ReadingRoom

Book of the Week: Simpson’s McCahon

An essay by Martin Edmond in response to the monumental second volume by Peter Simpson on artist Colin McCahon

I. Bro Aspect

I first met Peter Simpson at Sally and Alan’s place in Coromandel Street, Newtown, Wellington, 1988. Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell, the founders of Red Mole. They had just come back from seven years away, in New York, New Mexico, Amsterdam, Santiago de Compostela and places in between. Before that were seven years when I saw them almost every day. I was over from Australia because Illustrious Energy, Leon Narbey’s film, which I co-wrote, had been nominated in several categories at the awards that year. I ran into Sally at the Michael Fowler Centre before the ceremony. She said they had a child, a girl, Ruby. She said come round.

Their flat up behind the hospital was curtained against the light and, like all their places, seemed underground. You went down the side of the house to go in. It was a week night. Around nine o’clock a knock came on the door and there was Peter Simpson. He was a Labour MP at the time and had just returned from Japan and China on official business; bringing with him a gift. I didn’t see exactly what it was, something on paper which he described as a piece of Chinoiserie. At which—the word not the gift—Alan looked askance. One of those moments which you remember because of the force of it; but don’t necessarily understand what it was about, then or now.

Also that night I remember a mouse running around the skirting boards and Sally saying: Look, Alan, little mouse!; and that she had taken to calling him Petal, which was incongruous for someone as craggy as he was but not wrong either. Ruby must already have been in bed. We were sitting around in a big square front room littered, as usual, with the materials of works in progress. There was a garish Indian Jesus, blue like Krishna, with his sacred bleeding heart pulsing, pinned to the wall just inside the door. Peter seemed nonplussed by Alan’s reaction to his gift but not phased by it either. He didn’t stay long; we had another smoke and he went on his way.

Ten years earlier, back home after eight years in Canada (a PhD from Toronto, five years teaching at Carleton in Ottawa), Peter, employed in the English Department at the University of Canterbury, came up to Wellington looking for acts to include in a festival he was organising in order to introduce a course he was co-ordinating called The Invention of New Zealand. Ian Wedde sent him down town to a Red Mole show and subsequently Peter booked us to perform during Orientation 1978 at the Ngaio Marsh Theatre on the Christchurch campus. We had two shows in repertoire at the time, a cabaret called Goin’ to Djibouti and something referred to on the posters as Double Feature, consisting of Crazy in the Streets and Our World (Whirled).

Peter asked for one and got the other; although ultimately I think we ended up doing both. This was one of those misunderstandings which occurred regularly in Red Mole days; but nobody took offense. Crazy in the Streets might have been the better choice anyway to open at the Dame’s theatre. It was scripted, forty-five minutes long, about a boy (‘Boy’) growing up in Hamilton in the 1950s. The sky is blue as the inside of a miracle. The moon goes down on the far side of midnight and the sun makes a run for the gap. It’s always time to move on. There was a fair, a fortune teller, a half-man half-woman, a dance at the Starlight Ballroom, a revival meeting, an excursion to the Holy Land. Our Whirled, the second half, was cabaret too, not wholly distinct from Goin’ to Djibouti.

Ten years later, when we met in Wellington, Peter was a foot soldier in the Lange government, elected in 1987 to Norman Kirk’s old seat of Lyttleton. Michael Bassett got him on the Japan / China trip in the (vain) hope of recruiting him to the ranks of the fanatics of Rogernomics. There was a meeting in the PM’s office in the Beehive during which Lange raised an eyebrow at Peter’s going on that jaunt. He was still a sitting member when he arranged for Red Mole’s Comrade Savage to play in the Legislative Council Chamber (the old upper house) on the 50th anniversary of Michael Joseph’s death on March 27, 1940.

Labour was defeated at the 1990 election, Peter lost his seat, and went back teaching, at the University of Auckland where, with Alan Loney, he set up the Holloway Press, which produced many fine printings over the years. When Alan Brunton’s Slow Passes came out from AUP in 1991, Peter wrote the introduction; the collection includes a poem, ‘Transformed Urbs / The Days Of’ addressed to Peter (‘Distinguished Visitor’) during a trip he made to New York in the early 1980s when the Moles were living in Alphabet City. The night Peter visited there was a murder outside their place, a drug dealer called Little Paco was executed / by the Leadership for his peculations.

Another ten years later, when Alan’s Fq, a roman à clef set on campus at the University of Canterbury, was published posthumously by Bumper Books, there was this:

“Bro Aspect was the dominator

the way he thrashed us about,” Sir Rodney

“when he was here

(like a mackerel in a birdbath!) marijuana

steaming from his nostrils—ah but in those days

there was fizz in the Colonnade,

men were nabobs who’d stop clocks with a look,

the view from the door

was all actual women

bright things in bangles

delicacies hand-pressed in virgin oils.”

The dejected knight pauses to examine his slippers.

. . .

“I never knew if he preferred

Mozart or folk music,” he muses

“but Bro Aspect was as Leviathan unto us!”

Even though Peter launched Fq in Wellington in 2002, he didn’t know he was Bro Aspect until I told him, many years later, in Melbourne in 2020.

II. Complicating Stories

Upon his return from Canada to New Zealand in the late 1970s Peter became interested, in scholarly terms, in two figures. One was Hawera musician and novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson; the other Christchurch painter, typographer, publisher, editor and book designer, Leo Bensemann. Simpson wrote the first biography of Morrieson, for the series New Zealand Writers and their Work, published in 1982 by Oxford University Press. It wasn’t a happy experience: he turned in a manuscript 60,000 words long which the editor, without consultation, cut down to 40,000; she then gave the marked up ms to a senior literary figure to review, unfavourably, in the Listener.

Colin McCahon with Professor Paul Beadle, farewell at Elam, 1971, photograph taken by Max Oettli. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, 35mm-102963-F

His interest in Bensemann is enduring and has borne fruit in a number of projects centred upon Christchurch Modernism, so-called, in the period before and after World War Two; his study of McCahon may be seen as growing out of this enthusiasm. Bensemann, like Simpson, was born in Takaka; like him, aged 10, he moved to Nelson and went to Nelson College; each attended, thirty years apart, the University of Canterbury. In an interview published online in 2010, Simpson expanded upon his scholarly concerns and explained why he is attracted to certain subjects: I’ve always been interested in drawing attention to writers or artists who for whatever reason have been ignored or underestimated. Examples would be Ronald Hugh Morrieson, John Caselberg, Leo Bensemann, Mary Stanley, Alan Brunton, Charles Spear. This is partly because I think it is a way of being useful to the wider culture, and partly because the outsiders, the neglected, the overlooked, often have a lot to tell you about the culture and the way its narratives have been written. I’m always interested in thickening the texture of the culture by highlighting people outside the mainstream.

On the other hand, I’m also drawn to some of the major figures in the culture—examples in my work would be Colin McCahon, Allen Curnow and Kendrick Smithyman—all of whom have had ample recognition from others. But major artists are capacious and inexhaustible, there is room for many people to have their say. I don’t pretend that what I’ve said about the people I’ve mentioned is definitive or the most important, but I hope it offers a fresh perspective on their work. Also, and almost by definition, major writers or artists are those that are endlessly informative about the culture we live in.

Another strand in my work is making available materials that are otherwise unknown or hard to come by . . .

All of these interests―along with a close examination of the relationship between word and image―are fulfilled in Simpson’s McCahon.

While never ignored, McCahon was often misunderstood; as the illustrations in this two volume opus make clear. Again, while not neglected, McCahon remained an outsider: even as he takes his place as "New Zealand’s leading artist". This is made clear in a Richard Collins photograph reproduced in Is This The Promised Land? McCahon is waiting to cross at the lights on the corner of Karangahape Road and Newton Road, Auckland. It’s the mid-1970s. He’s wearing nondescript clothes, has a duffle bag over his shoulder and looks like any working man before a shift. Going home to paint, probably.

No-one either would deny McCahon the status of a major figure in the culture; nor that he is capacious, inexhaustible; but Simpson doesn’t claim any of his work is definitive, nor that it is of high importance. What he wants to do is offer a fresh perspective. He would like to thicken up the culture; which, to my mind, rhymes with making available materials that are otherwise unknown or hard to come by. Simpson’s scholarly work is painstaking in its examination of sources and in its documentation of those sources. His McCahon is no different.

 Or perhaps it is: by giving us a comprehensive account of the oeuvre, and also relating the (ever changing) circumstances in which it was made, along with the artist’s own commentary upon it―drawn mostly from letters to a few old and trusted friends―Simpson gives us the opportunity to re-frame, as it were, the artist as someone both stranger and more familiar than we knew. McCahon’s preferred description of any new work he embarked upon was as a "job". Which suggests an artisan’s fidelity to the physical materials he uses and also to the subject matter to hand. "Subject matter", however, is the most contentious and difficult area of McCahon’s work to come to terms with; and also the most rewarding.

Though it isn’t one of his favourite Biblical stories, McCahon resembles Jacob wrestling with the angel; given a modern twist by Rilke in the Duino Elegies. However, more than any other poet, McCahon quoted Gerard Manly Hopkins; who also struggled lifelong with his personal God. McCahon’s "jobs" seem to have been given him from somewhere else; he speaks of them as things he is compelled to do. Some take years to complete. They are sacred tasks which must be fulfilled according to standards which are both exacting and opaque. When he talks about works in progress, there isn’t a clear demarcation between matters that are technical and those which are thematic.

In other words, he speaks of ethics and aesthetics in the same breath. As if the two are not distinct from each other. The most succinct formulation of this dilemma was written to John Caselberg in July of 1970: The next lot has to be better & I just don’t feel capable of being better yet . . . I have the awful problem now of being a better person before I can paint better. Murray Bail, who quotes this passage in the opening section of his essay on McCahon, goes on to say that it is hard to imagine any other modern artist even having this thought, let alone voicing it. Those he mentions who might are van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, Lucien Freud. All, with the possible exception of Vincent, colossal egotists.

Simpson exposes questions like these in their pure form―often in the words used by McCahon himself―without feeling the need to provide answers to them. He doesn’t advance interpretations distinct from his descriptions of the works, their sources and their provenance. The effect is that, in the absence of authorial comment, you end up looking to the work itself. A remarkable thing: apart (perhaps) from the empty black square in I considered all the acts oppression, it seems there was nothing left undone when, in 1983, McCahon placed that last painting face down on the floor of the studio and locked the door behind him. His oeuvre was complete; his worldly task was done.

III. The Promised Land?

Simpson’s McCahon was conceived as a single book which grew, during the research and the writing, into the two volume work which this publication completes. The first part, There Is Only One Direction (AUP, 2019), takes us from the painter’s birth in 1919 to the year 1959, when he and his family sold the small house they owned in the bush at Titirangi and moved in to Auckland city: first to Newton, later to Grey Lynn. Part two covers 1960 to 1987 when, prematurely aged and after years of ill health, during which he did not paint, McCahon died. Both books approach the subject chronologically and both focus upon the work; the life is treated, not as figure, but as ground.

Colin McCahon, c. 1967, photograph taken by Gil Hanly. Bowerbank Ninow.

Though they share a methodology, the books have very different atmospheres. In Volume 1 we meet a man fully engaged in the life of his times. He is committed as a painter but participates in all sorts of other activities, including theatre making, publishing, the writing of catalogues and manifestos, the organisation of exhibitions―as well as raising a family of four and working at a variety of jobs, most of them outdoor, until his appointment to the staff of the Auckland Art Gallery in 1953. There are two overseas trips: to Australia in 1951, to the United States in 1958. This gregarious life is reflected in the ephemera with which the writing in the various sections is illustrated; each section is followed by a generous selection of colour plates.

Volume 2 gives us an austere, unremitting, increasingly black and white journey into silence. There is a subtle alteration in methodology. The discursive approach used in Volume 1 gives way to something more forensic. At the beginning of each new section in Volume 2, there is a precis of the work accomplished in the relevant time period, followed by an exegesis of it; and then the colour plates. Peter is assiduous in his readings of the paintings; almost, it sometimes seems, to the point of weariness; his, our own, or that of the painter. However, as soon as you leaf through to see the works, you understand.

McCahon’s use of colour is astonishing. While he continued to favour black, white, ochreous yellow and burnt orange as the basis for his paintings, he also introduced a deep dark red. There are hot pinks, acid greens, golden browns and Egyptian blues. Indigos and violets. All of these colours are used sparingly. Even the monochromes, the shades of grey that memorialise James K Baxter, for instance, look chromatic. Recognisable landscapes disappear; leaving us with abstracted landforms and the atmospherics of weather, sky and sea. The horizon line is last to go. If paint has an emotional quality, as many painters believe, McCahon was a master of the sombre, the foreboding, the desolate, the despairing; also of the hopeful and the joyous; he finds beauty in all of these.

He probably wasn’t as disengaged as he might appear to have been: after he left the gallery, he taught for seven years at Elam School of Art, where he had a decisive influence upon a generation of artists. He continued working in the theatre too. Simpson, while noting these activities, has to elide social and professional interactions in order to account for the torrents of painting from those last two decades of working life. Or did McCahon become isolated? Once he had the studio out at Muriwai, he was able to paint fulltime and on a scale hitherto denied him. After the three huge Lazarus / I Am / Practical Religion paintings, there were many other large works from the series painted in these years.

Amongst them was a work commissioned for the Visitor’s Centre at Aniwaniwa on the shores of Waikaremoana in Te Urewera National Park. Simpson’s account of the complexities that unfolded during this imbroglio is masterful in its clarity; sober, even-handed and wise to the many strands of interest and privilege woven into what seemed, on the face of it, a straightforward commission. McCahon himself, over the two years it took to resolve the matter, went from passionate enthusiasm to a kind of bewildered resignation; and in the course of it produced, typically, not one but two large paintings―a landscape, a textual work―which are resplendently complementary.

Simpson’s account of the after-painting life; and then of the afterlife of the paintings, is another model of lucidity. As with the work, so with the life: a scrupulous attendance to the telling of what happened allows us to look, untrammelled as it were, at the strangeness of McCahon’s end; the tragedy of the cost of his vocation to the man who pursued it with such fierceness and such fidelity, even a kind of ruthlessness, emerges from the detail without the need for authorial commentary.

Indeed Simpson comments so rarely that when he does you sit up and take notice. On page 162, for instance, referring to the painting A Song for Rua―Dreaming of Moses, there is this: Indistinct portraits of Moses and Rua may be embedded in the swirly orange paint of the middle painting, for those who have eyes to see or a capacity to dream. The work, on three sheets of paper which can be hung either vertically or horizontally, imagines Rua Kenana, the prophet of Tuhoe, on Muriwai Beach. Each seascape with advancing cloud is quite distinct in colour and form and very beautifully painted, demonstrating that subtle touch with small brushes upon which McCahon prided himself.

‘Newton Road’, c. 1974–75, photograph taken by Richard Collins; Colin McCahon and unknown woman on the corner of Karangahape Road and Newton Road, Auckland. © Richard Collins

It was Moses who saw the Promised Land but did not enter into it; as, perhaps, Rua did not either. As for McCahon himself, who knows? Simpson’s master metaphor for this second volume is, precisely, that question: Is this the Promised Land? Which, as he notes, McCahon used sometimes with, sometimes without, the question mark; and sometimes spoke of in the past tense: Was this the Promised Land. McCahon’s ambivalence towards questions of faith and doubt has been much discussed; often with a degree of exasperation; but the ambiguity, as Thomas Crow intuits, was both intrinsic and key to unlocking McCahon’s subject matter:

For light to enter the spectator’s own meditations, it was vital that McCahon’s own doctrinal allegiance remain undefined. Much ink has been devoted to the problem of his personal Christian faith or belief, even though an unambiguous answer, whether affirmative or negative, would only serve to undermine the art. The negative would reduce scriptural content to cool ventriloquism; while the affirmative would allow non-believers, a majority among his actual audience, to dismiss the challenges to vanity and self-regard seemingly couched in the cant of sectarian evangelism.

IV. Vera Icon

When I saw Peter in Melbourne in February 2020 he was giving a paper at a seminar held at the Caulfield campus of Monash University. It was called Station to Station: Colin McCahon’s Veronica Paintings 1949-79 and addressed the sixth station of the cross, "Veronica wipes the face of Jesus", as a motif. McCahon painted six works which name Veronica in the title or the subtitle, as well as many others where she appears as one of the fourteen stations. He wrote to Ron O’Reilly: The form is, as almost always now, the Stations of the Cross & is intended to be read as such. I work into & out from a given form & do not invent the form, I accept it as right & true. I accept the freedoms it gives me & take no others.

Simpson advances the notion that Veronica is the patron saint of painters―those who pursue beauty and truth by imprinting cloth with images. The status of Veronica’s handkerchief as a ‘true icon’ and therefore as the exemplar of honest painting reverberates through this volume and retrospectively informs its predecessor. Unattested in the Gospels, Veronica’s wiping of the face of Jesus with her cloth, which ever after bore a likeness of him, joins the aesthetic and the ethical in an image which is truthful in both the mundane and the sacred sense. You might even say it was McCahon’s life long attempt to paint vera icons, true pictures, that caused the agony he experienced, progressively, as he realised he would never know, and never could know, if he had in fact done so.

Peter Simpson isn’t here to weep or to mourn, however; his métier is to seek, to find, to document, to publish and not to cease until he has done all he can do; as such, I imagine he might have more to say about this and other aspects of McCahon’s oeuvre. He is the ideal guide: not opinionated, never condescending; comfortable dealing with the work as it is. He lays out the evidence before you with grace and acumen. His writing rewards close reading; and the selection of images is wonderful. Both books will be an indispensable resource in times to come; they are themselves a kind of vera icon: for those who have eyes to see; and a capacity to dream.

Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? Vol. 2 1960–1987 by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $79.99)

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