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
Nationality New Zealander
Known for Painter
Spouse(s) Anne Hamblett (1942-19??)

Colin John McCahon (1 August 1919, Timaru – 27 May 1987, Auckland)[1] was a prominent New Zealand artist. During his life he also worked in art galleries and as a university lecturer.[2] Some of McCahon's best-known works are wall-sized paintings with a dark background, overlaid with religious texts in white and varying in size; for example, Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is (1958–1959). He was also an extensive landscape painter, inspired in part by the writings of New Zealand geologist Sir Charles A. Cotton. With Toss Woollaston and Rita Angus, he is credited with introducing modernism to New Zealand art in the early twentieth century. He is regarded[according to whom?] as New Zealand's greatest painter. A major retrospective of his work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, 30 August - 10 November 2002) introduced McCahon as "the first modern New Zealand painter of major international importance."[3] His work is remarkable for its spiritual intensity[according to whom?].

Early life and development[edit]

When he was a few days old he was taken to Dunedin by his mother, where he grew up attending the Maori Hill Primary School, Otago Boys High School and the Dunedin School of Art. During his primary school years he also spent a year in Oamaru. While still at secondary school he saw an exhibition in Broadway, Dunedin, by Toss Woollaston, which was influential.[why?]

Robert Nettleton Field (1899-1987) had introduced into New Zealand a form of British Post Impressionism. From this and from a knowledge of German Expressionism gained through Flora Scales (1887–1985), Woollaston had developed his own personalised form of Expressionism. McCahon responded to this and to the influence of Field when he enrolled at the Dunedin school, where he met and socialised with Rodney Eric Kennedy (1909–1989), Doris Lusk, Anne Hamblett and Patrick Hayman. McCahon, Lusk and Hamblett, and to a lesser extent Hayman, developed a manner similar to Woollaston's, and they were later hailed by James Douglas Charlton Edgar (1903 – 1976) as "the first cell of modern art in New Zealand".[this quote needs a citation] They were Modernists and more specifically Expressionists, and the first New Zealand-born painters to constitute a school, certainly the first representing any kind of modernism.[citation needed]

They were at times concerned with nationalism — establishing a painterly national identity - but not to the extent some later writers have supposed.[who?] McCahon and Woollaston were concerned with issues of Christianity and Pacifism which became acute during the Second World War. The younger Dunedin painters, including McCahon, spent their summer vacations with Woollaston in Nelson.

McCahon married Hamblett in St. Matthew's Church, Dunedin in 1942. He was exempted from military service on account of a medical condition. He and Hamblett struggled to make a living, painting while starting a family in the mid-to-late 1940s. By 1948 they had relocated to Christchurch, where McCahon became involved with The Group. Later the McCahons moved to Auckland.

In his early years McCahon often painted landscape, but in stark expressive ways and with more or less overt symbolism touching on religious matters. He regarded his Otago Peninsula painting, completed in 1949 and now in the Dunedin Public Library, as an early realisation of a decades-long attempt to convey what he had felt was a vision inspired by the Otago landscape, experienced while on an outing in the family car when he was still a schoolboy. Later he had other inspirations and other concerns, but he was recognised by his peers as exceptional from the time he was at art school.


Colin McCahon is best known for his large-scale "Word Paintings", completed in the latter part of his career. One of his initial styles was the Early Religious Paintings, which depicted scenes from the Bible set in the New Zealand landscape. Landscape and religion may be seen as the prominent themes in his body of work. McCahon moved toward abstraction as his career progressed, but he was always concerned with presenting an educational message for his audience.[4]


After he worked with Mary Cockburn-Mercer in Melbourne,[3]:41, 176-177 his knowledge on Cubism was expanded, and he began experimenting with Cubism in his works. In 1953 he lived in Titirangi in Auckland and was exposed to native New Zealand plants such as the kauri tree. This spawned a series of works like Kauri. The influence of and experimentation with Cubism can be seen in works like this in the shape of overlapping facets of colour (like Cézanne) and a flattened, broken picture plane. McCahon does not use multiple viewpoints and he chooses to remain a landscape painter, resulting in works that are not completely abstracted.

Abstract Expressionism[edit]

During a visit to the U.S in 1958, McCahon viewed paintings by Barnett Newman, Kazimir Malevich, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian and Willem de Kooning. Prior to this trip he had viewed most works by these artists in the form of reproductions. He was struck by their physical qualities, as is apparent from a notable change in his own style. McCahon said that Pollock's works, because of their large scale, were "pictures to walk past".[1] He was also influenced by the installations of Allan Kaprow, which gave him a sensation of walking through an artwork rather than walking past it.[5] [6]

These were abstract expressionist artists, and their influences can be seen in McCahon's work The Northland Panels. This work consists of eight panels, monocoat on canvas. The influence of these artists can be seen in his use of unframed canvas, the large scale of the artwork, the unusual sense of time and space within it, and the use of text to create a sonic quality.[vague]


McCahon shows religious undertones in his work by giving the landscape an essentially spiritual element. One method he uses is stripping the landscape bare, showing the influence of Cotton's book Geomorphology of New Zealand, especially in works such as Takaka: Night and Day. This work also reveals religious undertones by the use of symbolism through light (light and dark; good and bad). Another method is to place a scene from a religious narrative in a New Zealand setting (for example Crucifixion according to Saint Mark), bringing the Bible into the contemporary world.

Another manifestation of his religious themes is in his Necessary Protection series. This group of artworks presents the Muriwai coastline as a source of spiritual nourishment. McCahon encourages his audience to conserve the local ecosystem as a means of maintaining or producing a meaningful spiritual interaction with the landscape. The land is also presented as a lesson for the maturation of the human soul.[7]

Works stolen[edit]

In June 1997 the Urewera Mural (a triptych) was stolen from the Department of Conservation Āniwaniwa Visitor Centre, and 15 months later was returned. Following its return the painting was conserved by staff of the Auckland Art Gallery, who had worked on its conservation prior to the theft.[citation needed]

During the Christmas holiday period of 2006 a set of Colin McCahon manuscripts were stolen from the University of Auckland Library.[citation needed]

References in music[edit]

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


  1. ^ a b Dictionary New Zealand Biographies,; accessed 20 September 2014.
  2. ^ Christchurch City Libraries
  3. ^ a b Bloem, Marja; Browne, Martin (2002). Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith. Amsterdam: Craig Potton Publishing and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. ISBN 187733300X. 
  4. ^ 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 978-1-55407-206-4. 
  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. Reed: Wellington. p. 90. 
  7. ^ Zoe Alderton, "Cliffs as Crosses: The Problematic Symbology of Colin McCahon," Relegere 2:1 (2012)

Select bibliography[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.

External links[edit]