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Six days on the road with Colin McCahon: Part 2

This year is the 100th anniversary of the artist Colin McCahon’s birth. Hamish Coney gets ‘on the road’ in search of the artist’s legacy. In part two, he exits Auckland and follows the artist’s trail to Tāneatua, Palmerston North, Wellington and finally Titirangi.

Read part one here

Getting out of the big smoke is quite a job in 2019. Roadworks and a phalanx of what we trust will be inner city improvements arrange themselves into an obstacle course described by the colour orange. Cones, protective plastic netting and roadsigns with insistent arrows pointing in the one direction you want to avoid ensure escaping the city limits is a taxing entrée to the main course of the southbound leg of our 1500 kilometre Colin McCahon roadtrip. These oranges feature heavily around Manukau, over the Bombay Hills and again in Tauranga. It is not until we are well on our way towards our first destination of Tāneatua that urban New Zealand finally relents and allows the country to express itself. The final run along the coast from Tauranga to Whakatāne is exhilarating and filled with anticipation. I’m hoping to do a McCahon double: to visit The Urewera Mural immediately after The Urewera Triptych recently viewed at Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland’s CBD, as described in part one.

McCahon had two bites at this cherry and I can’t wait to employ my old high school ‘compare and contrast’ skills. The Urewera Mural is a candidate for New Zealand’s most legendary artwork of the late 20th century. McCahon was commissioned by the Board of the Urewera National Park, in 1975, to create a work for the new visitor’s centre at Aniwaniwa near Lake Waikaremoana. The then seldom seen mural was thrust into the national consciousness when it was removed from the visitor centre in 1997 by Tūhoe activists. It was returned 15 months later due to the intervention of the unlikely pairing of Tāme Iti and Dame Jenny Gibbs. But the point had been made. Theft or confiscation of Taonga stings. For Tūhoe this has been a festering sore, one salved in part by the pardon of the prophet Rua Kēnana in 2017, over 100 years after his arrest at Maungapohatu. 

The Urewera Mural today resides in the heart of the Tūhoe centre in Tāneatua, itself a vital symbol of the restoration of Tribal mana. Designed by Ivan Mercep and Jasmax and opening in 2014, Tūhoe Te Uru Taumatua is a destination it its own right. 

In 1975 McCahon approached the original commission with some trepidation, writing to his friend, the artist Patricia France, ‘I feel all bent up with the weight of the Urewera Mural sat on my back…to go and put up a painting for the Tuhoe people will be tough – they might not like it. But I am trying to understand them. I hope I can. I am always scared about my work.’

McCahon was taking on a difficult, remote territory, a contested history and an Iwi wary of Pakeha bearing gifts. His response as presaged in the triptych was to celebrate a trinity of themes, in this case the land of Te Urewera as announced by the pepeha in the left hand quarter, then the Tangata Whenua with the clear message ‘Tuhoe Their Land’ and finally the massive central figure of Tāne Atua here manifest as a conflation of the ancient Tau cross and a colossal kauri trunk. The fundamental difference between the two works is that the treatment of the prophets Te Kooti and Rua Kēnana is far more muted in the mural as opposed to the lightning white text of the triptych and two distinct times situate and separate these works: the triptych illuminating a dark night whereas the mural can be read as emerging into the soft light of dawn. 

Colin McCahon, The Family, 1975. Image courtesy of Te Manawa, Te Papaioea, Palmerston North

Colin McCahon, a Centenary Exhibition at Te Manawa in Palmerston North was my next stop. The exhibition features a thoughtful selection of works from the gallery’s permanent collection and speaks of an increasingly distant past when our regional galleries were equipped with acquisition budgets that enabled them to build world famous in New Zealand collections. However, here I give thanks to the wise curator who acquired The Family, surely one of McCahon’s most heartfelt and personal works of the 1940s. By 1953 when McCahon and his family moved to Titirangi the direction of his work underwent perhaps its most significant pivot as his landscapes became emptied of human actors. From the mid 1950s McCahon locates his spiritual compositions on the great stage of the New Zealand landscape, frequently in the dead of night. Emptiness, doubt and the metaphysical roam as lonely metaphor or bolts of text – McCahon’s commandments.

However in the 1940s, McCahon’s tableau, teeming with angels, the Virgin Mary and a full cast of Biblical players, are almost baroque in their narrative intensity. The Family of 1947 is a revelation on at least two counts. First because if we read this as a portrait group, symbolic or otherwise, it may be the only time we see McCahon in his own work. At the time of viewing I was so taken with the painting that I posted an image to Instagram where the artist’s grandson Finn McCahon Jones noted that the child being nursed was his father William. Secondly, when we compare McCahon to his contemporaries Toss Woollaston, Ralph Hotere, Theo Schoon, Rita Angus and Gordon Walters, they are distinguished as a generation of artists of, and by, whom there is a wealth of both actual painted portraiture or longstanding photographic documentation, in particular by Marti Friedlander. McCahon is notable for being, in this company, notably camera shy. Consequently images of the artist are somewhat fugitive. In this context The Family takes on a confessional tone. It is the star of Te Manawa’s fifteen or so McCahon works currently being exhibited. 

The first of August is Colin McCahon’s actual birthday and the event was celebrated with a very swish do at Government House in Wellington presented by McCahon House. I’ll get back to the speeches in a bit, as after the formal part of proceedings those assembled were treated to some Govt. hospitality and very nice it was too. However this is only mentioned in passing because of the location and the fact that in and amongst the assembled artists and amidst the hobnobbing moshpit were installed three of McCahons classic religious paintings enjoying a form of day release from the Te Papa collection. The King of the Jews, The Angel of the Annunciation and Christ Taken from the Cross were all painted in 1947, the same year as The Family up the road in Palmerston North. The experience of seeing these early figurative works was as instructive as seeing the two Urewera works back to back, illustrating the vastness of McCahon’s conceptual journey over thirty years from these relatively humble easel paintings. 

Three Colin McCahon 1947 religious works from the Te Papa Collection installed at Government House Wellington to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth.  Image courtesy of McCahon House.

Naturally the night itself was a celebration of the artist. The artists Robin White, who was a student of McCahon’s in the 1960s at Elam art school, Shane Cotton who spoke to the point regarding McCahon’s entry and approach to Te Ao Maori and Eve Armstrong who was a McCahon house resident in 2009, all articulated their personal responses to the artist and made their cases for his ongoing legacy. In a practical sense this legacy is most actively alive via the McCahon House residency which is located in Titirangi on the site of the artist and his family’s home in the 1950s, just up the road from French Bay. Since 2006, nearly forty artists have experienced this highly regarded residency programme. 

So it is fitting that we finish our roadtrip in Titirangi. Given McCahon’s perambulations around New Zealand and his attachment to landscapes as varied as Ahipara in the north and Kurow in the south it is a pointless exercise to argue for one as being definitive within his career. However what is clear is that the artist enjoyed a deep attachment to the west coast of Auckland. He spent close to twenty five years either living or working between Titirangi and Muriwai. In the Necessary Protection and Jump series of the early 1970s we see the purest conflation of McCahon’s spiritual quest meeting the forms of the landscape in the shape of the Tau cross and the distinctive positive negative relationship of the Muriwai coastline and Motutara Island. 

Colin McCahon, Gate III, 1970, acrylic on canvas, Victoria University Art Collection. Photo by Sam Hartnett, courtesy of the Colin McCahon and Research and Publication Trust and Installation view at Te Uru, Waitakere Contemporary Gallery.

Currently on exhibition at Te Uru in Titirangi is Gate III (1970), one of the artist’s most monumental canvases measuring up at over 30 square metres. Originally commissioned for a groundbreaking exhibition entitled 10 Big Paintings at the Auckland Art Gallery it was described at the time as an ‘event’ painting. Gate III has spent the last forty nine years domiciled in Wellington at Victoria University so its return to Auckland is also something of an event. It is the star of its own show, a single artwork exhibition. As befits such a massive work, the theme is global, McCahon’s terror at the threat of nuclear annihilation. The work is riven with portentous, sombre exclamations such as … ‘In this dark night of Western Civilisation’ and ‘O Earth… How is the hammer of the whole earth cut asunder and broken’. The palette is a simple three act play of black, white and an earthy tan which the artist deploys to describe the passage of a day from dark night into ‘a constant flow of light’. Many of McCahon’s most tumultuous works can be described as therapy paintings and Gate III is a supreme example of the artist’s ability to as the exhibition’s title suggests find ‘A Way Through’, to persevere in the face of crippling doubt and locate a sense of solidity and even a morsel of belief in the iconic proclamation ‘I AM’. Like The Wake which I described in part one of this roadtrip it is painting as journey, destination unknown. Standing before Gate III made this viewer both marvel at McCahon’s ambition and also feel a little awkward. So little contemporary art today allows itself to address such themes, or perhaps of greater concern, evinces any sense that it is the role of art to do so. In 2019 McCahon’s legacy of urgent concern for our most fundamental questions still burns bright. When such dangers as those articulated in Gate III are on our very doorstep, the optimism for the future that he manages to find at the end of his painterly journey in this great work provides at worst some temporary relief and at best that most vital commodity, hope.

Colin McCahon, a Centenary Exhibition at Te Manawa, Palmerston North, until December 1. www.temanawa.co.nz

‘A Way Through’ Colin McCahon’s Gate III at Te Uru, Titirangi, until 20 October. www.teuru.org.nz

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