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.

Rita Angus

Rita Angus New Zealand Artist Hawkes Bay
Rita Angus, Storm, Hawkes Bay, c.1969. (Private Collection, copyright held by Rita Angus Estate)

Of all New Zealand’s early modernists, Rita Angus’ paintings are perhaps the easiest to love. It was her 1936 oil Cass, after all—that quintessential image of the lonely comings-and-goings of rural New Zealand, mundane, everyday journeys carried out amidst the unique transcendence of God’s Own peaks—that was voted to be this country’s most loved painting. But in a country looking for not just an art but an art history of its own, the art has never quite been enough; it was not just a New Zealand art we were looking for, but mythologies of New Zealand artists. That role was the one Rita Angus steadfastly refused to play. And so today New Zealanders find themselves in the position of having three great New Zealand artists, but not knowing what to make of the third. Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, and Rita Angus—Angus last in the list, separated by the Oxford comma, as if we didn’t quite know where she belonged.

Though her artworks were increasingly recognised and loved during her lifetime, Rita Angus herself remained to the end an enigmatic figure, sitting as solitary and isolated from the country’s burgeoning ‘art world’ as the figure in her Cass. She could be peevish, even to her closest friends and family. Douglas Lillburn, her one-time lover and long-time friend and neighbour, often found himself mediating on her behalf with those her brooding letters had left in disbelief. Art dealers and museum curators, far from being an exception, often bore the brunt of her fretful letters, and for this her reputation likely suffered. She never did have a dealer, but sold most of her early works through The Group, bastion of early modernism in Christchurch, and her later works mostly to select visitors to her Thorndon cottage in Wellington. When she died in 1970, aged 62, the bulk of her artistic output remained in her studio.

Perhaps some of the peevishness was personality. More likely, it was the result of the obstinateness that her choice of vocation forced upon her. For it has never been easy to be a woman painter—but to be a divorced woman painter intent upon modernism in what could then still be a conservative backwater was an altogether different challenge. Angus’ portraiture provides a fascinating record of the self-image required to proceed, let alone to succeed, in such an environment. Her Self-portrait of 1936-7 shows her standing strong and defiant, left arm raised as she clutches a cigarette in cool nonchalance as her right hand drapes a green beret over the opposite arm; but she may as well be holding Holofernes’ head by his hair, such is the strength of mind the picture conveys. A decade later and Angus painted A Goddess of Mercy, its central figure bearing distinctly ‘Rita’ features. This is an image of a woman at one with the world—deer nuzzle against her, birds swoop in harmony, mountains and farmland mirror themselves either side. This is a picture of strength, too, but strength borne from a unifying compassion. “As a woman painter”, Angus would write, “I work to represent love of humanity and faith in mankind in a world, which is to me, richly variable, infinitely beautiful”.

Angus was a modernist painter, one of the earliest this country can boast. But she was not by any stretch of the imagination an avant-gardist. Cubism, when it reached her work in the sixties, was diluted—a technique useful only for expressing the landscape as she experienced it while driving through on a bus, as in her late series of Hawkes Bay landscapes. A red barn, viewed frontally, but with what should be its two non-visible sides folded out either side to become visible; a gable-roofed house with both eaves represented simultaneously. Cubistic, more than Cubist—cubified at most. (Perhaps she picked this up from John Weeks who, despite studying under Andre Lhôte in Paris, always had what has been called “a wrong-headed idea of Cubism”). And whenever one senses, for a brief moment, something quite new in her work, there is always a reminder that Angus was looking far further back than us, or her twentieth century viewers: gridlines remain sometimes visible, as though her work were a preparatory drawing for a fifteenth century fresco, and always she worked in rich glazes of colour far more reminiscent of Renaissance Florence than Picasso’s and Braque’s muted, sepia, Cubist-era Paris. The Italian Primitives of the Quattrocento were as much a persistent influence than Picasso’s own dogged dominance of Angus’ century. She did reach abstraction, once or twice, but always she clung to the objective world with a title like Growth, suggesting shoots and seedlings in the springtime Thorndon she so loved.

Angus’ New Zealand landscape, by far her most frequent subject, is always the landscape seen from the metaphorical comfort of a cottage. In this her vision of New Zealand is starkly different from the raw, geomorphic, anti-materialist visions of her Nationalist contemporaries McCahon and Woollaston. Hers is a largely domesticated landscape: a stump of tree in the foreground, always a symbol of the land tamed, upon the quilted patchwork of farmland divided and registered by a District Council; or a road, a railway or perhaps powerlines running up between the quatre-acres. In another sense, too, Angus’ paintings are always domestic. She never painted a canvas or board larger than 900mm along any dimension, and her best works were significantly smaller (often they were watercolours, which, particularly during the first half of Angus’ career, frequently surpass her oils in their power and clarity.) Central Otago of 1940, her dynamic oil composition with a clarity she perhaps never captured again, surprises for how small it seems after one has seen reproductions, and her landscapes of the late 1960s never reach larger than a 600mm by 600mm square. There is something of Dalí’s approach to scale in Angus’ small, powerful and condensed images—even something of the icon in them—and again she demarcates herself from her contemporaries who painted ever-larger. McCahon and Woollaston stun the public into submission with eventually massive works. Angus enchants us. Her works are like small jewels, radiating human-scaled hope and warmth.

In 1958 the painter from Hawkes Bay who had always maintained that “N.Z. has more than enough to offer” made what was to be her only overseas trip, to London for a year, with just a three week grand tour of the continent. Where New Zealand’s other great female painter, Frances Hodgkins, saw in Europe the intellectual frontier and decided to stay forever so she could push against it, one gets the sense that for Rita Angus, a woman who lived a life of ascetic devotion to her art, to stay would have been too easy. “It is also easier overseas as it is traditional for a painter to devote their time to their work, & a liberal atmosphere to work in.” To have it easy was not the life she had chosen.

And so New Zealanders are left with a body of work astounding in its unity, an oeuvre unwavering in its commitment to what is ‘local and special’ about this country and its inhabitants at the point this painter picked up the traces. But the conflation of the subject of a work with its spirit has been the elementary mistake to have dogged the art historical reception of Rita Angus, leaving her out in the cold behind that Oxford comma. For hers was not the chauvinist vision of her nationalist contemporaries any more than we would say Picasso’s vision was jingoistic merely because he painted memento moris during the war. Angus stands in a relationship to New Zealand art history akin to how Edward Hopper stands to America’s: concerned deeply with the country and its people, its changing present and its potential futures, modestly moving beyond the art of old while incorporating its best traditions, yet all the while never once asserting an agenda at all limited by the borders of nationhood. And indeed these two came uncannily close to one another at times, in their unwavering realism, in their seascapes (Angus’ Boats at Island Bay to Hopper’s The Long Leg) and their cityscapes (Angus’ At Suzy’s Coffee Lounge to Hopper’s Nighthawks), and in their immutable—yet mute—resistance to their young countries’ insistence that in painting their landscapes they were painting their identities.

What Rita Angus leaves us is a minutely composed lesson in how by close observation of what is unique about ourselves we might move closer to seeing what is universal—how a love for one’s land, down to a solitary Passionflower, might reflect the passions that all humans have in common. It does not seem surprising that she viewed her 1951 Rutu as perhaps her most important work: this multi-ethnic goddess is at once unmistakeably Rita and undeniably everyone, set in at once the autumnal environment of her cottage at Clifton and the tropical paradise of a Tahitian Eden. Seen this way, the solitary, suited man on the station platform at Cass may not be waiting for the Midland Line train after all. He might just be waiting—as we all are, no matter what alps or oceans we wait amongst—for someone or something a bit like Godot.