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Walking the line with Colin McCahon

Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? Vol. 2 1960-1987 by Peter Simpson, Auckland University Press, 2020, RRP $80. Review by Hamish Coney

I’ve had the good fortune to attend many lectures and presentations by Dr Peter Simpson over the last 20 plus years. His speaking voice is an appealing, gravelly baritone. He makes his points succinctly, with the occasional rhetorical flourish or the odd wry chuckle. His recall in these moments, for dates, or for the joy and fitful enmity of friendship is uncanny. On the subject of Colin McCahon (1919 – 1987) Simpson could be described as a walking computer of New Zealand art history.

I have often wondered when listening to him speak how it is humanly possible to have so much data available to support, it seems, any point he cares to make on his chosen subject. I’ve had similar thoughts whilst engrossed in the ‘mainframe’ of Is This the Promised Land? which adds a further 400 pages to the 67-year chronicle of the artist’s life. The two volumes add up to 756 pages in total – that’s 17 pages per year for those without a calculator at hand. Vol. 1, There is Only One Direction, which covers the years 1919 to 1959, was published in October of 2019.

At the same time, I have heard Simpson make the facts dance to a new tune he has improvised in the moment. I have seen him almost ululate with emotion when recalling, for example, the sadness of the painter’s falling out with the writer James K. Baxter in the months prior to the latter’s death in 1972 ... and then point to an area of pigment on the 1973 multi-panel canvas Series D (Ahipara) to suggest that just here (as he points) McCahon, blinded by grief at the loss of a dear friend, mortified by the memory of a petty quarrel and excoriated by the lost chance to reconcile, seeks to make amends with his paint brush and reach through the shadow of death to embrace his departed friend.

Simpson’s ability to marshall ordnance levels of information: either significant or near-forgotten, profound or mundane, is the product of formidable intellectual stamina. But it is the blood and bone of McCahon’s life and art that creates the emotional magma which keeps vol. 2 on the boil over 398 pages.

For all the profundity and gravitas in McCahon’s art there is commensurate frailty leavened with crippling doubt. Colin John McCahon walked that line his entire life. Across these pages Peter Simpson walks with him, every step of the way.

In his final three decades, McCahon’s journey is defined by almost polar opposites on a personal and artistic level. As those questions of faith that plagued him at increasingly rupturing intervals begin to assert themselves on an already melancholic disposition, and ultimately - we know how this ends - overwhelm the artist, he responds with a decade of productivity unmatched in New Zealand art history.

Quite literally the hits keep coming. McCahon was, to cadge an analogy, the hardest working man in the art biz. A comparison that comes to mind in both disposition and creative fecundity is Johnny Cash, who over a 54-album career released up to four records a year over the 1960s and 70s. Both artists used their creative energy as a shield to keep their demons at bay.

Volume 2 opens in 1960 as McCahon and family move from Titirangi into the inner city suburb of Grey Lynn. This move from the bush-clad hills of West Auckland prompts McCahon into one of the many pivots of his career, away from the landscape-driven canvases of the 1950s and into the more radical space of pure abstraction in the Gate and Bellini series.

Within a couple of years he returns to the landscape, but in abstracted form as witnessed in Landscape Themes and Variations and the many Waterfalls. By 1965, the Numerals appear, as do a wave of deeply religious works such as the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. As ’67 arrives we are back in the landscape with the North Otago series and in the church with Visible Mysteries. In 1969, McCahon tentatively steps into Te Ao Maori with the Canoe Tainui and The lark’s song. Then, literally as the paint is drying, he is off in search of fresh prey.

Colin McCahon, The lark’s song, 1969, synthetic polymer paint (PVA) on two hardboard doors, each panel: 810 x 1980 mm, overall: 1626 x 1980 mm. Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

McCahon’s pace and productivity from the mid '60s is staggering. For the artist of course the future was as yet unwritten. The reader, however, knows what’s round the corner at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. Given the volume and quality of the reproductions that feature in Is This the Promised Land? Vol.2, even the complete novice to McCahon’s practice will be unable to resist a peek into the following years as the 60s close out.

And in Chapter 3 Muriwai I, 1970-72, the leviathans arrive. In the preceding pages, the approaching thunder is impossible to ignore. Boom, Bang, Boom. The simple act of building a new studio at Muriwai in 1970 unshackles McCahon. In a blur of activity he summons forth three of the largest paintings created in New Zealand to this day. Practical religion: the resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha, (69-70, collection of Te Papa Tongarewa) Victory over Death 2, (1970, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) famously gifted to Australian people to celebrate the signing of CER in 1982 and Gate III (1970, collection of Victoria University, Wellington) weigh in at eight, six and over ten metres respectively.

Three mammoth works in ambition, scale and resolution address McCahon’s spiritual doubts and his fears for the future of the planet "in this dark night of western civilization". The weight of foreboding is crushing. The artist does all any of us can. He bears witness, asserting, simply ‘I AM’.

For McCahon, the critical response to these works provided much needed validation. Poor reviews got to the artist. In the early 1960s he had to be dissuaded from fleeing New Zealand by his lifelong supporter Charles Brasch, to whom he wailed in a letter: "I have about 100 quite devastating cuttings from all over NZ which I’m keeping for when I eventually manage to leave NZ for good… For the first time ever I have been really depressed with constant bad reviews."

A decade later his efforts were acknowledged by critics, ‘"he power of McCahon’s images strikes the imagination like a fist" wrote Hamish Keith in the Auckland Star. New Zealand Herald art columnist T.J. McNamara headed his review, "Astounding 'I Am' revelation".

Colin McCahon, Victory over death 2, 1970, synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas, 2075 x 5977 mm. Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

These are amongst the most dramatic passages of Is this the Promised Land? Vol.2. Simpson resists the temptation of many art writers to go toe to toe with the artist. He eschews the hyperbole many writers, myself included, can be prone to and gives the stage to McCahon and his contemporary commentators. Keeping a steading hand on the tiller, Simpson chimes in with interpretations of primary source texts that facilitate a path into the drama from the artist’s perspective first.

An intervention such as this from p.147 in which Simpson decodes the import of a McCahon letter to the poet John Caselberg reveals his deep scholarship, intimate knowledge of the dramatis personae and ear for the moment, as he explains context with some gentle paraphrasing: "For McCahon, the painting ‘better’ was more than an aesthetic matter; it was also ethical and spiritual; he had to ‘be’ better in order to ‘paint better’; a high bar to set himself in this day and age."

Equally illuminating are those chapters set in the mid 70s when McCahon furthers his enquiry into Te Ao Maori with the Parihaka and Urewera commissions. These bodies of work are amongst McCahon’s most urgent; within which he fully comprehends that Māori spiritual traditions in Aotearoa predate those of Pākehā by millennia. In the Urewera works of 1975 McCahon’s sympathy with Māori attitudes towards land as whenua, outranking Pākehā property rights are explicit across two large scale murals and a host of supporting works on paper. The abduction of the Urewera Mural in 1997 demonstrated that this kaupapa was unfinished business for Tūhoe. Perhaps the recent pardon for Rua Kēnana (1869 - 1937) will provide some redress for the raw emotions conveyed by McCahon in his Urewera works.

Students of New Zealand art history will find the latter chapters dense with fascinating information, particularly Simpson’s ruminations regarding the response to what was McCahon’s debut on the international stage, A Question of Faith at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2002, "The explicitly Christian slant did not go over well in Europe; it made McCahon appear (most inaccurately) as a Bible-bashing fundamentalist."

At each stage of the journey, Simpson selects insights from letters between the artist and confidants such as the aforementioned Brasch and Caselberg, but also Library director and lifetime confidant Ron O’Reilly, fellow artist Toss Woollaston, the gallerists Peter McLeavey and Don Wood, the writer and critic Wystan Curnow, Gallery directors including Rodney Kennedy and Luit Bieringa, The artist Patricia France and the collector Dr Ian Prior.

McCahon’s fellow travellers became all the more important in his final decade where his faculties began to wane. It is hard to read statements such as this 1980 note to Peter McLeavey and remain unmoved, "I just can’t write letters any more – they don’t seem to happen somehow." The last chapter is one where I will leave you, dear reader, to traverse alone; safe in the knowledge that if you need someone to hold your hand, Peter Simpson is there to provide stalwart support. It makes for sad reading.

Within those sombre final pages we can feel Simpson breathing more heavily, mourning McCahon’s decline and ultimate passing, as the memories return.

These soulful passages, which may have crept up on Simpson, were the ones that lingered longest for this reader. Despite the impressive wealth of primary source material, what provides the most reward are legions of moments where Simpson places the reader in the passenger seat with McCahon on one of his many road trips, or lingers on a rare unburdened moment when the artist is happy or satisfied. I have selected three to illustrate this point, but thankfully there are many similar moments throughout Is this the Promised Land? Vol. 2. I suspect that for many readers these will be more satisfying than a blizzard of exhibition reviews, the cut and thrust of art world politics or the wide variety of opinions proffered and conclusions drawn by the great and the good of the New Zealand art scene over the 27 years documented.

Exhibit ‘A’ takes place in about 1960 but is recounted in a 1974 letter by McCahon in which he describes a journey to Waioneke north of Hellensville, on the south Kaipara head. In the car that day were the artist, his sons William and Matthew and the artists Don Neilson (1924 – 2013) and Theo Schoon (1915 – 1985). In recalling that journey McCahon wrote, "We had a permit from Forest Services & walked towards the sea past little lakes and white sand hills. I did look at things. My mind was shattered, my eyes understood the land. If you like, gates opened ... I’d not been shattered like this since Harbour Cone and the Nelson landscape & the good morning Kauris." It doesn’t take much to see oneself ambling over those dunes with this disparate group. Soon after, the Gate series emerged including perhaps his first great masterpiece of the 60s: Here I give thanks to Mondrian (collection of the Auckland Art Gallery).

Colin McCahon with 'Here I give thanks to Mondrian' (1961), in Arts & Community, 1970, unknown photographer. Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

Exhibit ‘B’ places McCahon within Te Ao Māori dates to 1972 and was recorded by the artist’s biographer Gordon Brown. Brown notes that during the exhibition, Colin McCahon: A Survey the writer Matire Kereama whose text from The Tail of the Fish: Māori Memories of the Far North, (1968) was the source for The lark’s song of 1969, was seen to be chanting the poem before the painting, "much to McCahon’s satisfaction".

Exhibit ‘C’ is more prosaic but if any passing moment might answer the question posed by the book’s title this is my nomination, an excerpt from a McCahon letter to Patricia France dating to July 1972, "Our house is small but well planned and heaps of sun… (with) a terrace looking to Northland. We can’t afford all this splendour but will try – we’ve never been in a new house, ever, and from here we see all the local horses, beef on the hoof & sheep. And a magic landscape of hills – going north."

Is This the Promised Land? is a grand achievement, which (in conjunction with volume 1) will become an indispensable point of reference for decades to come. But in addition to its value as a record of fact, the author provides telling evidence as to the reasons why McCahon should command attention in the future. For all the profundity and gravitas in McCahon’s art there is commensurate frailty leavened with crippling doubt. Colin John McCahon walked that line his entire life. Across these pages Peter Simpson walks with him, every step of the way.

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