A pencil drawing of Colin McCahon by Allan Mollison (2009)
|Birth name||Colin John McCahon|
1 August 1919|
Timaru, New Zealand
|Died||27 May 1987
Auckland, New Zealand
Colin John McCahon (1 August 1919, Timaru, New Zealand – 27 May 1987, Auckland) was a prominent New Zealand artist. During his life he also worked in art galleries and as a university lecturer. 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, 1958/59. 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 generally regarded 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' (Craig Potton Publishing, ISBN 0-908802-91-9). His work is remarkable for its spiritual intensity.
Early life and development
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. He also spent a year in Oamaru during his primary school years. While still at secondary school he saw an exhibition in Broadway, Dunedin, by Toss Woollaston which was influential.
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 school.
There he encountered 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 on account of which they were later hailed by James Douglas Charlton Edgar (1903 – 1976) as "the first cell of modern art in New Zealand". They were Modernists and more specifically Expressionists, and arguably the first New Zealand-born painters to constitute a school, certainly the first representing any kind of modernism.
They were at times concerned with nationalism - establishing a painterly national identity - but not to the extent some later writers have supposed. 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. Exempted from military service on account of a medical condition, he and Hamblett struggled to make their living painting while starting a family in the middle and later 1940s. By 1948 they had relocated to Christchurch where McCahon became involved with "The Group". Later still 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 which he had 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 portion of his career. One of his initial styles was the 'Early Religious Paintings', which depicted scenes from the Bible in the New Zealand landscape. Indeed, landscape and religion may be read as the abiding themes within his body of work. McCahon moved toward abstraction as his career progressed, but was always concerned with presenting a didactic message for his audience.
After working with Mary Cockburn-Mercer in Melbourne, 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 and experimentation of Cubism can be seen in works like this by overlapping facets of colour, (like Cézanne) and a flattened, broken picture plane. One must note, however, that McCahon does not use multiple viewpoints, and he chooses to retain his subject of the landscape, resulting in works that are not completely abstracted.
During a visit to the United States of America 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, which led to a notable change in his own style. For example, upon reflection, McCahon said that Pollock's works, due mainly to their large scale, were "pictures to walk past". 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. 
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:
- Use of unframed canvas: "I think it gives them more freedom to act"
- Large scale
- The scale and loose nature of the panels create a new sense of time and space
- Use of text e.g. "A landscape with too few lovers" from poetry, the Bible, and a note from J.M.W. Turner. Use of text creates a sonic quality.
McCahon shows religious undertones to his work by giving the landscape an essentially spiritual element. One method by which he does this is by stripping the landscape bare, showing influence of Cotton's book Geomorphology of New Zealand, especially in works such as Takaka: Night and Day. This work also shows religious undertones by the use of symbolism through light (light and dark; good and bad). Another method is by placing a scene from a religious narrative in a New Zealand setting (for example Crucifixion according to Saint Mark), and bringing the Bible into the contemporary world.
Another manifestation of his religious themes is within 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 lesson for the maturation of the human soul.
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.
During the Christmas holiday period of 2006 a set of Colin McCahon manuscripts were stolen from The University of Auckland Library.
References in music
Australian songwriter Tobias Cummings references several of McCahon's works in 'Canoe Song', the final song on Tobias Cummings & The Long Way Home's debut album 'Join the Dots'.
- Dictionary New Zealand Biographies
- Christchurch City Libraries
- Bloem, Marja and Martin Browne (2002). Colin McCahon: A Question Of Faith. Craig Potton Publishing; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. p. 41, 176-177.
- Dictionary New Zealand Biographies
- Simpson, Peter (2007). Colin McCahon: The Titirangi Years. Auckland: Auckland University Press. p. 45. ISBN 9781869403898.
- Brown, Gordon H. (1984). Colin McCahon: Artist. Reed: Wellington. p. 90.
- Zoe Alderton, "Cliffs as Crosses: The Problematic Symbology of Colin McCahon," Relegere 2:1 (2012)
- Marja Bloem and Martin Browne, Colin McCahon A Question Of Faith. Craig Potton Publishing/Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2002
- 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
- Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
- Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki: Works by Colin McCahon
- The Colin McCahon database and Image Library
- Museum of New Zealand Collections Online person page
- University of Otago Digital Collections: Works by Colin McCahon