s not a large space), and some people tapped on the computer keyboards to see if anything would happen.

And who does inhabit this room? Looking for clues, I walked out the other door to this room-within-a-room, on the other side from where I entered. The brutalist architecture is back: a poured concrete floor with its stains and cracks intact, and beautiful brick walls. The floor ends a few centimetres away from the wall which gives the impression that the wall is a plane continuing through the floor, and this sense of verticality contrasts wonderfully with the horizontal brickwork. This room is one I could spend a long time in even if it lacked art on the walls—but again, I came for the architecture, and ended up staying for the art.

Three large canvases (the largest is over four metres horizontally) hang in this room, one on each wall. All are black-and-white charcoal drawings. And this is still Van de Velde’s room: because we passed through his constructed room, we enter this further gallery space in exactly the frame of mind that he wanted us to. Ahead of you is the work that gave its name to the exhibition, where we see a crowd of people, some gesticulating and yelling, others looking dejected or resigned. The jackets and name-badges that some of the figures wear give credence to my first thought that this is a scene from perhaps the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. And below the work in a horizontal strip is written, all in capital letters:

I’VE LIVED FOR SO MANY DAYS NOW. THAT’S WHY I AM ABLE TO BATHE IN A CONSTANT PERFECT REGULATED HARMONY. I CAN CALCULATE AND PREDICT WHAT IS ABOUT TO COME AND WILL HAPPEN IN FUTURE DAYS. THIS SETTLES MY THOUGHTS. IN MY BASEMENT I CONTROL THE OUTSIDE WORLD ON MY SELF-MADE COMPUTERS. CAUSING STRESS AND ANXIETY AMONG THE ONES WHO DON’T SEE THE PATTERNS.

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition

Is the inhabitant of the room depicted in the scene? Or is he just the mastermind of it? Maybe he has hacked into the NYSE cameras and is looking on this mass of people from the comfort of his private island somewhere. Maybe he’s like a James Bond villain. Maybe he’s just a millennial geek. Certainly he is philosophical and self-reflective, as the canvas on the left-hand wall shows us: we catch this man in flagrante, a woman on top of him, the contents of his room strewn over the floor. But here the text beneath the image (a constant in all of Van de Velde’s drawings) reads,

ONCE IN A WHILE I RETURN AND FIND MYSELF A THING THAT STRIVES TO PERVERT, CONFUSE AND OVERTHROW EVERYTHING. WHEREFOR ALL THIS NOISE, THE STRAINING AND STORMING, THE ANXIETY AND WANT? WHY SHOULD A TRIFLE PLAY SO IMPORTANT A PART, AND CONSTANTLY INTRODUCE DISTURBANCE AND CONFUSION INTO MY WELL-REGULATED LIFE.

From afar, the artist’s charcoal drawings seem perfectly rendered—almost like a black-and-white photograph on the front of a newspaper. Move closer, and the forms collapse into one another as your eyes focus on details. The canvas is so large that the figures appear life-size, and the way Van de Velde has blurred and blended the lines (he uses his hands and sometimes even his elbows) gives him the ability to hint at gestures and expressions without fully developing them. In this medium just when you think you’ve got a hold of what is depicted, you wonder if that grimace is not actually just someone with their eyes closed. The works gain energy from the ambiguity of the lines—as in the work I just described, where the man’s face looks not at the woman’s breast above him, but to the left, maybe into the distance or perhaps just into his deepest thoughts.

My favourite was the work on the right-hand wall. Ostensibly a seascape, the light shimmers and moves over the surface of the water. Of course, the “light” is made up of those parts of the canvas that the artist has not drawn on. I thought of one of Anselm Kiefer’s small seascapes I recently saw in London, and of another small seascape by Colin McCahon. But this surpassed them both, for its reserve (it is just smudged charcoal lines!), its melancholy effect, its movement as you move closer and then further away. Here, beneath the drawing:

AFTER ALMOST TEN YEARS NOW I REALISED THAT I GAINED SOME HERE AND LOST SOME THERE.

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition
Rinus van de Velde Belgian artist, Konig Gallery in Berlin, Germany

Read this, and suddenly what appeared as a melancholy image (I thought of this Bitcoin bro James Bond geeky villain dangling his legs over the side of a jetty and looking down into this water) comes across as self-reflectively ironic. This coder villain seems to realise the banality of his melancholic statement, even as he says it or thinks it nonetheless. I could almost see him smirking, wryly laughing at himself. This is a step beyond the postmodern irony and cynicism we’ve come to expect. I think it’s testament to how fully Van de Velde constructs these worlds—the coder’s lair, the ambiguous expressions, the literary text beneath the images—that we can be drawn ever more deeply into them.

We are told, in the exhibition pamphlet, that the room Van de Velde has constructed is in fact the set for a film he has been working on for over two years—and that it will screen by the end of 2019. I already look forward to seeing it. But I hope, whatever it contains, that it doesn’t give away too much of the character behind this room and these drawings. Because it is our own relationship to the questions raised by them that give the drawings so much life. That’s why I felt that the weakest part of the exhibition was the fourth drawing, back by the gallery’s reception: a self-portrait of the artist, Jackson Pollock heroic with cigarette in his mouth, with the text beneath musing on a lost love. It almost gave us too much—but only almost, because I still went back to the other room and enjoyed the drawings even more on second, third and fourth viewing.

Reading Charles Brasch in Oxford

Charles Brasch Landfall New Zealand Oxford McCahon Angus
Colin McCahon, The Virgin and Child Compared (1948). Copyright Colin McCahon Estate. Collection of Hocken Library, Dunedin. Charles Brasch Bequest (1973).

Charles Brasch’s contribution to the birth and growth of New Zealand culture was immense, and is still in many ways under-appreciated or unaccounted for. He was the founding editor of Landfall, the quarterly journal started in March 1947 that showed New Zealanders as well as the world what was unique about the writing, art and music produced in the country—we all know that much. He wrote poems himself, he collected the art of all New Zealand’s mid twentieth-century modernists (and then donated them all to the Hocken Library in Dunedin). He journaled fastidiously, which now, after Peter Simpson’s tireless work, gives us an account of the growth of our culture. But Brasch’s manner of philanthropy was the very best kind: he was always behind the scenes, providing money at just the right time and place where it was needed to support an artist, to publish a book or to start a fellowship. I say “but” about his philanthropy because that now means we will likely never know of or trace the extent of his contributions. Even his diary did not hear of his benevolence.

It has seemed to me then a little ungrateful that Brasch’s Wikipedia page points out, in the very first paragraph, that he gained an “ignominious third” in his Modern History course at Oxford in the late 1920s. I cannot think of any other public figure in New Zealand or elsewhere for whom undergraduate grades feature so prominently in their public biography. Brasch, however, was adamant, as he pointed out in his memoirs published posthumously: “I had not come to Oxford to get a degree”. And judging by his Oxford reading, he got from his time here exactly what he needed.

“One of the very few things I could remember of my first term was lying on my sofa through long damp grey days and reading Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, which seemed (in recollection) to set the mood of the whole term. In fact I devoured the Journal in two days… In that same term, I think, I began to read Plato…”

And just a few years later that undergraduate truant reading would serve Brasch well in one of his life’s most important moments. Sitting by his grandfather Willi Fels’ bedside during his last days—Fels, his maternal grandfather who essentially raised him and was the only one to support him in the decision to become a poet—Brasch read aloud to him the Phaedo, the recollection of Socrates’ death, excluding only those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read. It was those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read that were then read aloud, decades later, at Brasch’s own funeral.

His reading was immense, but unfocussed. In addition to the above we know that Wilde and Pound, Brooke and Graves were particularly important during his Oxford years. Brasch published just one poem during his undergraduate years, right before he graduated and went down to London; but this didn’t stop him paying Basil Blackwell a nervous, and unsuccessful, visit about the possibility of publishing a book. His calling to poetry at times seems driven more by an aesthetic sensibility than an inborn talent. Certainly he was not anywhere near the talent of Auden, who was at Oxford at the same time, or Baxter, whose superior talent Brasch immediately recognised and supported (he never seems to have been a jealous writer; maybe this fact explains the limits of his critical success).

Brasch suggests it was partly Plato, partly a flirtation with Buddhism, and partly the lives of other writers (their vegetarian diets) that meant “notions of purity obsessed me… By fits and starts I made several ineffectual bids towards purity. The purity I believed I longed for failed to distinguish properly between what goes in at the mouth and what comes out of the heart.” Brasch, of course, as one of the inheritors to the Hallensteins clothing empire, had the means for an aesthetic life—a life of lavishness and luxury, if he so wanted. But notions of the ascetic are always strongest in those for whom it is a choice rather than a necessity. “Fortunately,” Brasch goes on in his memoirs, “my will was weak and my senses strong, so that I did not fall into puritanism, but continued in a cloud of contradictions, not knowing what I wanted except that I wanted to write poetry. Of these inner cross-currents I spoke to no one.”

The inner cross-currents of which he spoke to no one could be seen as those  tides that shaped his life. His sexuality and love life, for one thing (always tortured), but also more immediately, in his post-Oxford years, that of his vocation. Though he thought of himself always as a poet, his life and posthumous reputation seem to rest on his role as “literary editor” and “arts patron”, as Wikipedia, ever reflecting the public sense, puts it. Or, as he put it, reflecting on his most tortured period and the reaction of his father: “Was I going to be a drifter, sticking at nothing? an idler? a dilettante? I could not explain adequately, because I had not the courage or conviction to avow my secret hopes.”

Landfall certainly dominated his days, to the extent that friends at times advised him to give up the editorship if he was to keep writing poetry. The myriad tasks and constant letter-writing kept this man of leisure busy, or at least busier than Baxter, and then again we find him organising shows of McCahon’s work in Christchurch, for instance, without telling either his diary or Colin. We come up again against Brasch’s old-world decorum, more than just the result of an Oxford education of the late 20s—a fundamental drive to do for others (for a nation) what his means allowed him to, all without any desire for or expectation of credit or recognition.

Fortunately for us, even if we can’t know of all Brasch’s deeds, we can find the products of them—most significantly, in Dunedin, the city that was for him always home. The Hocken Library of the University of Otago possesses one of the best art collections in the country, in large part thanks to Brasch (gifts and bequests tend to snowball as more people see the stature of an institution through what has previously been donated). Rita Angus’ View from Tinakori Road  is there; so too is McCahon’s The Virgin and Child Compared, to name just two personal favourites of over 450 artworks. His personal library of over 7,500 volumes also lives at the Hocken, and so far under-explored is Brasch’s collection of international art and prints that were separated from the main bequest and given to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

As I sit here in Oxford, “through long damp grey days”, reading Brasch’s journals and memoirs, Dunedin comes into focus. Dunedin, and all the places and people Brasch visited and wrote of. They become centre and I am living at the margins, unable to see or read or connect with that which is most important to me (except for those few books that, thankfully, the Bodleian happens to stock). Distance indeed looks our way, as that famous line of Brasch’s poem, “In These Islands“, tells us.

Walking this evening past Brasch’s old rooms with their views out onto the Elm trees of St. Giles, it came clearly to me how a culture is built, how it moves forward, how it communicates more and more life. It gains life and communicates it because of the individuals who decide there isn’t enough of it, and who decide to devote their lives to creating more of it. It is simple, in retrospect; but looking forwards, for the young man flunking Oxford with an ignominious third, it must have looked like the most difficult thing in the world.


 

More on Charles Brasch:

Charles Brasch. Indirections: A Memoir. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Charles Brasch. Journals. 3 volumes, published by Otago University Press.

Charles Brasch. The Universal Dance: A selection from the critical prose writings. Otago University Press, 1981.

Charles Brasch. Present Company: Reflections on the Arts. Blackwood & Janet Paul Ltd, 1966.

James Bertram. Charles Brasch. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Sarah Quigley. A World Elsewhere: a critical and biographical study of the European influence on the life and work of Charles Brasch. DPhil (PhD) thesis at the University of Oxford. (One copy available at Oxford’s Weston library; I couldn’t find an online version).

Donald Kerr (editor). Enduring Legacy: Charles Brasch, Patron, Poet, Collector. Otago University Press, 2003.

Crabbed Age and Youth Cannot Live Together: On Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations

     Aria.

“It is held to be a good taunt, and somehow or other to clinch the question logically, when an old gentleman waggles his head and says: “Ah, so I thought when I was your age.” It is not thought an answer at all, if the young man retorts: “My venerable sir, so I shall most probably think when I am yours.”

— Robert Louis Stevenson, On Crabbed Age and Youth

     1. 

I daresay that if, as he sat in his studio in 1955 and prepared to record his first version of the Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould had somehow been able to listen to his own recording of Bach’s same composition twenty-six years later, he might not have been able to begin at all. His 1981 recording, completed just a year before his untimely death at 50, is everything that his youthful 23-year-old version of 1955 is not: sombre and calm to the earlier version’s unfolding energy; elongated and unhurried, shorn of the precocious rapid-fire momentum of youth; effortlessly philosophical and reflective, a grandfatherly stroll rather than the young man’s competitive sprint. To listen to Bach’s aria in the 49-year-old Gould’s recording is to glimpse, for a few minutes, the illusions of youth, to see how, as Fitzgerald put it in The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, “It is youth’s felicity as well as its insufficiency that it can never live in the present, but must always be measuring up the day against its own radiantly imagined future—flowers and gold, girls and stars, they are only prefigurations and prophecies of that incomparable, unattainable young dream.” 

But could a 23-year-old, in his prime and about to be propelled towards all that Fitzgerald’s flowers and gold represent, have been able to continue in his youthful recording had he a premonition of the wisdom of old age—a premonition, that is, of his own present illusions? Can youth maintain its confidence when it sees its own eventual, inevitable demise?

Gould himself, of course, recorded his variations on the Variations not in advance of his own life, but at the speed at which he was living. His recording at age 23 was the self-fulfilling prophecy he needed it to be, leading him to widespread recognition, its barely contained energy pushing him towards the fame he was later to have a conflicted relationship with. The aria is here reflective, as Bach’s melody demands, but Gould’s haste and precocity give it the sense of a young man’s reflectiveness. On the other hand, those of us standing at the same point that Gould stood, age 23, perhaps hear too much. I hear in Gould’s 1955 Variations all the pent up hopes that are my own, and then hear, soon after, their conclusion in the 1981 recording. From one starting point, the Variations (both Bach’s and Gould’s) are the multiform directions that life could take, each variation subtly informing path dependencies of the next, but always back, in the end, to a kind of primordial beginning. To see the inevitable reflectiveness of almost three decades’ time before I’ve even begun, and to see how all life’s variations play out ultimately to lead me to where I am now: this is my personal conclusion from perhaps too many listenings.

     2. 

The difference is thirteen minutes. 38 minutes in 1955; 51 minutes in 1981. Thirteen minutes: how much longer it took Gould to play the Variations in his old age compared to his youth. There are the same number of keystrokes in each recording, only the space between each stroke—the nothingness, the lack of sound—is extended, elongated. 

This fascinates me. It is a paradox: the young man, who has so much time, feels the need to rush, while the old man, with less than a year to live, plays as if he has all the time in the world. I wonder if the paradox can be explained by a respect for nothingness. For the 23-year-old, the time between keystrokes on the piano sounds like time wasted, time never to be recovered or regained, and therefore time best minimised or avoided. But for the 49-year-old inactivity, or the time between actions, can be the most fruitful—it is precisely the aching nothingness of the time between each keystroke in Gould’s 1981 recording that gives the aria and particularly the aria da capo, in which the notes are strung out imperceptibly but so fruitfully, their power and poignancy. 

     3. 

Finished less than a year before his death in 1982, it is unsurprising that Gould’s final recording of the Goldberg Variations has been thought of as premonitory. The reaching pauses in the aria da capo between each perfectly formed, independent keystrokes are pregnant with all the variations of a life that remained unfulfilled: the countries not visited; the mornings wasted in busyness; the youthful dreams long forgotten; the loves not consummated. We are here back at the beginning, this time with no more variations or possibilities to be explored. The pauses ache. The sound of nothingness hurts, because we want existence to continue.

“The implication of the negative in our lives reduces by comparison every other concept that man has toyed with in the history of thought,” Gould explained to a crowd of 23 year olds in a graduation address in the ‘60s, mid-way between his two Goldberg recordings, half-way through his life. “It [nothingness] is the concept which seeks to make us better—to provide us with structures within which our thought can function—while at the same time it concedes our frailty, the need that we have for this barricade behind which the uncertainty, the fragility, the tentativeness of our systems can look for logic.”

Whether Gould’s value-free advice helped any of those 23-year-olds in his audience, I’m not so sure. I can understand his point about nothingness—most of all when I listen to his 1981 Variations—but, still standing in youth, it is intangible philosophy. Knowing what I will likely think and feel in my forties does little to change how I can live my life in the present.

     4. 

Three variations on nothingness:

Ecclesiastes 1: “Is there anything of which one can say, Look, this is New? No, it has already existed, long ago, before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.”

Omar Khayyám, The Rubaiyat: “The worldly hope men set their hearts upon turns to ashes – or it prospers; and anon, like snow upon the desert’s dusty face lighting a little hour or two – is gone.”

Alan Watts, The State of Nothingness: “If you are aware of a state which you call is – or reality, or life – this implies another state called isn’t – or illusion, or unreality, or nothingness, or death. There it is. You can’t know one without the other.”

     5.

My introduction to the variation form in music came, in fact, not through music at all. Throughout my whole life, until very recently, there hung in my family home a painting by the artist Colin McCahon. It is a vertical panel almost two metres high and one metre wide, painted in raw, earthy yellow, brown and blue tones—it depicts, as a whole, an abstracted landscape, with curvaceous forms reminiscent of both the human body and geomorphic landscapes. The lines of the forms, however, could very well be read in musical terms, as if a bass line is rising and falling across a musical score, as is the case with the Goldberg Variations. And indeed McCahon encouraged this reading through his title: ours was panel I from the third series of the Landscape Theme and Variations. 

Each of the three series has eight panels. One series was split up, and it was from this series that my grandparents obtained our panel. The other two series remain together in national public collections, and seeing them still complete, the variation form was brought home to me long before I ever heard Bach’s Variations.  

 

Glenn Gould Bach Goldberg Variations McCahon Landscape Theme and Variations

Colin McCahon, Landscape Theme and Variations (Series A), 1963. Copyright McCahon Estate.

There are variations on variations on variations. Each panel contains its own variations on the theme that is ever-present, set in McCahon’s case through any panel you look at, as in Bach’s through the aria (this is the difference between the variation form in painting and music: in the former you can begin anywhere, in the latter you must start at the beginning). Each panel contains its own variations, its own forms that are reconfigurations of the common forms that are present throughout every panel in every series. Then each series has subtle variations: subtly different hues indicating a different mood or time of day, smaller or larger landscape forms suggesting different location. And then there is the possibility of a curator hanging the panels in a different order, introducing another element of variation: the visual artistic equivalent of the creative freedom Gould has in playing the Goldberg Variations.

But, prepared for Bach’s Variations by McCahon’s paintings, I was unprepared for the effects of Gould’s two variations on the Variations. It was through the difference between Gould’s two recordings—the difference between the young man and the middle-aged—that I became obsessed.

     6. 

No matter which recording of the Goldberg Variations I listen to, I always get a fright at the start of the first variation. I now know to expect it: I tense up in the final few notes of the aria in anticipation. The brooding melancholy of the aria then gives way in an instant to a flash of energy. There is suddenly excitement and a freewheeling spirt. I see dresses twirling and shoes quick-stepping. People dancing. Students smiling.

This is Bach, and the first variation is indeed thought to be a take on the Polonaise, a kind of Polish dance performed, often, at graduation parties. There is a carnival-like mood, the carefree weeks or months before graduation and responsibilities. 

Of all Gould’s variations on the Variations, it is perhaps here that I see the greatest difference. In the 1955 recording the energy is unrestrained, our ears barely able to keep up with Gould’s fingers. The carefree nature of the variation is unfettered. But in 1981, the tempo has slowed. Now, it is as if the Polonaise is being recollected through the memory fog of many years—the memory is still there, but tinged with regret for those days having passed. Or, perhaps, it is the Polonaise now transmuted to the music of a regal procession rather than a student prom.

     7.

Cicero’s earliest surviving work is thought to be his youthful De Inventione, written when he was just twenty-one or twenty-two. It is a work of oratorical lessons, the kind of book Cicero might have produced to demonstrate his knowledge of the subject before having to put it into practise. He looks back across time, writing a kind of history of oratory to be used in the present. 

Inventione is rediscovery. Rather than our modern notion of invention as creation, inventione for Cicero was the sense of discovering arguments from the past that might be used in his oratory in the present. He combined the best of what he thought had been argued in the past to write a manual for his future oratory. Only, he soon came to regret the work. Cicero’s later De Oratore was the book he wrote to supersede his youthful treatise. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, as the more we learn, surely, the more we come to repent for our prior views. 

Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a work of inventione. From the Polonaise of the first variation to the quodlibet of the last, Bach’s work is a plundering from places and genres and time periods. It is as if through this kind of inventione he can show us the full variety of variations that are possible, and all the ones that have been possible. 

Edward Said’s point in his essay Glenn Gould, The Virtuoso as Intellectual, is to think about the combination of both Bach’s and Gould’s inventione. Gould, he argues, is not just playing Bach’s Variations, but is “inventing” them himself, in that classical meaning of “invention”: “So what Gould seems to be attempting at such moments is a full realization of a protracted and sustained contrapuntal invention, disclosed, argued, and elaborated, rather than simply presented, through performance.” And, moreover, it is Gould’s unique choice to focus on the recording studio rather than the concert hall that allowed the full extent of this inventione: “Hence his insistence throughout his career that the very act of performance itself had to be taken out of the concert hall, where it was limited to the implacable chronological sequence and set program of the recital order, and planted in the studio where the essential “take-twoness” of recording technique—one of Gould’s favorite terms—could be submitted to the art of invention—repeated invention, repeated takes—in the fullest rhetorical sense of “invention.”

I wonder, in light of this, what Gould’s own relationship to his two Goldberg Variation recordings was. To even consider doing another recording was he, like Cicero, coming to repent for the inventione of his youth? Was the 1981 recording a final statement, the work he hoped people would henceforth listen to? Or was his relationship to them more complex—was he aware of the multifaceted natures of human beings across time, and see that it was the combination of both recordings that would lead to all manner of discoveries in a twenty-three year old three decades henceforth?

Rhetorical questions, of course. But here’s the issue. Hearing simultaneously both of Gould’s recordings, I am shown the inevitability of youthful views being superseded. And that’s why I asked, to begin, whether Gould could have gone on with his recording at age 23 had he been able to hear the recording of almost three decades later. Why, too, should I trust my present listening of the Goldberg Variations when, through Gould, I can anticipate a different interpretation in mid-life?

     8. 

At the very beginning of a musical education, I’m left wondering why it is that Bach and his Goldberg Variations seem uniquely capable of leading the mind to these broadest questions of life, ageing, and death—the very fundamentals of our lives, in other words. For hearing a live performance of Shostakovich, or Brahms, or Mahler, or Tchaikovsky, as I’ve done in recent weeks, did not lead to the same point. There were visions of human grandeur in these composers—Mahler’s 6th Symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, for instance—but not the meditative reflectiveness of Bach’s Variations. In the symphonies I heard Picassoesque visions of humanity, as perhaps in his Guernica—triumph and suffering; in Bach, I hear the sounds of Giacometti’s Walking Man—the solitary awareness of mortality, or nothingness, and all that we have before it, which is life.

I have two variations of an answer, from Edward Said. The first is to do with the nature of counterpoint, exemplified in the Goldberg Variations with the common baseline and varying melody. Said writes: “The contrapuntal mode in music is, it seems, connected to eschatology, not only because Bach’s music is essentially religious or because Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is highly fugal. For the rules of counterpoint are so demanding, so exact in their detail as to seem divinely ordained.” The answer here might be that my lack of understanding of Bach’s counterpoint makes the Variations a mystery to do with life itself. The Variations inject some mystery into the over-explained, technologised world I’ve grown up in. This is not to say that I yet understand Mahler’s symphony either—but the unassuming simplicity of the Goldberg Variations, with Gould sitting alone, hunched over his piano, makes the mystery all the greater. With so many instruments in an orchestra, the mystery appears overtly as mystery.

The second variation of this answer is to do with Gould himself. It is only half an answer, for other, non-Gould recordings of the Variations still lead to, in large part, the same reflectiveness that Gould’s do. But here is Said: “This process of proceeding brilliantly from microcosm to macrocosm and then back again is Gould’s special accomplishment in his first Goldberg: by doing it pianistically he also lets you experience the sort of understanding normally the result of reading and thinking, not simply of playing a musical instrument.” I see no reason why this is not true, perhaps to an even greater extent, in Gould’s later 1981 recording. The microcosm of the theme, the aria, is made multiform in the same way that a human life is: from one starting point, so many possibilities, so many variations, and back, ultimately, to a point somewhat near where one started. The Variations reflect the nature of a human life, and Gould’s gift was to understand them in this way, leading us along as if we were reading a novel, or philosophy. 

Whether or not the apocryphal origin story of the Goldberg Variations is true—Count Kaiserling stopping in Germany and requesting a composition from Bach, to be played by Goldberg at night to alleviate his insomnia—I can’t help but feel the Variations are early-morning music or late-night music. The unassuming quality of their reflectiveness makes them suited, in my view, to these times of day alone. Leave the symphonies to early evening; Bach alone, for me, at the very beginning and the very end of the day.

     Aria da capo.

“Because I have reached Paris, I am not ashamed of having passed through Newhaven and Dieppe. They were very good places to pass through, and I am none the less at my destination. All my old opinions were only stages on the way to the one I now hold, as itself is only a stage on the way to something else… Here have I fairly talked myself into thinking that we have the whole thing before us at last; that there is no answer to the mystery, except that there are as many as you please; that there is no centre to the maze because, like the famous sphere, its centre is everywhere; and that agreeing to differ with every ceremony of politeness, is the only “one undisturbed song of pure consent” to which we are ever likely to lend our musical voices.”

— Robert Louis Stevenson, On Crabbed Age and Youth

 


 

Thanks to Professor Andrew Hui at Yale-NUS College for giving me the space and time to write this essay, and for all his reading suggestions.