Book of the Week: Colin McCahon, monumentally

Philip Matthews celebrates two remarkable - and remarkably different - portraits of the great Colin McCahon.

Who knew this about Colin McCahon? That he wrote such cool letters. One of the many great pleasures of the first book in Peter Simpson’s monumental two-volume series – Colin McCahon, There is Only One Direction: Vol 1 1919-1959, with the second to come next year – is to read the artist’s words directly. They feel alive, immediate. Sure, McCahon was a wordy painter, but other than a few occasions (“O yes it can be dark here and manuka in bloom may breed despair,” in The Northland panels, for example), his words were on loan from others – from God, mainly, or poets like John Caselberg.

Unless you had the curiosity to chase up the few rare pieces of McCahon’s own writing, such as the “Beginnings” essay in Landfall in 1966, you rarely heard his voice and probably formed a second-hand impression, shaped by the darkness, spiritual doubt and immense, sometimes terrifying power of the paintings themselves and an image that circulated of an artist who felt alienated, unloved and reclusive, ruined by alcohol. In his McCahon psychogeography, Dark Night, Martin Edmond remembered meeting an “agitated, disquieted … haunted” figure on Ponsonby Road in the mid-80s, who seemed unable even to recall the mutual friend who was with Edmond, film-maker Leon Narbey. McCahon was the “man who wasn’t there anymore”.  He had no words at all.

But then you get things like this. McCahon is writing to art dealer Peter McLeavey in 1977, remembering how he delivered a painting to his friend, the philosopher Arthur Prior, in the early 1950s. McCahon and his family were living in the Christchurch suburb of Waltham at the time, near the constant noise and light of the railway yards. Prior lived in a little further away in Heathcote. How did the artist get Canterbury Plains (1951) over to Prior’s place?

McCahon explained: “Arthur Prior & I on bicycles so lugged between us from Barbour Street to the back of Heathcote where they lived – the landscape is from a hill south of the Prior Christchurch home & looking north. They were very good friends. Mary was writing a huge analysis of Moby Dick. Caselberg was in the group & O’Reilly & miles of students. Arthur introduced me to new thinking about infinity. I reeled home on my bike under a huge starry Canterbury sky.”

He included a drawing in that letter to McLeavey, a sketch of two cyclists carrying a painting between them as they rode. Prior, who took over the teaching of philosophy at Canterbury University College after Karl Popper, went on to Manchester University and Oxford and became world famous for his thinking about time. And the painting that the artist and the philosopher shifted by bike? Prior’s son Martin gave it back to the Christchurch Art Gallery last year. I don’t know anything about Mary Prior’s analysis of Moby Dick but it’s worth remembering that McCahon painted Herman Melville’s white whale off the coast of Muriwai in the 1970s.

Wouldn’t you have liked to be present as the McCahons and the Priors talked about God, infinity, time and Melville in their homes in post-war Christchurch? Among the “miles of students”, there was one Gordon H Brown, later to become the definitive interpreter of McCahon. Brown was a first-year university student when he showed up at Barbour Street in 1952 with a letter of introduction from James K Baxter. It was awkward until Brown broke the ice by revealing to McCahon that he knew something about cubism; they stayed friends until McCahon’s death in 1987 (he was “the kindest and most tolerant of friends”, Brown wrote in Towards a Promised Land). As well as being an eyewitness, Brown is also a highly skilled and insightful writer – everyone writing about McCahon must toil in the shadow of his Colin McCahon: Artist, first published in 1984.

Colin McCahon at French Bay, Titirangi. Photo taken from the new study by Peter Simpson.

In a way, Simpson expands on what Brown did, but with greater production values and an even more methodical sense of detail. His book is not quite a biography, but an account of the work, painting by painting, show by show. McCahon marries and children appear, but that’s as far into the personal life as we go. Shifts of location – Dunedin, Nelson, Christchurch, Auckland – are convenient ways of organising chapters and allow us a glimpse of ordinary life, the often difficult living conditions of the 1940s and 50s and the struggle to find time to paint while working by day in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens or the Auckland Art Gallery. This relatively impersonal emphasis on the art before the artist is an approach McCahon would have approved of (“the artist is no more interesting than the butter-factory worker,” he said). Sometimes, though, a more vivid sense of McCahon breaks through the sober surface of the book (he said his time at Otago Boys’ High School was “an unforgettable horror”, but we don’t learn why; there is the frankly bizarre image of McCahon appearing as an occasional comedian in a company that toured the South Island in 1938). “Dunedin is a dead city,” he wrote in a letter in 1942 and the newly married McCahons moved north to pick tobacco and apples in Nelson. If you wondered what he was doing during the war years, he appealed against military service on conscientious grounds.

There was a rich and rapid progression in styles from the mid-1940s until 1959, from the early Otago and Nelson landscapes, the first, shocking appearances of Christian characters and stories in recognisably South Island settings, the experimental cubism of Titirangi and the solemn, sometimes puzzling word paintings of the mid-50s. Reading through it again, you are struck by how much he did and how quickly. His followers and supporters sometimes struggled to keep up (Charles Brasch didn’t much like the crucifixions at first) but Simpson also deflates the myth that has grown over time, the story that says no one got McCahon. For every ARD Fairburn who foolishly dismissed the stuff as “graffiti on the walls of some celestial lavatory” there was a JC Beaglehole who informed readers of the Listener as early as 1948 that “he is one of the important people … a serious artist”.

Simpson is more a historian than an art critic, and his writing on the paintings relies on description and the intention of the artist rather than interpretation or speculation. Of course, the writer who produced Bloomsbury South has a fine understanding of cultural nationalism and McCahon’s relationship to it. Despite seeing a “splendour” in the South Island landscape, McCahon was sceptical about the cultural creation myths pushed by Fairburn, Brasch, Monte Holcroft, Douglas Lilburn and others. “What twaddle they do write,” he said about those he called the “NZ scene people” in a letter to his parents in 1947. Itinerant, independently minded, open to influences but also stubborn, McCahon was never much of a joiner. 

If it’s speculation you want, turn from Peter Simpson to Justin Paton, whose McCahon Country is a no less magnificent achievement, also timed for the McCahon centenary. Where Simpson’s approach is rigorously specific – the time, the place – Paton floats away from specifics, or uses them as a springboard. His lovingly crafted essays are sprinkled between galleries of meticulous reproductions. In the process, Paton creates his own McCahon and even his own New Zealand.

I remember when Paton emerged with his electrifying art writing in the 1990s. When almost everyone else’s writing was academic or theoretical, Paton’s had a dimension that seemed meditative, almost mystical. His thing was to pause and pay attention and tell you what that felt like. The ideas repeat in McCahon Country: seeing properly, seeing again, seeing into the heart of something. He closely involves the reader in his process of looking and thinking. It is fair to say he is full of the spirit that Simpson suppresses and there is a strong confidence to his writing and his over-arching claim that McCahon is “unequivocally, one of the great modern religious artists”.

"Was McCahon religious or was this stuff just the material of art history that he inherited?" Photo from the new study by Peter Simpson. 

This has been the big question for decades: was McCahon religious or was this stuff just the material of art history that he inherited? McCahon left behind evidence for both camps. Writing to his sister Beatrice in April 1942, he says, “I must tell you I have discovered the real truth about Christ. Christianity is not what is found in churches. It is a living philosophy and truly revolutionary.” But a few months later, he wrote to artist Toss Woollaston, “What is it that stops me being Christian [?] I seem to have the desire but not the ability … Perhaps, like Bertrand Russell, I should give up this fight to believe in Christ.” But this kind of doubt, this zig-zagging struggle, is typical even among those who count themselves as believers. For his part, Simpson puts himself on the side of the “non-believers” in the McCahon wars, those who took their cue from the artist’s statement in 1979 that he was not Catholic (“No, I’m nothing”) but had an affinity for the symbolism. Paton, on the other hand, is more inclined to make McCahon a holy visionary, a prophet who, in his own words, saw “an angel in this land”. There are revelations and raptures.

Compare and contrast. When Simpson assesses Takaka: night and day (1948), which shows a hilly landscape split evenly between dark and light, he quotes McCahon’s words about “landscape as a symbol of place and also of the human condition” and the “battle between light & dark”. Despite McCahon’s own comment that it is linked with another painting, The promised land (1948), Simpson does not see what Paton sees. Paton notes that the gold and blue colours “stand for purity and divine grace in Christian devotional art”, giving these empty Nelson hills “a hint of the ceremonial”. And there was an implication clear to art historian Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, quoted approvingly by Paton. That is the moment when God separated light from darkness in the book of Genesis. Here is Paton, openly describing what he sees as McCahon’s mission: “McCahon’s paintings don’t portray his God directly because that would betray God’s divine nature, creating a fixed image of a presence whose significance lies in not being representable. Instead his paintings evoke, and reach for, and limn, and trace, and listen – but never give finite or final form to a reality that is a matter of faith.” Whether we’re talking about Terrence Malick or Kanye West, most secular critics struggle with obvious religiosity. How seriously should we take it? What is meant by it? Is it trying to persuade us, or even convert us? But Paton doesn’t hesitate to engage; he dives straight in.

Both of these books are accounts of journeys. In Simpson’s book, McCahon moves through various sites in the south before finding himself (in both senses) in Auckland. Paton organises his book as a kind of road movie, an interactive map. He opens with an aerial overview familiar from old National Film Unit promotions, and at times I detected a homesickness or nostalgia in the now Sydney-based Paton’s sense of New Zealand. There is a portentousness at times – of course there is, this is McCahon – but there is also some of the most eloquent and insightful art writing you could ever encounter. Sometimes it gets highly poetic: “Wingbeat, heartbeat, lightbeat, wordbeat. Clouds of language, flocks of sound,” he says, going deep into The lark’s song (1969).

McCahon Country is such a treat for lovers of Paton’s art writing, those who have mourned his disappearance from the mainstream media over the past couple of decades. I count myself as one of those. As well as his elegant style and his perceptiveness, the book reinforces other things I remember enjoying about Paton’s writing. One is a kind of frustration with the idea of art, the limits of it and the narrow focus of galleries in the early 21st century. What, Paton wonders, are we supposed to do with something as unusual, important and other-worldly as the 14 abstract panels that make up McCahon’s The Fourteen Stations of the Cross (1966)? “The question is not facetious,” he writes. “Art this eloquent on matters of life in death can seem embarrassingly overqualified for a setting such as a secular art gallery, where art’s power to entertain or generate ticket sales usually eclipses questions of spiritual purpose.” Like McCahon, Paton wants to see more meaning in the world, not less, and he longs to communicate it to us, in all its pain, joy and seriousness. No surprise that he finds this the most resonant of all of McCahon’s statements: “Once the painter was making signs and symbols for people to live by: now he makes things to hang on walls at exhibitions.”

Colin McCahon: There is only one direction, Vol 1 1919-1959 by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $75); and McCahon Country by Justin Paton (Penguin, $75.)

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