We ask a lot of Colin McCahon. Our expectations of him can be a bit needy and unreasonable. Some claims made for him in the past appear outlandish. Here’s the artist’s lifelong friend and biographer Gordon Brown writing in 1984, a few years before the artist’s death, ‘For McCahon the land becomes an expression of vast geological forces that result from the Creative will of God.’

You will find similar rhetoric throughout books past and those soon to be published. McCahon lets writers off the leash when it comes to the verbals. And this is understandable. They are trying to compete. McCahon’s gargantuan ambition and container scale canvases can be intimidating and exhilarating at the same turn. Boy Am I Scared was the title of one of his most iconic text canvases from the mid 70s and even now the sentiment is still apt.

Today, 30 years after his death, McCahon remains the chairman of the art board, with all the baubles of office. No less than the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern opened his current exhibition A Place to Paint, Colin McCahon in Auckland at the Auckland Art Gallery in mid-August, (curated by Ron Brownson and Julia Waite). His alpha status is being further burnished right now by yet more major museum exhibitions throughout the country. His actual birthday on August 1 was celebrated with a do at Government House in Wellington which featured a level of catering he may well have rarely enjoyed in his lifetime.

However, McCahon, in the centenary of his birth, would not warrant, let alone receive all this attention and purple prose if the great themes of his work; the New Zealand landscape, his (un)wavering faith and his later awakening to the position, and more pointedly the plight, of tangata whenua, did not still speak to us today as being the very ‘forces’ that consume so much bandwidth in Aotearoa today. His calling, and his determination to follow it, in a post-war New Zealand still searching for its own cultural identity, has seen McCahon assigned the mantle of a Kiwi public bar secular seer. But it was a burden he was up for carrying as this 1971 quote reveals, ‘as a painter I may often be more worried about you than you are about me and if I were not concerned I’d not be doing my job properly as a painter. Painting can be a powerful way of talking.’

Colin McCahon, Landscape theme and variations (Series A), 1963, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the McCahon Family, 1988. Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

That so much of McCahon’s painterly language is deeply rooted in the Christian past is a vital component of his project. His desire to wrench ‘Truth from the King Country’ alloyed to a keening ear for prophecy, his placement of crucifixions and entombments in the promised land of the New Zealand provinces – these re-enactments of biblical scenes various lyin the valleys and hills of Erewhon bind the artist to an artistic tradition whose roots can be traced to 14th Century Italy.

Over his life McCahon’s conceptual arc was vast, beginning with those early Old Testament, Gothic scenes, then shifting to the mid-period massive narrative text and numeral sequences where he grappled with and invented his own brand of New Zealand modernism. From the 1970s he reset the playbook by addressing contemporary issues of environmental destruction and turned his attention to Māori themes to highlight past colonial wrongs, the solutions to which still sit in the category ‘work in progress’ in 2019.

1919 was a pretty grim year, a time of mourning yet also a time of celebration. Plucky New Zealand was still very much tethered to the Mother Country and prided itself as a dutiful member of the British Empire. But this loyalty had come at a huge cost on the battlefields of World War 1. More than 16,000 men killed and 52,000 wounded, a casualty rate of 58 percent of the 100,000 who served in the war-to-end-all-wars. From a population of just over one million at that time such losses were devastating. In the year after the Great War whilst the country was mourning so many lost sons, brothers and husbands there was cause for celebration at the cessation of hostilities and consequent return of tens of thousands of soldiers.

1919, the year of Colin McCahon’s birth, was also the beginning of a construction boom as war memorials to the sacrifice of the Glorious Dead were being raised the length of country. To this day these monuments remain one of the defining visual motifs of a New Zealand road trip, speaking ever more poignantly as the years and kilometres pass.

North Otago, South Canterbury, Muriwai, Northland, Nelson, Ahipara, French Bay, Titirangi, Takaka, the Kaipara, Craigieburn and Te Urewera were all significant stops on McCahon’s journey. He may have described it as a ‘Landscape with too few Lovers’ but in New Zealand’s backblocks he found his own tūrangawaewae. McCahon’s conviction that the very terroir of New Zealand contained mystic truths that he could reveal by scratching the surface might appear today to be veering towards zealotry, but who can begrudge the desire coursing through the artist who made this statement in 1972, ‘I fled north in memory and painted the Northland Panels… like spitting on the clay to open the blind man’s eyes.’

And therein lies the challenge and enduring appeal of McCahon at his most impassioned. We just don’t believe like we used to.

McCahon was always on the move. So in August I went on the road in search of some of his visible mysteries. However before I escaped the city limits I made a couple of stops in the Auckland CBD. The first being the Auckland Art Gallery to see The Wake, painted in 1958 by the artist in the attic of the gallery immediately after a transformative four-month voyage to the United States. Covering 16 loose sheets of canvas and commemorating the death of the poet John Caselberg’s great dane Thor, The Wake is McCahon’s largest work and sees the artist hitting his stride, with great swathes of poetic text interspersed with Kauri columns, each panel a work in its own right. The work has made its own road trip, coming north from the Hocken Library in Dunedin to sit alongside the major exhibition A Place to Paint, Colin McCahon in Auckland.

The Wake is an exemplar of McCahon’s unique ability to make paint literally talk. So many of his major canvases are vast articulations of text. The Wake asks the viewer to move while reading and be moved by reading. The subject is grief. It is tempting to think that mourning as a central motif in this epic work and throughout McCahon’s five decade career was a narrative he was simply born into. In the aftermath of WWI, McCahon’s generation was exposed to myriad recently erected memorials that made concrete the grieving of the entire nation. Articulating the loss of (or the fear of losing) intimate friends, his own faith and the innocence of the natural environment are McCahon’s abiding themes.

Colin McCahon, The Wake for Thor, great dane. John Caselberg, 1958, Hocken Collections Uare Taoka a Hakena, University of Otago, (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2019. Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

Just around the corner on Lorne Street at the same time was a wonderful exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery entitled Across the Earth: 100 years of Colin McCahon which featured a tight grouping of the artist’s loose canvases from the 1970s. It was the sight of 1975’s Urewera Triptych which inspired this road trip.

1975 was a big year for the artist and for the country. Change was in the air in the form of the Dame Whina Cooper-led hikoi from Northland to Parliament. The Prime Minister of the day Bill Rowling and the Minister for Maori Affairs Matiu Rata were presented with a 60,000-strong petition outlining the grievances of tangata whenua over the alienation and confiscation of Māori land since the signing of Te Tiriti 135 years earlier. The direct consequence was the formation that year of the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal.

The 1970s saw McCahon himself addressing similar themes across such major works as the Parihaka Triptych and the Urewera Triptych and mural. Rising consciousness to the effects of colonisation on Māori and his own family connection to Tainui via the marriage of his daughter Victoria and the birth of his grandsons Matiu and Tiu Carr had given McCahon the awareness and confidence to engage with Māori themes, and they came in a rush.

Colin McCahon, The Urewera Triptych, 1975, image courtesy Gow Langsford Gallery, photograph by Sam Hartnett

This period was recently addressed at the City Gallery in Wellington by the curators Wystan Curnow and Robert Leonard in the exhibition On Going Out with the Tide (2017). The Urewera Triptych was a star turn in that exhibition and a revelation at the Gow Langsford exhibition. It is McCahon at his most declamatory and potent. The three large loose canvases spread to over five metres and are emblazoned with the names of the prophets Te Kooti and Rua Kēnana, bursting forth from a deep inky black night over the emerald forest of Te Urewera.

There is the palpable sense that McCahon, in the act of painting this triptych, is becoming conversant with a tribal and spiritual history on this whenua that predates Pakeha arrival to Aotearoa and which needs to be reconciled with his own view of the land and Christian faith. This realisation informs the Urewera Triptych with the urgency of discovery and the specificity of place. McCahon’s own journey into Te Ao Māori is the departure point for our road trip.

Stand by as we get on the road to Tāneatua, Palmerston North, Wellington and finally Titirangi in part two to be published soon.

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