Colin McCahon

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Colin McCahon
Colin McCahon drawing.jpg
A pencil drawing of Colin McCahon by Allan Mollison (2009)
Born Colin John McCahon
(1919-08-01)1 August 1919
Timaru, New Zealand
Died 27 May 1987(1987-05-27) (aged 67)
Auckland, New Zealand
Cause of death
Korsakoff's syndrome
Resting place
Ashes scattered at Muriwai
Nationality New Zealander
Ethnicity Pākehā of Irish descent
Alma mater Otago Boys' High School
Movement Modernism
Spouse(s) Anne Hamblett (1942-19??)

Colin John McCahon (1 August 1919, Timaru – 27 May 1987, Auckland)[1] was a prominent artist in New Zealand. Along with Toss Woollaston and Rita Angus, he is credited for introducing modernism to New Zealand art in the early twentieth century. He is also regarded by some people as New Zealand's greatest painter.[2][3]

Early life and development[edit]

McCahon was born in Timaru in 1919.[4] As an infant, McCahon was taken to Dunedin by his mother. During his primary school years he spent a year in Oamaru, New Zealand.[1]

He attended the Maori Hill Primary School and Otago Boys' High School. At age 14 he began taking Saturday morning art classes.[4] McCahon later attended the Dunedin School of Art.

Later life and career[edit]

McCahon married Anne Hamblett in 1942 at St. Matthew's Church, Dunedin.[1] As a wedding present, McCahon and Hamblett received a book by G A Cotton, The Geomorphology of New Zealand. The book would prove to have an influence on his art.[4]

By 1948, McCahon and Hamblett had relocated to Christchurch.[1]

In 1953, McCahon moved to Titirangi, Auckland. Partly as result of his exposure to the area, "around this time his landscapes featured beach, sea, sky, land, boats and kauri trees...". He started working at the Auckland Art Gallery, first as a cleaner, then as a custodian of the paintings, and finally as the Deputy Director.[4]

In 1964, McCahon started working as a lecturer at the Elam Art School in the University of Auckland.[4]

Style and themes[edit]

McCahon is best known for his large paintings with dark backgrounds overlaid with religious texts in white. He was also an extensive landscape painter and was inspired in part by the writings of New Zealand geologist Sir Charles A Cotton.

Thematically, his art was at times concerned with developing a painterly nationalism. McCahon himself explored issues of Christianity and pacifism both within and outside of this national identity.[citation needed]


McCahon developed his own take on expressionism, influenced by both Robert Nettleton Field (1899-1987) and German Expressionism.[dubious ] At the Dunedin School of Art, McCahon met Rodney Eric Kennedy (1909–1989), Doris Lusk, Anne Hamblett and Patrick Hayman. McCahon, Lusk and Hamblett, and to a lesser extent Hayman were later hailed by J. D. Charlton Edgar (1903–1976) as "the first cell of modern art[ists] in New Zealand".[this quote needs a citation] This was the first true New Zealand School of art.

During a visit to the United States in 1958,[1] McCahon saw paintings by Barnett Newman, Kazimir Malevich, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian and Willem de Kooning. Before this trip he had only ever seen these works reproduced in books. He was struck by their physicality: of Pollock's works, McCahon said these were "pictures for people to walk past".[1] He was also influenced by the installations of Allan Kaprow and the sensation of walking through an artwork rather than walking past it.[5][6] After this trip, McCahon's use of scale and space shifted, most notably in The Northland Panels. This work consists of eight panels, monocoat on canvas.


A continued theme within McCahon's art is the exploration of the religious. His landscapes in particular are imbued with a sense of the spiritual. Even more overtly, McCahon often sets Biblical scenes in the contemporary New Zealand landscape. His Otago Peninsula (1949, currently in the collection of the Dunedin Public Library) was the realization of a schoolboy vision inspired by Otago.

A Te Papa profile of McCahon has described his landscapes as "often stark and empty (rather than picturesque), raising questions about the human histories of these seemingly unpopulated landscapes."[4]

Muriwai paintings[edit]

In the series "Necessary Protection," McCahon represents the Muriwai coastline as a site of spiritual nourishment.[7]

Word paintings[edit]

McCahon's large-format 'word paintings' combine his religious and abstraction tendencies.[8] He started incorporating words into his paintings in the 1940s, a move which was often criticised by the public, but which he felt was necessary to directly communicate with viewers of his art.[4]


Family house museum and artists' residency[edit]

The McCahon family house in French Bay, Titirangi, Auckland, now serves as a small museum about Colin McCahon and his family. The house is surrounded by large kauri trees (at least for semi-urban standards).[9]

On the same section is a more contemporary house and studio which serves as the base for the McCahon artists' residency. The contemporary house hosts three artists each year, for three months each.[10]


A major retrospective of his work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam introduced McCahon as "the first modern New Zealand painter of major international importance."[11]

Works stolen[edit]

Urewera Mural by McCahon, completed May 1976. It was famously stolen in 1997

In June 1997, the Urewera Mural (a triptych) was stolen from the reception of the Department of Conservation Āniwaniwa Visitor Centre at Lake Waikaremoana.[12]

It was eventually determined that the painting had been stolen by Tuhoe activist Te Kaha and an associate Laura Davis. After 15 months missing, it was returned in August 1998 after negotiations involving arts patron Jenny Gibbs, Te Kaha and Tuhoe member Tame Iti. It required more than $5,000 worth of repairs once it had been returned. It was finally returned to the visitors' centre in September 1999.[12] When it was stolen, the mural was thought to be worth $1.2 million, but that figure was later updated to $2 million.[12]

In late 2006, manuscripts including seven Colin McCahon poems, along with a Charles Goldie painting, and an unbound copy of the Oxford Lectern Bible were stolen from the University of Auckland Library during the Christmas break.[13] It was believed that the thieves broke into a secure room at the Library by prising open a locked window. Art experts and police said at the time that it would be difficult to sell the items, in New Zealand or overseas, as anyone who knew about the artists would be very suspicious.[14] By October 2007, all the stolen items – valued at over $200,000 – were returned, after negotiations between police and a man who knew who had stolen the items concluded. Following the incident, security was increased at the Library.[15]

In popular culture[edit]

Cover image of McCahon documentary

Tobias Cummings & The Long Way Home's "Canoe Song" refers to several of McCahon's works its debut album, Join the Dots.[citation needed]

McCahon is the subject a 2004 biographical documentary titled Colin McCahon: I Am, produced by Television New Zealand and directed by Paul Swadel.[16]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Brown, Gordon H. (13 November 2013). "McCahon, Colin John". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Retrieved 20 September 2014. 
  2. ^ "Famous New Zealanders – Colin McCahon". Christchurch City Libraries. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  3. ^ Craven, Peter (1999). The Best Australian Essays 1999. Bookman Press. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Topic: Biography of Colin McCahon". Te Papa. Retrieved 11 November 2014. 
  5. ^ Simpson, Peter (2007). Colin McCahon: The Titirangi Years. Auckland: Auckland University Press. p. 45. ISBN 9781869403898. 
  6. ^ Brown, Gordon H. (1984). Colin McCahon: Artist. Wellington: Reed. p. 90. 
  7. ^ Alderton, Zoe (2012). "Cliffs as Crosses: The Problematic Symbology of Colin McCahon". Relegere 2 (1): 5–35. doi:10.11157/rsrr2-1-487. 
  8. ^ Alderton, Zoe (2013). "Out With The Tide: Colin McCahon and Imaginative Pilgrimage". In Norman, Alex. Journeys and Destinations: Studies in Travel, Identity, and Meaning. United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publisher. pp. 265–286. ISBN 978-1-4438-4753-7. 
  9. ^ "McCahon house museum". Retrieved 5 November 2014. 
  10. ^ "Artists' Residency". Retrieved 5 November 2014. 
  11. ^ Bloem, Marja; Browne, Martin (2002). Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith. Amsterdam: Craig Potton Publishing and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. ISBN 187733300X. 
  12. ^ a b c Cleave, Louisa (17 March 1999). "Stolen mural will return to Urewera". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 5 November 2014. 
  13. ^ University of Auckland. "Art theft at Auckland University". Retrieved 9 November 2014. 
  14. ^ "Valuable art stolen from university". TVNZ. 5 January 2007. Retrieved 9 November 2014. 
  15. ^ "Stolen art returned to Auckland Uni". 23 October 2007. Retrieved 9 November 2014. 
  16. ^ "Colin McCahon: I Am". NZ On Screen. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Ivan Bootham, "The Message As Art: An Exploratory Catechism of McCahon Word Painting" in Art Words Ho! 1989, pp. 22–34.
  • Gordon H. Brown,Colin McCahon: Artist. Reed Books, rev. ed. 1993.
  • Gordon H. Brown, Towards A Promised Land: On the Life and Art of Colin McCahon. Auckland University Press, 2010.
  • Agnes Wood, Colin McCahon: The Man and the Artist. David Ling Publishing Ltd, 1997.
  • Butler, Rex (25 July 2012). "Victory over death: The gospel according to Colin McCahon". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 

External links[edit]