Colin McCahon, Painting, 1958; oil on hardboard, 1218 x 764 mm; Fletcher Trust Collection, Auckland. Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

Colin John McCahon was born on 1 August 1919, the horse’s birthday, in Tīmaru on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. He was the second child of Ethel Beatrice and John Kernohan McCahon, a commercial traveller, later company manager, in some versions also an accountant. In Colin’s youth his father managed Austin Motors in Dunedin. Ethel McCahon, née Ferrier, was the daughter of an artist. She went from the family home to be with her mother, Eva Beatrice Ferrier, née Cunninghame, in Tīmaru, for the birth; the boy’s conception occurred around the time of the Armistice that concluded the First World War – also the fourth anniversary of the death of the uncle after whom he was named.

William Ferrier, McCahon’s maternal grandfather, was a professional photographer and amateur landscape painter in water colours:

We grew up with his paintings on the walls and at holiday times visiting my Grandmother’s house in Tīmaru. We lived in rooms hung floor to ceiling with watercolours and prints. Once, suffering from mumps, I think it was, I spent a time confined in what had been my Grandfather’s darkroom: red glass in the window, and paints and brushes, a palette, in shallow drawers. I was there for a few weeks and then shifted to Dunedin and some months later began my painting career – well with crayon drawings anyway.

McCahon was thus familiar from a young age with the materials and the material results of artistic practice. Living in Dunedin in the 1920s, first in Highgate, then in Prestwick Street on Māori Hill, the family visited the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and attended art exhibitions in other places in the city. They also went to church. The McCahons were Scots and Irish Protestant, with a background in the Wesleyan and Presbyterian churches; William Ferrier was a lay preacher and John McCahon in his youth wanted to become a minister. A strain of pacifism ran in the family, anti-British feeling too, along with a mystical current of belief that favoured the revelation of an elect, whether considered as an individual or as a community.

Ethel Ferrier said that no New Zealand men should be sent to Europe to fight and die in its wars. Her brother, Colin Ferrier, builder and explorer, had been killed at Ypres on November 11, 1914. He was a lieutenant in the British army and, before the war, a builder of bridges. William McCahon, Colin’s elder son, remembered his grandparents’ reverential crossing of the bridges around Tīmaru that had been built by their dead brother and brother-in-law. Colin McCahon was named after this uncle and within the family was believed to have inherited his mana.

There were three children: Colin, the middle child, his older sister Beatrice, his younger brother Jim. Bea became a teacher and Jim a scientist. They attended Māori Hill Primary School but for Colin, according to his first biographer, Gordon Brown, an informal education in art was to prove more important. He remembered copying a drawing of kingcups, flowers he had never seen in life, out of a book; illustrating Wordsworth’s poem ‘Daffodils’; attempting Venetian scenes with gondolas tied to black posts; and many South Sea islands with feathery palms. There was an excellent likeness of movie star Joan Crawford which later, at Art School, he would make a horrible version of, first in clay, then in plaster of Paris.

An early revelation, much quoted, came when the child artist watched a sign writer lettering the words HAIRDRESSER AND TOBACCONIST in gold and black on a stippled red ground across the window of a shop opening up next door to the family home in Highgate: I watched from outside as the artist working inside slowly separated himself from me (and light from dark) to make his new creation.

In 1927 Colin’s grandmother Eva died in Tīmaru, the family business collapsed, the Great Depression ensued and the McCahons moved to Ōamaru for a spell. Colin spent a year at Waitaki Junior High School, which he loved and where he prospered; he would later say that his academic career ended there, when he was twelve years old. There were other revelations. I remember also a parachutist whose parachute failed to open and the white cross erected against the low North Otago hills where he fell. I have often used both the cross and these hills in later paintings.

After the family moved back to Dunedin at the end of 1931, Colin was enrolled at Otago Boys High, school for the unseeing, and the most unforgettable horror of my youth. Monday evenings were spent with art books in the Dunedin Public Library; and from 1932 to 1934 he attended Saturday morning classes run by artist, sculptor and illustrator Russell Clark – later principal illustrator for the New Zealand School Journal – on the premises of publishers and printers John McIndoe Ltd., where Clark worked. McCahon said he was a splendid teacher; Clark remembered his pupil’s first watercolours as being: very unusual in approach and extremely interesting.

Spiritual crisis accompanied the economic: Driving one day with the family over the hills I first became aware of my own particular God, perhaps an Egyptian God, but standing far from the sun of Egypt in the Otago cold. Big hills stood in front of little hills, which rose up distantly across the plain from the flat land: there was a landscape of splendour, order and peace. Not long after this, William McCahon wrote, the McCahon family left their Māori Hill Presbyterian Church, where both parents held voluntary positions within the congregation. The reason given for this was the requirement that Colin buy a suit in which to attend services; but it was really because of the refusal of the hierarchy to concede any relevance to individual revelation outside the sacraments – that is, to give credence to young Colin’s vision. This atmosphere of impassioned debate over matters of faith and doubt, doctrine and belief, is the very air of McCahon’s later painting.

It intensified during the 1930s, when families in the Dunedin pacifist community – Brailsfords, Baxters, Kennedys, McCahons – sought to determine if fascism or war was the greater evil. Colin, who had already joined the Society of Friends, felt that fascism was the greater evil and had to be opposed; but wanted to maintain his stance as a pacifist as well. When he was called up for military service, his assertion of pacifism was not believed; after examination he was rejected as medically unfit because of an enlarged heart.

In the winter of 1936 he prevailed upon his father to let him leave the hated Otago Boys’ High. He found a job in a furniture store, Scoullar and Chisholm, and worked there until he was able to begin attending, part-time, the Dunedin School of Art, a department of King Edward Technical College. Here he was taught by, among others, Robert Nettleton Field. R. N. Field was English-born, London-educated, a contemporary and classmate of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore at the Royal College of Art in the early 1920s. A painter, a sculptor and a potter, he came to New Zealand on the La Trobe Scheme in 1925 to take up the position at the Dunedin School of Art.

Field’s teaching style was informal: his dreamy manner and bursts of enthusiasm sparked the older students’ imaginations. He and his wife hosted groups of young students from the college at home, calling themselves the Six and Four Art Club and organising their own exhibitions. Field painted portraits, landscapes and still lifes in pure, jewel-like colours; his direct carving in stone and spirit of experimentation represented a modernist reaction against the Victorian naturalism prevailing in the colonies.

Field was guest exhibitor with The Group in Christchurch in 1931. The young Tosswill Woollaston resolved to become his student after seeing this show. Subsequently, in the summer of 1936-7, McCahon saw an exhibition of Woollaston’s paintings in the windows of rented rooms on Broadway in Dunedin. They were landscapes in the Nelson region, in the north of the South Island, and McCahon became enamoured of them, revisiting the show several times: wonderful and magnificent interpretations of a New Zealand landscape, he wrote; clean, bright with New Zealand light, and full of air.

Toss Woollaston, Taranaki born, the son of share-milking dairy farmers, a Christian and an aspiring poet (and, like McCahon, an excellent prose writer) had teachers other from R. N. Field. They included Flora Scales, who had spent a year, 1930, at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Art in Munich. Woollaston, in 1934, in Nelson, took five lessons from Ms Scales and obtained from her a copy of her notes from Hofmann’s lectures.

Hofmann had been in Paris in 1907 for the Salon d’Automne’s Cézanne retrospective; he studied informally with Matisse. After Munich he moved to Berkeley, California and, in 1942, in New York, met Jackson Pollock, whose drip technique he may have inspired. The works McCahon saw in Dunedin were those Woollaston had done after learning from Flora Scales that space construction in painting had to do with the equal strength of colours; and after reading Hofmann’s notes on Cézanne’s systems of rotating and overlapping planes.

Early in 1938 McCahon joined Fred Argyle’s variety company on a six-month tour of small South Island towns. His roles, he said, were advance publicity and dirty comedian. Later that year, with his friend Rodney Kennedy, he cycled to Nelson (500+ kilometres) for a summer of fruit-picking. They visited Woollaston at Mapua and the two painters’ sometimes fraught friendship began; later, after a series of violent arguments, they would agree not to discuss matters of art and religion with each other anymore.

The availability of seasonal work dictated McCahon’s movements over the next few years. He would attend art classes in winter and work on the tobacco fields and in the orchards in the summer, amongst a cohort of young artists and writers who also shuttled between Dunedin and Nelson in the late 1930s and during the war. Also in this period he made his first trips to the North Island, looking for work in Auckland – I found it so flat, I couldn’t take it – and visiting the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in the capital, Wellington, in 1940.

William McCahon said it was in the Nelson years that his father met the criminals and pacifists who introduced him to the ideal of acting as a Christian Witness: non-judgemental observation of his fellow men while reporting and sharing his own state of mind. Toss Woollaston’s uncle Frank was one of these. He was a Buchmanite, a peripatetic preacher who travelled with teaching aids: blackboard signs lettered with religious texts and simple Christian symbols; a large version of a diagrammatic aid to meditation that he had painted himself. When Uncle Frank arrived at his nephew’s house he would take Toss’s paintings down off the wall and put up his own banners instead.

Frank Buchman was an American, a Lutheran originally, a Protestant Christian evangelist who founded his Moral Rearmament Group upon four truths: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love. The essence of the teaching was self-improvement: Everybody wants to see the other fellow changed. Every nation wants to see the other nation changed. But everybody is waiting for the other fellow to begin. The Oxford Group is convinced that if you want an answer for the world today, the best place to start with is with yourself. This is the first and fundamental need.

McCahon had already encountered Buchman’s ideas through R. N. Field, a devotee since 1934, at the Dunedin School of Art. They were pervasive anyway in the decades between the wars. Buchman travelled widely; he knew Gandhi and Sun Yat Sen and consciously attempted to set his movement up as a force against both communism and fascism; he even sought a meeting with Adolf Hitler because he thought he could convert the Führer to his doctrine.

There were strange episodes in Buchman’s crusade: his visit to Norway in the mid-thirties was said to have changed the mental outlook of the whole country. The inheritors of his doctrine today are the charismatic churches but, in the case of Colin McCahon, the effect of the Buchmanite doctrine was the requirement to begin with the self. He remarked in a July 1970 letter to his friend and collaborator, the writer John Caselberg: I have the awful problem now of being a better person before I can paint better.

McCahon is usually seen as a landscape painter; among the early works is a still life like an imitation of Giorgio Morandi; and a Madonna with Child and Angels resembling a Byzantine icon. It was painted in collaboration with his future wife, Anne Hamblett, and Doris Lusk. Both works were used in theatrical productions: the July 1939 staging of Friedrich Wolf’s Professor Mamlock (an anti-fascist theatre piece exploring Nazi anti-Semitism); and the 1941 Christchurch version of T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. McCahon would work in the theatre as a set and costume designer for most of his life; his painting would remain theatrical both in intent and in affect.

In 1939 he became a member of the Otago Art Society; when the society took down his first substantial painting, Harbour Cone from Peggy’s Hill, an hour before the opening of its annual November exhibition, other painters went out in sympathy and demanded the society re-hang the work. They did. It was the first of many public fights that blew up around McCahon’s work. The painting, uncontroversial now, in oil on a gesso ground, shows the hills and valleys of the Otago peninsular, and the harbour waters, in muted greens, blues and brown. The view looks out towards the southern ocean, and a slanted horizon line near the top of the picture plane divides sea and sky.

McCahon’s ambition for the work was typically exalted: I imagined people looking at it, then looking at a landscape and for once being happier for it and believing in God and then the brotherhood of men and the futility of war and the impossibility of owning and having more right to a piece of land than anyone else.

Anne Hamblett was also a second child, one of six: she was born in Mosgiel during the war and her father was the vicar of the Anglican Church at Taieri until, in 1922, the family moved to Dunedin. Anne enrolled at the Dunedin School of Art in 1934 and remained a pupil there until 1937. It was here she met Colin McCahon. Her father William and mother Ellen, née West, wanted her to go to Training College and become a teacher but instead she found work as an anatomical illustrator at the Otago Medical School; she spent her spare time painting in the studio she shared with fellow artists Doris Lusk and Elizabeth Begg.

She was not disposed at first to become romantically involved with the intense young man four years her junior. He used to walk her home from her studio in the evening, but his proposals of marriage were consistently rejected. When he bought a second hand bracelet to mark their ‘betrothal’, she refused to wear it. She gave in eventually and the two were married by her father – now an archdeacon – in St. Matthews Anglican Church on September 21, 1942. In a photo taken outside the church they look embarrassedly happy. In the only other photograph I have seen of them, taken at French Bay in the 1950s, he is gazing tenderly down at her sitting, beatific, wise and fulfilled, in the chair next to him.

Colin and Anne lived a year at Pangatotora near Motueka, picking tobacco; with Anne pregnant and the crops in, her father demanded she return to the family home in Dunedin for the birth. In the interim Colin went to work as a gardener in the Wellington Botanical Gardens, the city where, in 1940 he had visited the Great Exhibition and, in 1941, worked at a joinery factory. There was an American military camp near the gardens and one day he witnessed the shooting dead by military police of a black American escapee.

This peripatetic life of seasonal work, separation from wife and children, occasional pregnancies, barely enough money to survive, continued for a decade until the whole family – Colin, Anne and the four children, all born between 1943 and 1949 – were reunited in Auckland in 1953. When they were apart their grandparents looked after the kids. There was a lot of travelling. In the summer of 1944 Colin was back in the Nelson area, working on the tobacco fields, in the orchards, in lime and marble factories, before moving to Tahunanui, a beach suburb near the port of the city of Nelson, and becoming a builder’s labourer.

Then he went down to join Anne in Dunedin and it was at this time that they made a series of collaborative children’s paintings – which were exhibited, for sale, in two exhibitions (August and December 1945) at Modern Books in Dunedin, under the title Pictures for Children. Anne McCahon would soon leave painting behind, though she continued doing illustrative work for the School Journal for many years to come. There would only be one painter in the McCahon household.

Also in 1945, at the French Maid café in Wellington, McCahon held his first one man exhibition. He had worked his way through Cézanne to 1920s Picasso; studied Gauguin’s use of flat areas of colour in frieze like pictures that lack depth and perspective; looked at the line drawings in C. A. Cotton’s 1922 book Geomorphology of New Zealand (a wedding present); investigated the occult properties of the Golden Section; and made a study of the simplified landscape forms in Siennese and Florentine painting of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods, whose painters sometimes used written texts to explain what is going on in their works.

The culmination of this period of study were the biblical paintings McCahon made from 1946 until 1952, beginning with I Paul to you at Ngatimoti. Other post-war works are pure landscapes: the hills of Takaka, for instance, stripped of vegetation and otherwise empty of human presence, under a green-yellow sky. They are strange paintings, at once peaceful and foreboding. McCahon compared them to the music of Bach: a monotonous music but one when you listen with much form and order and lovely variation isn’t really monotonous at all.

These Takaka paintings are a confirmation of McCahon’s vision of a landscape of splendour, order and peace; but this landscape is at the same time the one in which he staged the crucifixions and other dramas from the New Testament. The paintings were controversial at the time and still today look awkward and raw. The figures are crudely drawn and they speak in cartoon bubbles; as Charles Brasch said, they are ourselves in ways we may not wish to recognise.

In the 1940s the idea of rehearsing biblical scenes in New Zealand landscapes seemed outré, even presumptuous (though Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker and others had been doing something similar over the Tasman). On the other hand, McCahon’s vision isn’t critical; he was trying to show a way forward not condemn what was or had been. Poet James K Baxter in 1948 wrote: There is in them a good deal of pity and terror and the monstrously ludicrous element which lies in all suffering. He is expressing the sour and struggling piety that lies behind the blank mask of Presbyterianism.

McCahon and his family lived together again at Tahunanui Beach. Later they moved into Nelson city. He was again working as a builder’s labourer. In 1948 he moved again, going to Christchurch to board with the newly married Doris Lusk and her husband Dermot Holland; he earned his money gardening. In time, he rented a house and the rest of the family joined him there. He continued as a gardener for most of his time in Christchurch, apart from a brief period after his return from Australia during which he and Dermot Holland made and tried to sell costume jewellery.

In 1951 poet and cultural impresario, the independently wealthy Charles Brasch, paid (anonymously but everyone knew) for McCahon to take a six week trip to Melbourne to look at the paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria. He sailed on the Wanganella to Sydney then took a train to Melbourne – there is a letter to Brasch from somewhere north of Wagga Wagga. He was there in July and August of that year, and spent some time at Shoreham near the eastern mouth of Port Philip Bay, visiting artist and art critic Alan McCulloch.

He loved Australia, which he found to be a really foreign land. He even anticipating moving countries: I am sure I will do so sometime & when the cost comes down. He was not so impressed by the paintings he saw: Am most disappointed by almost all the local painting. A lot more slickness than in N.Z. (but we will get around to that I’m sure). A lot of modern art which is worthless – nothing more than just fashionable. The exceptions, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, were works by William Dobell, the Hungarian Desiderius Orban and Margaret Preston.

Nor were the old master paintings in Melbourne the revelation that they might perhaps have been: The gallery in the end comes down to very few memorable pictures – the best the small Rembrandt self portrait, the Goya portrait & the El Greco portrait (which is the most interesting & best to learn from), the Cezanne in the second flight, a green Pissaro landscape, a large Turner landscape. The rest don’t count in the end. The Georges Rouault painting, Christ on the veil of St Veronica caused him real distress. Murray Bail suggests it was not art-distress but life-distress – the idea of one man taking on such an amount of suffering. McCahon’s series of figurative Christian paintings concluded soon after, and perhaps there is a negative connection here. He would have to find another way.

Another result of the Melbourne visit was an encounter with Australian painter Mary Cockburn Mercer, whom McCahon said he met walking the floors of the gallery. They stood together in front of a Cézanne; she told him she had attended the banquet for Rousseau in 1908, and offered to give him some lessons. McCahon’s account suggests a random meeting; it is likely, however, that Charles Brasch, though his cousin, the painter Lina Bryans, engineered this meeting.

Mary was old. She had a broken leg and no money. She charged me three shillings an hour for ‘tuition’ for two hours in the afternoons – painting – and nothing at all for the mornings of looking – at the National Gallery – and nothing for the extra hours of conversation in the late afternoons. I was taught how to be a painter, and all the implications, the solitary confinement that makes a painter’s life. I remember her with great affection and gratitude. I learned more in 3 days from her than ever before. I am both exhausted and elated. McCahon also said she toughened up his thinking.

The encounter with Lina Bryans, a Hamburg-born landscape painter and portraitist, was less happy. Murray Bail again: Colin McCahon visiting L.B. in Melbourne 1951 was the only painter she didn’t take to ‘as a person’. There are many reasons why one person might not warm to another: did McCahon’s ambition and single-mindedness make him unlikeable? Was there a need to compete with a talented near-contemporary? Perhaps, like many New Zealanders abroad, he was lacking in grace and also in an awareness of how his gaucherie might affect those he came into contact with.

Mary Mercer was the third daughter of William Cockburn Mercer, a pioneer settler at Springwood, Wannon, in the Western District of Victoria. She was born in Scotland in 1882 while her mother was there on a visit, and spent her childhood in Australia until taken to Italy to complete her education. She ran away, aged 17, from London to Paris and began to live a bohemian life in Montparnasse, mixing with artists Marc Chagall, Kees van Dongen, Marie Laurencin, Jules Pascin and Pablo Picasso, all of whose work she collected. She was twenty-six years old when the banquet for Rousseau was held.

After the war she worked as a studio assistant at L’Académie Lhôte, translating French painter André Lhôte’s lectures on dynamic symmetry in synthetic cubist painting for his English-speaking students. She built, with her then partner, American artist Alexander Robinson, a large house at Cassis in the south of France and they went to live there in 1922. Here she painted landscapes in oils and watercolours.

Later in the 1920s Mercer took a woman lover, Janet Cumbrae Stewart, another Australian, another artists celebrated for her nudes. They went to Capri and rented a villa next door to Compton Mackenzie – who put them into his novel Extraordinary Women (1927) about the lesbian social set on Capri. In the Canary Islands Mercer fell in love with an unnamed German photographer, the son of a wealthy industrialist. They went to Spain and got caught up in the Civil War. When the photographer was required to return to Germany for military service, Mercer went by ship for Tahiti. On an island off Guam she became friendly with the eccentric Scots-Australian painter Ian Fairweather.

In Melbourne in 1938 Mary Mercer rented a studio apartment at 539 Bourke Street (the old St James Buildings); it was most likely here where McCahon went for his lessons. Mercer was re-joined in Melbourne in 1939 by Janet Cumbrae Stewart. They exhibited during the war years with the Contemporary Art Society, though their ‘decadent’ nudes (of each other) were usually hung behind the gallery doors. Their overt sexuality shows the influence of Laurencin and Man Ray’s photographs of the famous model Kiki of Montparnasse, wrote art critic John McDonald.

Along with Cumbrae Stewart and Fairweather, Mary Mercer’s friends in Melbourne included her neighbours in the St James Buildings, painters David Strachan and Wolfgang Cardamatis, both gay men who spent time in Europe. Mercer returned to Cassis in 1952, about the time arthritis forced her to give up painting. She began to learn Russian instead – she already spoke French and Italian. She spent the last ten years of her life in France, selling the Cassis villa and building a small house in the grounds of a convalescent home in Aubagne; and died there, aged eighty-one, in 1963.

McCahon’s relationship with Cubism was complex. He wrote: Some time, I don’t quite know when, out for a Sunday visit with the family, I discovered Cubism. It was a dull, uninteresting afternoon. We were looking through copies of The Illustrated London News. The Cubists were being exhibited in London, were news, and so were illustrated. I at once became a Cubist. These illustrations were in black and white and seemed more genuine than did the lampshades, curtains, linoleum, decorations in cut plaster, the interiors and exteriors of homes and commercial buildings influenced by this new magic. But to see it all as it was in the beginning, that was a revelation.

Gordon Brown has written of the ambiguity of McCahon’s approach, the special function ascribed to colour is virtually ignored, as if McCahon were viewing Cezanne’s paintings in monochromatic terms as they would be in photographic reproductions. Rather, Cezanne’s achievements are channeled through the Cubists’ view of his paintings. Based on Cezanne’s famous stricture: ‘Treat everything in nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone’, the Cubists applied this advice in their paintings in a way Cezanne could never have intended. As did McCahon, whose encounter with Mary Mercer, in ways Brasch could not have foreseen either, recalibrated his approach to painting.

The series of religious paintings, as mentioned, culminated in the serene Crucifixion of 1950-2 and then ceased; around the same time, a painting called Paddocks for Sheep, based on aerial photographs of the Canterbury Plains, was re-worked and transformed into a breakthrough work: On Building Bridges: triptych (1952): This painting for me was just something. I had made a very formal statement; I had put down something of what I had found in Australia. The ‘Bridges’, after Australia and Mary, taught me the need for precision and the freedom that only exists in relation to a strictly formal structure.

It is interesting to extrapolate from these remarks. When McCahon writes what I had found in Australia does he mean the paintings he saw in the Sydney and in Melbourne? Or does he mean the landscapes he traveled through and the people he met along the way? Both, probably. He wrote to Anne: The greens are quite unbelievable & the soil all light red. Trees everywhere but no undergrowth. Hill shapes very different from ours too & the feeling of distance even in small areas of landscape enormous. The hills in the distance really blue becoming ink blue further away. So much country which is beautiful, just so different to N.Z. So much more human & soft. Little or none of the N.Z. grandeur; in spite of its size so much more friendly.

McCahon’s reaction to Australian landscape may have contributed as much as his studies with Mary Mercer to paintings like On Building Bridges and the North Otago Landscape (1951) – Canterbury and Otago re-interpreted in the light of the wide brown land. Her beauty and her terror. Cubism, however, remained an obsession when he went north to live in Auckland in 1953. The application of cubistic principles to the kauri trees growing in the bush of Titirangi, west of Auckland, the scintillations of light in the sea below and sky above, would obsess him for half of the next decade, up until his second overseas trip―to North America in 1958.

Twenty years later, in a 1978 letter to Kees Hos, McCahon wrote about what these overseas trips meant to him: If I got to Australia again I could be torn between there and here as I was in 1951. It does no good. And in the States I was mucked up by the open land around Salt Lake and out of Colorado. I don’t trust myself with new land. But here I know what I’m on about and don’t have to wonder where I belong and a problem is solved right away. I belong with the wild side of New Zealand. I’m too young yet to leave it. He was then nearly sixty years of age.

Meanwhile, contra the view of McCahon as a landscape painter rhapsodizing over, and within, nature, here is how he and his family lived in Christchurch: by the Linwood railway station. A place almost without night and day as the super floodlights of the railway goods-yard keep us always in perpetual light. The trunks of the trees were black with soot. We eventually had a small but lovely garden. To the right a pickle factory; behind, a grinding ice-sugar plant. Twenty-two rail tracks to the left. A lovely view of the Port Hills and industry from the front room and across the road an embryo female bagpipe-player learning hard.

McCahon’s move to Auckland in the winter of 1953 to take up a job at the Auckland City Art Gallery is often said to have been based upon a misconception. The gallery’s first professional director, Eric Westbrook, an Englishman, appointed in 1952, saw On Building Bridges in Christchurch at the Group Show of that year and asked who made it. Subsequently he asked to meet McCahon. Some say the conversation took place while Colin was mowing a lawn – presumably with a hand mower.

Brenda Gamble, Westbrook’s secretary, recalled: The director had suggested that Colin should work at the Gallery but I think he did not expect Colin to take him at his word: anyway, not immediately. McCahon thought otherwise. As soon as a production of Peer Gynt he designed closed, he went north. Gamble continues: A man came into the office and asked if he could see the director. A young, very thin, pale man, with dark eyes – worried eyes – a man who obviously had problems. It was Colin McCahon. At that time the staff of the gallery consisted of the director, two office people and the attendants. McCahon was taken on, in the first instance, as a cleaner.

When a position as keeper – curator – was advertised by the Auckland City Council, he applied for and got the job; he was later to become both deputy and acting director at the gallery. Gamble records that Colin tackled the Gallery job with his usual integrity and soon became a tremendous asset. He would work at the Gallery, under Westbrook and his successor, Peter Tomory, a Hong Kong born Scotsman, in various capacities, paint there, give painting lessons there, for more than a decade.

During this period he and his family lived in a cottage they bought above French Bay in Titirangi, in a deep valley falling precipitously to the sea from a ridge of the Waitakere ranges which stand to the west of Auckland. McCahon travelled to and from the city by bus (later he bought of Puch motor scooter), which meant he spent a lot of time away from home. One of his colleagues remembered there was often a choice between having another drink at the pub and catching the bus – a dilemma not always resolved in the interests of domestic harmony.

The cottage at French Bay, still there, is so tiny it’s hard to imagine how six people lived in it. Eventually, bunks for the children were built underneath and partially enclosed, so they looked out into the bush. McCahon added a deck and the house became a hub, a gathering place in which to meet and talk. In the wider community, however, McCahon was held to be a communist, an alcoholic, a blasphemer; the house reputed to be barely habitable. None of these accusations was accurate, with the possible exception of the charge that he was, at least incipiently, an alcoholic.

William and Victorian McCahons’ reminiscences of life at French Bay evoke, most of the time, a close, warm and loving family united in their commitment to the unfolding drama and excitement of artistic creation. Everyone commented upon the works in progress, and the artist considered these comments and sometimes adopted them. However, the cost of failure was high and could be taken out on the family, including the kids, as well as on the work.

Not long before he left Christchurch McCahon wrote, in collaboration with his friend John Caselberg, a manifesto. Called On the Nature of Art and sometimes referred to by its opening sentence, from Rilke, Things are not so comprehensible, the manifesto came out of a series of discussions the two men had in Christchurch in 1948. The first version of the document was handwritten by McCahon and the second, edited for publication, also handwritten, was by Caselberg. Although intended for magazine publication, neither version was printed at the time.

On the Nature of Art does not construct a systematic argument or outline a method for the making of art; though there is a section, written by McCahon, which advances a theory of painting. Otherwise the manifesto proceeds by indirection and exhortation through a series of metaphors: the compression of experience through the fire of an artist’s personality to make the diamond of art; the construction of the framework of a trellis upon which the vine of art might grow; art based upon rock compared with that which resembles a flower; and, the base metaphor of all of McCahon’s work, the alterity of darkness and light.

Reading the manifesto now recalls McCahon’s early apprehension of preaching texts as the basis for the kind of communication he wishes to establish with his audience. He quotes from The Gospel of John: In the beginning was the word; he quotes Cézanne: To paint is to contrast; he quotes a formula, perhaps original to himself: A + B + C = D. But above and beyond his own and others’ statements there is an awareness of the qualities of words as simultaneously explicit and ambiguous signs of meaning.

McCahon‘s use of words in painting is often described as an attempt to make clear to others what he means; but this is not typically how he uses language – his predilection rather was for exploring ambiguities. Even when he makes a plain statement – I AND THOU – it is resonant with strangeness: the great mysteries, the manifesto states, are as unexplained today as they were when man first crawled out of a cave. And: In art, with death we have life, an end is always a beginning. The finite & the infinite are united, we know the decay and resurgence of all things, their time of splendour, their time of misery, the terror of creation the hollow darkness of uncreativeness. Shall we deny or accept.

To make the point a different way: when his experiments with cubism in the Kauri bush overlooking the waters of the Manukau harbour at French Bay were joined and then succeeded by the series of word paintings known as the Elias series, McCahon chose as his central text an episode from the New Testament in which a chance resemblance between two words led to an ambiguity which is practically unresolvable.

Christ dying on the cross, according the Gospel of St Matthew, cried out: Eli, Eli, Lama Sabacthani – usually translated as My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me? But some of those listening thought that he was asking for Elias, another name for the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who had not died, but was taken up to heaven as a living man, to come and save him. In that 2000 year old ambiguity McCahon saw his own ambiguous relationship to the questions of faith and doubt mirrored. It initiated a practice of seeking out texts that are equivocal and exist in a similar relationship to the great mysteries: words that evoke without solving; that point a way rather than resolve a problem; that can bear witness to the last things in such a way they become present again; that are, in a word, re-presented.

These days John Caselberg is better known as the writer whose works were excerpted by McCahon than he is in his own right. All through the Titirangi years he supplied his friend with texts that might end up on paintings. He was, in the early years of the next decade, famously, the recipient of the request from McCahon: I will need words. The wanted words were for a large scale statement on Nuclear warfare – the second ‘Gate’ series of 1961-2.

Caselberg’s first offer, of haiku adapted from the Japanese, with reference to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, McCahon did not use – though some turned up on scrolls later on. Caselberg then offered a composite text drawn from books of the Old Testament, Jeremiah, Lamentations and Isaiah; and this McCahon did use. This method of excerpting from the Bible he would go on to make his own; it is how the texts for the last paintings were made and we can assume he learned it from, or in collaboration with, Caselberg.

McCahon’s painting, though wordy, was never primarily literary and this applies even to those last works which are – virtually – all text. His painted surfaces remain active across the whole of the picture plane; and it is this, as much as his messages, that make him the great painter he was. In painterly terms, the ‘Gate’ paintings and some of the works that are contemporary with them, are as much ‘about’ the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian as they are ‘about’ nuclear war and/or the railings of ancient Hebrew prophets.

McCahon’s study of cubism led him to a re-consideration of Mondrian’s work; and then, during his second overseas trip of the 1950s, the four month long sojourn in the United States of America in 1958, in San Francisco he saw a show of Mondrian’s early work, in which a progression from the literal motif – apple trees, wharves – to an abstraction from them, can be traced. He would go back to New Zealand and de-construct reality there in ways that would prove calamitous and illuminating in about equal degrees.

McCahon’s trip to America, which he undertook with his wife Anne but without their four children, was proposed by Auckland City Art Gallery director Peter Tomory. I would like to point out that this is not merely a pleasure visit, he wrote to the Auckland City Council, who paid the fares, for Mr McCahon will be working alongside art gallery staff in some of the greatest museums in America and thus his professional knowledge will be substantially increased. Mr McCahon will also be giving lectures on New Zealand painting both old and new.

A grant from the Carnegie Corporation covered the McCahons’ expenses while in the United States and Dr Grace Morley, director of the San Francisco Museum of Art, arranged the itinerary and acted as host in her city during the couple’s first and final weeks of their American tour. The official three months of the trip – to study various aspects of art gallery administration and curating – was followed by a period of a month’s travel purely for the sake of seeing landscape, art and people, made possible because McCahon took leave accrued over five years working at the Auckland art gallery.

He and Anne flew via Honolulu to San Francisco in April of 1958. After two weeks there, during which they saw Mondrian: The Earlier Years and an exhibition of scroll paintings by Japanese artist Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924), they went east to Kansas City, St Louis and Cincinnati on their way to Washington DC, where they were impressed by a Tintoretto (Christ at the Sea of Galilee) and an El Greco (Laocoon). They spent a long time in front of a Renoir and also happened upon a show of Hans Richter’s scroll paintings.

Thence to Baltimore, where they walked into a retrospective of the works of Hans Hofmann who had taught Flora Scales who had taught Woollaston; and saw paintings by Paul Cézanne and Mark Rothko. A trip to Faulkner country probably happened after the visit to Baltimore, usually considered the northernmost southern city in the United States. In Philadelphia they looked at Cubist paintings – Braque, Gris and Picasso – in the Arensburg collection and saw Picasso’s Guernica.

There was a Juan Gris exhibition on downstairs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the rest of which was closed because of a recent fire. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art they saw Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm. During the next three weeks, in Anne McCahon’s words, they haunted the dealer galleries day after day. Colin remarked: New York is the most beautiful town. I could live here with great pleasure. After NYC they went north to New England, visiting New Haven, Hartford, Worcester and Boston, where they saw Gauguin’s D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? They travelled to Buffalo, New York, and then to Niagara Falls before going on to Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis, further west to Colorado and Utah, and thence across the Rockies, returning via Seattle to San Francisco.

After another week in everybody’s favourite city they took a ship, the Oronsay, back across the Pacific to Auckland, arriving home in mid-August. We visited about 63 art galleries, 100 dealer galleries and private collections, talked with directors, museum staff, and artistsColin said.The list of works seen is vertiginous and overwhelming; yet McCahon was inclined to assert that the people they met and the landscapes they saw were more influential, as in Australia, than any of the art they remembered seeing.

In his Colin McCahon: the Titirangi Years, 1953-59, Peter Simpson notes: While it is fruitless to attempt to connect specific paintings seen with specific effects in McCahon’s work, some general tendencies can be noted. He lists them:an expansion in scale, the paintings to walk past; the abandonment of frames; a tendency to use commercial enamels à la Pollock and de Kooning; a change in the means of structuring pictorial space. The New York School went one step further than Cezanne. Cezanne broke up the closed frame round the painting, the New York School broke up closed forms within the painting. Forms explode, growing and opening up, ad infinitum. You feel that such paintings are details of something bigger.

Upon his return to the cold and dripping and shut in bush of Titirangi McCahon, who had seen deserts and tumbleweed in fences and the Salt Lake Flats, and the Faulkner country with magnolias in bloom, cities – taller by far than kauri trees, fled north in memory and painted the eight Northland Panels on the deck of the cottage above French Bay. They were followed by the ‘Wake’ paintings, a work in sixteen long panels which was conceived as an environment in which John Caselberg would read the poem about the death of his dog Thor that the painting illustrated.

The culmination of the ‘Elias’ series and the ‘Gate’ series followed: both of these series, and all of the work that came after, are details of something bigger. They are part of a larger work which is, in effect, the entire oeuvre, in which later works transform the earlier as much as they prefigure and anticipate future painting.

The McCahons left the house above French Bay in Titirangi in March 1960 and moved to Partridge Street in Newton Gully in Auckland City; they would live there and in nearby Grey Lynn for the rest of the painter’s life. In the urban environment the small squares abstracted from the kauri and from the light on the water of French Bay mutated into the bigger squares of the ‘Gate’ paintings, inspired as much by the pattern of city rooftops as by Mondrian, of whose work McCahon said: What really impressed me was that, although they were often very small, they had an openness and scale that extended beyond the actual edges of the painting – a thing I find only happens in front of the originals and which cannot be seen in reproduction.

In this period, 1959-62, McCahon was undergoing religious instruction with a view to joining the Catholic Church.He had, however, as his son William wrote, huge difficulty with the notion of the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary, which was at odds with his background of Presbyterian and Quaker philosophies. Ultimately he was asked to submit to the authority of the Church by swearing belief in the Marian concept, a commitment normally only required of priests who take confession. Colin could not do so and his religious training ceased.

His friend James K Baxter had in 1958 abjured alcoholism and been re-baptised as a Catholic; a move McCahon saw as a betrayal. The two were not reconciled before Baxter’s death, aged forty-six, from a heart attack in 1973. It seems McCahon could not accept the submission of will to institutional authority implied in conversion; he insisted on keeping an open mind on all the large questions. I could never call myself a Christian, he said; while his involvement with faith and doubt continued.

One of his pupils in the painting classes he took at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1956 was Buster Black, from Taumarunui, of Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Rangi descent. Black was a Christian and teacher and pupil became friends and confidants. Black’s night paintings – pinpoints of lights from cities and towns picked out from the surrounding blackness – and his visionary work Ngauruhoe at night (1963-4) have been adduced as influences, along with some of the landscapes of William Hodges, the official artist on James Cook’s second voyage into the Pacific, upon McCahon’s ‘Waterfall’ paintings of 1964. Black used particles of ground up glass, sand and wood to give extra texture to his work, and McCahon did the same.

Black, aged 26, had in 1958 seen the mountain, the volcano Ngauruhoe, weep: exuding light that streamed and pulsated up and down its white flanks while clouds rose from its base. One of Black’s tribal affiliations, Ngāti Rangi, has nurtured since the early twentieth century a prophetic movement called Māramatanga – meaning enlightenment, knowledge. Māramatanga derives from the same source as the Rātana Movement: the prophetess Mere Rikiriki, the aunt of Wiremu Rātana and founder of Māramatanga at her marae of Parewanui near the mouth of the Rangitikei River.

Māramatanga is unusual in that its followers are Catholic and yet see no contradiction between their version of the Christian faith and traditional beliefs of Māori. One of their icons is a painting, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. It is from the thirteenth century, in the style of the Byzantine or Eastern Church, has been inscribed in Greek, may have originated in Crete and is now in Rome. Its reproduction is taken every December to the summit of Mount Ruapehu; members of the movement carry prints of the work with them at all times.

Whatever Buster Black’s connection (or not) with Māramatanga, the existence of a contemporary prophetic and visionary movement that was also Christian was of interest to McCahon, particularly in the 1960s, during which he began his exploration of Māori themes alongside those derived from his study of Christian and Buddhist texts and his more purely painterly concerns, culminating in his late series ‘Truth from the King Country – load bearing structures’ (1978-9).

In 1964 McCahon left the Auckland City Art Gallery and took up a position at Elam, the art school attached to Auckland University, where he would teach for the next seven years. In 1965 he received two commissions. One was for a new library at the University of Otago, for which he submitted a design using numerals, both Arab and Roman, as well as written words for numbers, with implications that are occult as much as they are educative. He thought the design appropriate to a library and was dismayed when a second design, of waterfalls, which he had roughed out on the back of the numerals cartoon, was chosen instead. Nevertheless he completed the work.

The other commission was for the clerestory windows in a chapel being built for the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions in Upland Road, Remuera, Auckland. McCahon used traditional Christian (Catholic) symbols, both pictorial (the Cross, the dove, a crown of thorns, wheat and the chalice) and textual (IHS, XP), as well as newer symbols of his own devising – an adaptation of the light through darkness motif, for instance. Later he remembered: I have a photograph of a beautiful lily in a glass jar made for this job – I don’t know where it is – it was just too beautiful to fit in to this scheme and somewhere got left behind and lost.

There were two parts to the commission: he was also required to paint a work, to go above the choir balcony, based upon the Stations of the Cross. The Way of the Cross (1966), a long, narrow, landscape painting with small wooden crosses attached above each station, is the first complete version of the many Stations he would make over the next fifteen years. A number of McCahon’s themes and preoccupations find a home here: his obsession with numerals, which he began to use as subjects in the 1950s; his desire to make paintings to walk past; his ambition to produce public art with a clearly defined purpose which has an impact upon individual viewers; his need to find a way to live an ethical life.

The Stations of the Cross, also called The Way of the Cross, is a devotion of prayers and meditations on fourteen events which are believed to have occurred as Christ was going to his crucifixion. It originated in the late fourth century among pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by the Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, in 335 AD, at the supposed tomb of Jesus on Calvary Hill in Jerusalem.

The route of the pilgrims chose to the church became accepted as the path whereby Jesus went to his death: the Via Dolorosa, the Sorrowful Way. People paused to honour places where specific incidents were thought to have happened, and these became the stations. Christian pilgrims returning to Europe brought back with them oil from lamps that burned around the tomb on Calvary as well as soil and other relics; they also brought memories of liturgies, devotions, and walks.

Shrines modelled on the pilgrim sites were built, and after the seventh century Islamic conquest of Palestine they became crucial aides-mémoires. The habit of walking in the footsteps of Jesus to Calvary was revived during the Crusades under the auspices of the Franciscans, who were given custody of the holy places. After the Islamic re-capture of Jerusalem in 1187, the stations again became popular in Europe; they were usually observed outside, along a path edged with white-painted stones and lined with wooden crosses made out of two sticks bound together with string.

In the eighteenth century the number of the stations, which had until then varied, was standardised at fourteen. Around the same time they were allowed inside churches. The stations spread from Italy throughout the Roman Catholic world and became a feature in all Catholic churches. The faithful make their way alone from station to station, saying their prayers; or follow a celebrant moving from cross to cross, calling their responses. The stations must consist of fourteen wooden crosses; pictures alone will not do; and their erection must have been witnessed, and blessed, by someone with the authority to do so.

McCahon was represented, from 1965, by the Barry Lett Gallery in Auckland; from 1968, his dealer in Wellington was Peter McLeavey, who had, since 1954, kept with him a piece about McCahon clipped from the Taranaki Herald. It reported the refusal of the Stratford Art and Craft Society to hang a work of McCahon’s which had come there as part of a travelling show. McLeavey shared McCahon’s dream that we lived in paradise. He had a powerful vision of what could happen; he was committed to realise his vision here . . . his work was painted not for now but for people yet unborn.

McLeavey, a low key person but a consummate dealer, sold many McCahon paintings in Australia; his work was built upon by Martin Browne, another consummate dealer, and nephew of McCahon’s friend, jeweller Kobi Bosshard. McLeavey organised, in 1966, a dealer show in Sydney’s Darlinghurst Galleries; in 1968 there was another at the Bonython Gallery. It was a group of landscape and waterfall images, some of which derive from the earlier Stations of the Cross and from my own long association with this most beautiful landscape (North Otago) both as a child and also later.

Significant purchases were made from the Bonython Gallery show by art world luminaries Bernard Smith and Daniel Thomas. Smith, the author of European Vision and the South Pacific (1960) and of Australian Painting 1788-1960 (1962), was professor at the Power Institute and the Power Department of Fine Arts and Research Library at Sydney University, which he had, in 1967, helped set up. It was here that, in 1984, McCahon would be given his first retrospective in a country other than New Zealand.

Daniel Thomas had been a curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales; and would go on to work at both the Australian National Gallery in Canberra and the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide. This recognition of McCahon’s work in Australia was paralleled when American art critic, Clement Greenburg, visiting New Zealand on a lecture tour, said McCahon’s personal conviction as a painter . . . enabled him to pursue an independent course without being overwhelmed by the winds of change that frequently storm through the realm of art.

In 1969 McCahon built a studio on some land Anne acquired overlooking Muriwai Beach on the wild west coast of Auckland. From my studio the beach and sandbar that fronts the Tasman Sea extends 48 miles to the Kaipara Harbour mouth. This is the sand dune and lake area of Waioneke. Kaipara Flats are north of Helensville. This is a shockingly beautiful area . . . it is wild and beautiful; empty and utterly beautiful. This is, after all, the coast the Māori souls pass over on their way from life to deathto Spirits Bay, ‘carrying their fronds and branches’.

The studio was spacious enough for McCahon to paint the large images that are among his best known works: Practical religion: the resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha (1969-70); Victory over Death 2 (1970); Gate III (1970). The I AM that echoes through these paintings recalls the booming surf of the west coast beaches; the texts come from the stripped-down, vernacular and plain-speaking New English Bible, published over the decade of the 1960s (the New Testament in 1961, the Old, along with the Apocrypha, in 1970). McCahon was given copy of the New English Bible as a gift from Anne in 1969.

A loose distinction can be made here between those works which are landscape based and those upon which texts are written. The eight works in the ‘Visible Mysteries’ series of 1967-8, based upon altar pieces, is an example of the first type; the seventy-two scrolls exhibited at the Barry Lett Galleries in 1969 are of the second kind. It was on these scrolls that some of the Japanese haiku Caselberg had given McCahon earlier appeared, along with poems by West Coast writer Peter Hooper.

McCahon continued to draw his texts from different places. As there is a constant flow of light we are born into a pure land, which appears on several paintings, is adapted from a Japanese Buddhist source, Shinran’s Songs to Amida Honen. Amida, the Buddha of Everlasting Light, as a bodhisattva refused to accept Buddha-hood unless he could grant eternal happiness in the pure land to whoever asked it of him. Or until all the various hells had been emptied of the damned. The sect believes that any person who intones Amida’s name – Namu Amida Butsu – will be admitted to the pure land.

In 1969 the McCahons’ younger daughter Victoria married into a Māori family, the Carrs. Around the same time their elder daughter, Catherine, gave her father a book: The Tail of the Fish: Māori memories of the Far North by Matire Kereama. This led to a painting: The Lark’s Song. Its origin of the song is thus: the children of Te Aupōuri would swim in the morning in pools of the river that flowed through their village of Hauturu. Then, lying in the grass on the banks of the stream, they would warm up in the sun. This would set off the skylarks and as they rose up singing in the air, the children would improvise words for the birdsong. The game was called Lark Singing.

When The Lark’s Song, in Māori language but without translation, was exhibited at the Auckland City Art Gallery, Matire Kereama stood before it and sang the words. Throughout the next decade of his painting life, McCahon would draw themes, texts and imagery from Māori sources and particularly from the prophetic, Christianised movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Te Ua Haumēne’s Pai Mārire, the Good and Peaceful religion; the non-violent protests at Parihaka led by Taranaki prophets Te Whiti and Tohu; the mission of Te Kooti, founder of the Ringatū religion; Rua Kenana of Tūhoe who attempted to found an independent Māori polity deep in the Urewera Country; and Māramatanga.

When, in 1973, McCahon’s mother Ethel died; then Charles Brasch; and, not so very long afterwards, his estranged friend James K. Baxter, McCahon in his painting conflated two walks, the Via Dolorosa and the Spirit Path: People should know perhaps that I don’t regard these canvases as ‘paintings’, they shouldn’t be enclosed in frames, they are just bits of a place I love and painted in memory of a friend who nowin spirithas walked this same beach. The intention is not realistic but an abstraction of the final walk up the beach. The Christian ‘walk’ and the Māori ‘walk’ have a lot in common.

Contemporary with the beach walk paintings is the ‘Jump’ series, which derives its motifs from the gannet colony on a rock off Muriwai beach and its emotional charge from leaps made by young birds off the cliff edge to launch into their first aerial flight. The ‘Necessary Protection’ paintings, some of which have a subtitle, the care of small birds emphasise McCahon’s devotion to wild, unspoiled landscapes and the creatures who live in them―which for him included islands that turned into whales and jet aeroplanes that were also comets streaming light in the blackness of the firmament of the night sky.

In 1971 McCahon ended his regular teaching at Elam School of Art and became, at the age of fifty-two, for the first time in his life, a fulltime painter. At this moment he made a statement about his methodology: My painting year happens first in late winter and early spring. I paint with the season and paint best in the long hot summers. I prefer to paint at night or more especially in the late summer afternoons when, as the light fades, tonal relationships become terrifyingly clear. At night I paint under a very large incandescent light bulb. I’ve been doing this for a very long time. I am only now, and slowly, learning to paint in the mornings. After a lifetime of workingfarming, factories, gardening, teaching, the years at the ACAGI find it hard to paint in the world’s usual work time. It can be difficult to accept that painting too is work.

The next year, 1972, Colin McCahon: a survey exhibition, opened at the Auckland City Art Gallery. It was epochal: at once everybody saw the stature of the man working in our midst, the range and quality of his achievement, the gravitas with which he had addressed crucial aspects of our past, the present and the future. The catalogue too was a revelation: McCahon contributed to it a written commentary on his work, and showed himself to be a writer of great acuity with a compressed, poetic style.

A few years later, in Wellington, McCahon showed the ‘Scared’ paintings at Peter McLeavey Gallery and then, a couple of years later, works from the series ‘Angels and Beds’: like most of the ‘Scared’ paintings, they were monochromatic, with the angels figured as white oblongs looming in from the edges of the picture plane over the altar of the bed. Some of these works originated in a gift, by McLeavey to McCahon, of seventy sheets of Steinbach paper. McCahon had painted these matt black and then inscribed them in white.

These series of this mid-seventies period have what might be considered prosaic inspirations: the ‘Angels and Beds’ in the illness of McCahon’s lifelong friend, Rodney Kennedy; the ‘Rocks in the Sky’ after a comment made by McCahon’s grandson when he saw gathering dark storm clouds like rocks one day as the family was driving out to Muriwai; the ‘Teaching Aids’ and the associated ‘Noughts and Crosses’ in a concern for the education of all young children, now that McCahon was himself a grandfather.

The ‘Truth from the King Country: Load-bearing structures’, which feature a black, monolithic tau cross before a landscape figured in ochres and blacks, is said to have originated in a view of the Mangaweka Viaduct on the Main Trunk Line south of Taihape in the central North Island; though I wonder if it was not in fact a view of the Makatote viaduct to the east. Either way, the series refers to triptych On Building Bridges from the early 1950s and, before that, to McCahon’s bridge-building uncle, Colin Ferrier. Some of these works show the five or the seven wounds of Christ figured, like the white Angels in ‘Angels and Beds’, as oblongs looming into the picture from without; but in this series these oblongs are deepest black.

There is more going on these paintings: the tau cross is the symbol of McCahon’s Egyptian God whom he first encountered in the Otago hills while still a child. It is an ancient device, older than Christianity, with roots in Mesopotamian Sumer as well as in Egypt and associated with Moses and therefore with the Promised Land that the prophet descries but does not enter into; later it would be adopted by the Franciscans. In several of his late paintings McCahon cries out to St Francis: Can you hear me? Sometimes the tau enables the landscape; sometimes it obscures it.

The appearance of the tau before a King Country landscape evokes all of these associations and something more. The King Country, in the central North Island of New Zealand, is so called because there the Waikato tribes and their King, carrying the bones of their ancestors, retreated after the conquest of their lands by British imperial, Australian and colonial troops in the 1860s, and proclaimed a zone where the white imperialists could not go.

Here living connections with the nineteenth and early twentieth-century Māori prophetic movements persist: Māramatanga maintains contact with Pai Marire, the King Movement, Ringatū, the heirs of Te Whiti and Tohu’s Parihaka-based non-violent resistance, the Rātana Movement, and the complex of beliefs centred on Waitangi, where the Treaty was signed – but not ratified for a century and a half – in 1840. Māramatanga, too, is a load-bearing structure;and the presence of the wounds of Christ in some of these paintings suggests an awareness of the Catholicism of the movement.

In 1978 the painting Victory over Death 2 was given by the New Zealand government to the Australian people; it was accepted with gratitude and respect by its recipients but caused a storm of protest in the popular press in both countries. It was the last great controversy to surround McCahon’s works; and his last paintings, made in the years following this gift, exist in a paradoxical relationship to the triumphant faith attested to in Victory over Death 2.

With words excerpted from the New Testament’s A Letter to the Hebrews and the Old Testament’s Book of Ecclesiastes, they may be read as deeply pessimistic, dark and despairing in the face of incipient apocalypse. Personal crisis has been suggested as a motive for this darkening of vision. Gordon Brown: Rages fuelled by heavy drinking and bitterness at years of public misunderstanding and denigration, an increasing paranoia and suspicion of even long-time friends and supporters, and his desperate attempts to hold out against a disease he knew was eating at his mind, created a negative psychology that few could have overcome.

This may be so; yet the statements these paintings make are coherent, willed and do not suggest a mind disintegrating in the face of a loss of belief so much as a last prophetic statement by one who had never resiled from darkness, whose faith – Christian or otherwise – had always been plucked from the abyss of despair. McCahon was the author of his own fate and in his last decade achieved an authority that is attributable to doubt as much as it is to faith. That his final statements should have come out of despair is not simply a consequence of events in his own life, his own psyche; they are also about the times he lived in, the times we live in now.

I remember reading, one afternoon in 2003 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, all of the words on all of the last four paintings. The cumulative effect was not depressing but uplifting: because of the beautiful inscription of the black and white writing; and also because what might have been seen as personal despair seemed like a summation of the kind of world we live in now, the kind of society we have made. They bore witness to an era of loss in a way that very little contemporary art is able to do.

Colin McCahon ceased painting in 1982. He locked his studio door and, as became apparent after his death in 1987, left his final painting, perhaps unfinished, face down on the floor. Its text, from Ecclesiastes, begins: I considered all the acts of oppression/under the sun; and ends: Here again I saw emptiness under/the Sun without son or brother/toiling endless yet never. It is unsigned and above those last words is a roughly oblong area of deep dark black.

With that a brilliant career as an artist of unstinting generosity, fierce commitment and unparalleled skill, concluded. He was, you cannot help but suppose, his own man until the end. There is dignity in choosing silence; and that empty black space, a last gift, still awaits the contribution of anyone willing and able to inscribe words or images upon it.

We’re grateful to McCahon House and Viv Stone for permission to publish this essay. Bound copies of  Endless Yet Never by Martin Edmond are available from McCahon House. Details here.

Author’s note:

Endless Yet Never was written as part of my 2011 book Dark Night : walking with McCahon (AUP) but, for various reasons, omitted from it. The text has been revised but does not differ substantially from the original version.

Works Cited

Specific Works
Colin McCahon wrote a short prose piece, Beginnings, for Landfall, volume 20, number 4, December, 1966.

Short biographies of Russell Clark, R.N. Field and Flora Scales are available in Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

The Wikipedia page on Buchman and his movement has ‘multiple issues’ but is still an entertaining account.

The manifesto On the Nature of Art appears in Peter Simpson’s Answering Hark : McCahon / Caselberg, Painter / Poet (Craig Potton, 2001).

Australian novelist Murray Bail wanted to prepare a catalogue raisonnée of McCahon’s works but this did not eventuate. He mentions Lina Bryans’ experience of McCahon in his Notebooks 1970-2003 (Harvill Secker, 2005). The Rouault speculation is in A Question of Faith (see below).

More about Lina Bryans’ work and life may be found in Lina Bryans: Rare Modern 1909-2000 by Gillian Forwood (Melbourne University Publishing, 2003).

Mary Mercer in Design & Art Australia Online.

Alan McCulloch in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Brenda Gamble’s reminiscences are in Art New Zealand #8, November / December / January 1977-8.

There are works by Buster Black at the Auckland City Gallery and at Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, where an exhibition of his paintings is in preparation.

For his 1972 show at the Auckland City Art Gallery, Colin McCahon, a survey exhibition, McCahon made notes on the paintings exhibited and these may be read after downloading the catalogue.

For an account of the origins of the Stations of the Cross (‘The Way of the Cross’), see the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Prophetic Histories : The People of Maramatanga, by Karen Sinclair, was published by Bridget Williams Books in Wellington in 1999.

General References

Gordon Brown in 1984 published a biography, Colin McCahon – Artist (A H and A W Reed); a revised edition appeared in 1993. Brown also wrote the McCahon entry in Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

In 2010 he published a collection of essays, Towards a Promised Land : On the Life and Art of Colin McCahon (Auckland University Press).

In 2002 the exhibition, A Question of Faith, opened at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam then toured Australia and New Zealand. The catalogue, also called A Question of Faith, includes essays by Marja Bloem, William McCahon, Murray Bail and Francis Pound; and a chronology prepared by Marja Bloem and Martin Browne.

It is part of the Colin McCahon Online Catalogue which records the ongoing project to catalogue McCahon’s complete works, dating from the mid-1930s to the early 1980s.

Peter Simpson has written a number of other books about, or referring to, the artist, including Colin McCahon : The Titirangi Years, 1953-1959 (Auckland University Press, 2007); his summary of the life and work is available, in two volumes, from AUP: There Is Only One Direction Vol. 1, 1919-1959 (2019); and Is This The Promised Land? Vol. 2, 1960–1987 (2020).

In 2019 Penguin NZ published Justin Paton’s McCahon Country.

Jill Trevelyan’s Peter McLeavey : The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer, came out from Te Papa Press in 2013. She also edited Toss Woollaston : A Life in Letters (Te Papa Press, 2004).

Charles Brasch’s Journals, published by Otago University Press, has much to say about McCahon, including Colin’s summation of the paintings he saw in Australia in 1951. The three volumes came out in 2013 (1938-45); 2017 (1945-1957); and 2018 (1958-1973), respectively.