Artists’ Profiles: Colin McCahon

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Colin McCahon (1919 – 1987)

Colin McCahon is regarded as one of the country’s most important modernist painters. Born in Timaru, New Zealand in 1919, McCahon was not only preoccupied with the local landscape around him, but also with religious and moral issues, centering around the human condition. His artworks boast an array of varying stylistic features arising from a wide range of influences. During his high school years, McCahon became aware of the vivid colours and bold lettering of shop window advertisements. Later in his career, the incorporation of prominent words and the shadow their patterns create can be linked back to these early experiences in his life. In contrast, after his trip to America in 1958, the works McCahon produced often assume the influences of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. As seen in the massive works of Jackson Pollock, McCahon readily created paintings on such a large scale that he referred to them as “pictures to walk past”. In this essay, I will explore the wide range of stylistic and conceptual features that have influenced McCahon in linking his epic masterpieces that showcase New Zealand regional landscape in a new and enlightening way, with his personal explorations into the nature of religion and human faith.

Colin McCahon was fortunate enough to travel and see many exhibitions of local artist’s work. As well as these trips to various Dunedin art galleries, McCahon was greatly touched, and later inspired, by the vast and lush landscape of the Otago hills (South Island, New Zealand). In 1948 McCahon moved to Christchurch with his wife and family where he began to exhibit his works regularly. It was during this decade that McCahon evolved his own style of regional landscape painting. It reached its peak with two masterpieces, Takaka: Night and Day (1948), and Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury (1950).

Although both paintings show basic landforms, it is the simpler of the two, Takaka: Night and Day, in which McCahon, by the use of his minimalist landscape depiction, has personified metaphysical issues in his use of shading from darker to lighter tones.

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Takaka: Night and Day (1948), oil on canvas on board

Since Antiquity, it has been believed that the left-hand side of the human anatomy and objective entities (in this case, paintings) was linked to the more sinister and darker side of the human mind and spirit. It is thus significant that McCahon has utilised a powerful directional light from the left side of his painting reaching across the canvas to the right-side, transcending into more warmer and lighter tones. McCahon’s use of light and dark contours is symbolic as they act as visual metaphors for inner spiritual and moral values, and in doing so, possibly personify the contradictions of moral thought in the human mind. Furthering the connection between the light and dark of the human spirit is McCahon’s exaggerated use of line; the repeated series of hills seem to delicately flow into each other, linking the two sides with an inevitable pathway of struggle and hope.
Stripping the landscape back to its bare essential elements, McCahon shows a strong glow upon the horizon line, symbolising the sun, and in doing so, signifies an essential truth – the potential light and hope that God can bring for the human race. Even though Takaka: Night and Day is laden with religious symbolic meaning, it is primarily an example of McCahon’s regional landscape work. Though not entirely naturalistic, it is clear to see the overpowering influence the Otago hills had on McCahon in his reproduction of a landscape as a symbol of place and identity.

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Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury (1950), oil on canvas on board

Not only were McCahon’s simplified landscapes symbolic of the soul’s vacillation between the light and dark, but, as particularly seen in the mid-1940s, these “sublime” regional settings acted as stages for his personal depictions of biblical scenes. As seen in his remarkable work, Crucifixion According to Saint Mark (Oil on canvas,1947) McCahon translates a biblical scene into a local New Zealand landscape, effectively emphasising the importance, even in this modern age, of the passion surrounding, and power of, Christ. McCahon is therefore implying, through the use of a recognised and local environment, the monumental, aweful, nature of religion that seems to be a part of the landscape, and New Zealand culture, too.

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Crucifixion According to Saint Mark (1947), oil on canvas

This painting depicts Christ’s death according to the gospel of Saint Mark. McCahon has painted Christ slightly to the left on the canvas and incorporated a cartoon-like speech bubble arising from his cross reading,

“Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani” (“My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”)

The use of text in his paintings can be related back to the young artist’s intrigue and delight in the bright window advertisement lettering. Rendered in a bold colour palette, McCahon makes more accessible fragments of religious text that when set against the white background of the speech-bubble, emphasise the uncertainty and suffering of Christ, linking back to his own personal beliefs of the brutal and cruel event.

There is a mixture of contrasting stylistic features in this painting that amalgamate together creating a poignant and vivid image. Harking back to quattrocento artistic conventions, McCahon has painted his sky a strong and gaudy yellow, reminiscent of the gold leaf commonly used in the holy work of Giotto and Duccio. On one hand, this brings in a sense of the timelessness of Christianity, while also, the heavy and lurid colour conjures a feeling of unease and emphasises another of McCahon’s stylistic features – that of Primitivism. As Michael Dunn points out in his book, New Zealand Painting, A Concise History, McCahon’s figures are rendered with heavy dark outlines, which makes them appear crude and “lacking in refinement”. (Dunn, Michael, ‘New Zealand Painting: A Concise History’ (Auckland University Press), 1942.)

This evokes a sense of discomfort and uncertainty, illustrating McCahon’s own ambiguous attitudes towards the Christian faith. Unusually, the artist has actually included himself in the image, as an observer, showing a fragment of his face in the right corner, further creating a sense of unease and speculation. As well as utilising a garish colour palette and a cluttered composition, McCahon has also incorporated specific New Zealand symbolism, localising the landscape. For example, beyond the repeated hills in the distance, stands a typical New Zealand church that seems to have been struck by a supernatural force descending from the sky, conjuring a sense of urgency and immediacy.

Later, in the 1950s, a job-offer in an Auckland art gallery saw McCahon and his family move to Titirangi, a suburb steeped in thick Kauri (native tree to NZ) bush. While working in the art gallery, McCahon became particularly aware of the abstruse forms of Cubist art, namely seen in the paintings of Picasso and Braque. He was fascinated with the fragmentation of form and the many points of perspective found in Cezanne’s work, which created ambiguous but identifiable scenes.

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Kauri (1955), oil on panel

Borrowing from previous stylistic conventions, McCahon produced a series of work that, although they were primarily landscape based, became progressively more abstract. This can be seen in his work, Kauri (1955), which combines a limited colour palette and contradicting lines, obscuring the subject matter into an Analytical Cubist style.

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Picasso, The Guitar Player (1910), an example of an Analytical Cubist work

As well as the overlapping facets of colour, the Cubist influence is also seen in the flattening of space in the painting, reconstructing the image in what appears to be a two-dimensional picture plane. However, McCahon does maintain the landscape as a fundamental aspect, drawing attention to the nature of the Kauri forest with tall and thin vertical lines that seem to stretch upwards to the sky and beyond. Not only is this new and modern breakdown of space a significant and key development in McCahon’s style, it also holds a symbolic meaning in illustrating the variety and diversity of the New Zealand landscape.

In 1958 McCahon took a brief trip to America where he encountered the works of such Abstract Expressionist artists as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Particularly astounded by the extreme scale of Pollock’s Drip paintings, McCahon’s subsequent work was of a large scale and even more abstracted than before.

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Northland Panels (1958), monocoat on canvas

In McCahon’s Northland Panels (1958, Monocoat on canvas) for example, (painted on eight panels of unstretched canvas), McCahon adopted Pollock’s ideology of a painting being “something to walk past”. He uses a loose brushstroke and scribbled words to further alter his simple geometric shapes in rendering his landscape almost unrecognisable.

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Tomorrow will be the same, but not as this is (1959)

A further influence of Abstract Expressionism can be seen in his large-scale work, Tomorrow will be the same, but not as this is (1959) where McCahon has added sand to create a textural effect, again reminiscent of Pollock’s Drip paintings. By adopting aspects of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, McCahon has uniquely portrayed New Zealand landscape in a striking and significant way, drawing on his personal conflicts and uncertainties, religious beliefs and the plight of the unfortunate.

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