Private Symbol: Social Metaphor

The Fifth Biennale Of Sydney

Colin McCahon
The View from Across the Tasman


In addressing a New Zealand audience an Australian needs the audacity of a Colin McCahon to comment on Colin McCahon's number and word paintings for, at home, most aspects of his work have been seen, and local assessments, modified at times by stylistic changes overseas, considered. Actually McCahon might seem to be allied with Neo-expressionism, but its many painters are concerned with esoteric and private myths and oblique references to accepted legends; and such is' their alchemical mingling of allusions that they discourage positive comment. McCahon's work welcomes it.

This is because he is seemingly direct - in message and aesthetic devices that are so unadorned as to be void of artifice and calculation; not, of course, that his work is full of unequivocal certainty and that, despite its actual and metaphorical declamations, it has no subtleties and ironies.

Wystan Curnow in his separate introductions to the catalogue and check-list for the exhibition at The Power Gallery of Contemporary Art at The University of Sydney summarises what must be familiar to New Zealand audiences: the presence of words in works of art. They adorned the themes of works in Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and played intricate roles in Cubist collage. McCahon may be related to the new graffitists like Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring (who doesn't use words), and, to a lesser extent, Anselm Kiefer; and to a host of Conceptualists, political artists with ephemeral slogans; and to the more elegant incorporators of words, Larry Rivers and Sidney Nolan.

COLIN McCAHON Te Tangi o te Pipiwhararua (The Song of the Shining Cuckoo, a poem by Tangirau Hotere) 1974
oil on five unstretched canvases, from 1740 x 905 mm. to 170 x 902 mm.
(Collection of the Hocken Library, Dunedin)

McCahon, however, is unique in his use of sustained narratives, prayers and declarations of, and doubts about, faith; in his painted words; and in his conveying the inevitability of sequentiality in numbers one to ten or to fourteen when The Stations of the Cross are evoked. There is something of a serial unfolding that is difficult to detect in the abstracted incidents in The Stations of the Cross that Barnett Newman painted between 1958 and 1966. There is more to this comparison, for McCahon has a philosophical kinship with Newman, and, of course, with a lot of the abstract expressionists he saw in America in 1958: both convey an immediacy of philosophical attitudes, whether of doubts or certainties. It can be said of McCahon what Harold Rosenberg wrote in his book of 1978: 'For Newman painting was a way of practising the sublime, not of finding symbols for it - in this respect he differed from emblem makers such as Gottlieb and Reinhardt. . .' He said of the Stations that all his works were a 'single event' in which were combined 'the heroic, the pathetic, the philosophical, the aesthetic'.

McCahon pursues sublime questions but he sees the painting not as a complex of emotions so much as -the location of the enunciation of a single issue: though that is not to say that a solution is offered, either theoretically or aesthetically. In fact, McCahon sometimes gropes indecisively in both fields. For some, Newman's solutions may seem a little too pat; McCahon, like the Bible and other legends, is full of untidy ends.

My observations are limited to the evidence of the twenty-two works, under the banner I Will Need Words, at The Power Gallery, and the seven-foot long Victory Over Death 2 (1970) lent to the Fifth Biennale of Sydney exhibition at The Art Gallery of New South Wales. (McCahon was seen in Australia in 1968 at the Bonython Gallery in Sydney and The Australian Galleries in Melbourne; he was in the First Biennale of Sydney. In June 1968 ART and Australia published an article on him by Hamish Keith.)

Like Newman (and comparisons with Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb could be illuminating), McCahon is emphatic and inescapable in intensity; he has lots of words, and Newman lots of minor painterly touches, but neither is loquacious or discursive. Both qualify and adjust but never deviate. Both use religions to face problems. Curnow says that McCahon is an agnostic, but whether one is uncertain about the existence of a god seems irrelevant to the problem of encountering or coping with the notion of eternal death. All art, thought André Malraux, was a defence against mortality. Newman, says Rosenberg, acted 'under the privilege assumed by artists of this era to do what they like with the symbols and personages of the religions into which they were born or which they happened to study - a privilege the exercise of which liquidates any relation between the paintings and traditional credos'.

Just how does McCahon use his extracts? What are the implications of his emphases and dilutions, his juxtapositions of shining block letters and springy or cringing cursive script? Why can a tired scribble be so effective? On the left of Will he save him (1959) is 'ever' in faded script and on the right 'never' in block letters, but at the foot of the cross is a most emphatic 'him', as though survival is self-evident, though a dark oblong beckons below. Half of Victory Over Death 2 is dominated by a huge block-lettered 'I AM' and the rest has tiny script floating in the black void, except for the block letters of 'I have glorified it. And I shall glorify it again'. Words can fade into asides, mutterings, stage whispers, confusing directions, religious rumours, but others are declaimed and boom with a voice sounding from heaven'. At times there is such a vigorous certainty, such a grandiloquent assurance and authority that one asks what happened to gentle Jesus meek and mild, for utterances are given such isolated, emphatic arrogance that the effect is ideologically and aesthetically mesmeric.

Yet, around the sublime and haughty cluster nagging doubts. What is one to make of a clear masterpiece,1 Practical Religion: The Resurrection of Lazarus Showing Mount Martha (December 1969-February 1970) where the green mound is like an ancient barrow beneath a night sky ablaze with tales and slogans. Jesus, declaring 'I am the Resurrection' and 'I am Life', has just resurrected Lazarus, to be met with his brother's rebuke that had Jesus not gone away Lazarus would not have died. Such is the gratitude of one who has not seen the light, for an admonition on that has almost faded away. In the same February of 1970 McCahon gave a whole painting to Are there not twelve hours of daylight, as though miracles were insufficient as teaching aids. (In 1975 he did a number series as though a teacher had had a burst of mathomania at the blackboard.)

Despite all the religious overtones, Are there not twelve hours of daylight with its mixture of strong cursive script and block letters flashing on and off like signs seen in fleeting moonlight joins other works in its crushing doubts, for it suggests that the guiding light will be found in this world and not that of miracles.

Perhaps I am reading in too much incredulity or too much about impractical religion, yet at times McCahon's very hand seems to waver, as, for example, when his prayer in Through the Walls of Death, a Banner (1972) is crushed by two black rectangles that ironically, as with the metaphysical poets, form the cross. It is an unconvincing plea against I everlasting death', yet a similar work, rather Rothkoesque, of 1971, almost wordless, is full of a luminous sense of eternity that Casper David Friedrich would have condoned.

Again, in a triptych for Te Whiti, the cross is turned on its side and the message is like that scribbled down as a last resort by the dispossessed Maoris. Indeed, such is the conflation of Maori history, Christianity and personal faith, glimpses of landscape and international styles, that the Roman-numeral-adorned The song of the shining cuckoo (1974) challenges interpretation in its noble fragility and ambiguity. Are these blind windows, as Curnow suggests, or tombstones?

Other number works endow the adventure - sometimes wilful - of moving from one to ten through Roman and/or Arabic script and one to three in a tense, buoyant, freely-invented notation with dignity and inevitability. Here the means and the message have a unity sundered in the religious works by hesitancies and perplexity. In Numerals (1965) the one has a halo; six curves in supreme comfort; ten, in both Arabic and Roman letters, conveys a sense of crowning finality. All are like heraldic emblems of an emerging clan ... The days are numbered from the darkness, as it were, just as the Biblical warnings seem to erupt from thunderous skies.(2)

Colin McCahon visited America when there was a deal of black-and-white painting to be seen, but temptation to read too much into that is adjusted by the quite wonderfully tenebrous paintings on black 'windows' and burnt corrugated stainless-steel by Ralph Hotere (who did not come under similar influences) on show at the Biennale in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. His works, and especially the number panels of McCahon, provide a serious intensity and elevation of purpose that one had supposed were confined to the Neo-expressionists from the northern hemisphere.

1. There are people loose who reject the whole concept of masterpieces as elitism (bad) and as being associated with connoisseurship (bad and commercial).
2. A comparison with Jasper Johns's rather elegantly playful numbers and palimpsests of numbers of the sixties needs attention.

Elwyn Lynn, recently retired as Curator of The Power Gallery of Contemporary Art, is editor of ART and Australia and Deputy Chairman of The Biennale of Sydney. His latest book (1984) is Judy Cassab, Places, Faces and Fantasies

Exhibitions and Seminars


I went to Sydney with a brief to report on the Biennale exhibitions and, in particular, to look at the New Zealand work in that context.

There were three exhibitions: the epicentre at the Gallery of New South Wales covering half of two floors and showing work by sixty-two artists from twenty countries; and two satellite exhibitions - the historical Aspects of Australian Figurative Painting 1942-62 at the S.H. Ervin Gallery; and works by Colin McCahon: I will need words, at the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art, University of Sydney.

The McCahon exhibition, curated and introduced in a catalogue essay by Wystan Curnow, was organised by the National Art Gallery, Wellington on behalf of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand. It was the first time that an individual artist had been given a separate exhibition within the context of a Biennale.

Let us possess one world 1955
oil and enamel on panel, 758 x 558 mm.
(Collection of the Auckland University
Student's Association)

The Power Gallery exhibition was to have been opened with an address by Professor Virginia Spate of the University of Sydney. With tragic aptness the artist, who has consistently avoided publicity, was not there to receive the international recognition which his work had won, even from critics who knew only, McCahon's authoritative Victory over Death, given by the people of New Zealand to celebrate the establishment of a National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

The celebration which the organizers and McCahon's many well-wishers had looked forward to sharing with the artist was subdued. Colin McCahon was missing, ill in a strange city. Amnesia was feared: perhaps loss of life. There were no spoken words. Instead, the paintings spoke with the spirited consistency of great art.

To see them in context we need to look first at the other Biennale exhibitions.

The Director of this Fifth Biennale, Lcon Paroissien, stated in the Catalogue that it was the intention of the main exhibition to bring together artists with a 'common concern: the structuring of a personal language to express an interaction with society'. The interaction may range from private engagement 'to critiques of contemporary society and its dominant cultures'. His hope was that the viewers I should come to terms with the complex interaction between context, form and content' and by so doing I open up ... new critical perspectives in an antipodean laboratory'.

Because much of the work chosen for the central exhibition was figurative, the satellite exhibition at the S.H. Ervin Gallery was particularly interesting. It was conceived by Professor Virginia Spate and curated by Christine Dixon with Terry Smith under a general subtitle, Dreams Fears and Desires, which they arranged in titled groupings: Rebellions and Rehearsals, Marks of Violence, Still Life in the City, Empty Centre and Anti-hero, Signs of the Other.

This Australian historical exhibition creams off potent and memorable images from the late 'thirties through to 1962. Small in scale, use of paint varied, closely related to and expressive of content, these images are composed within a frame. They are visually educated, individual comments on the character and quality of Australian life and, by implication, of the often violent domination of white men. Painters depict the exploited with accurate sympathy.

With few exceptions, Australian work in the 'forties and 'fifties had moved quite away from celebrations of nature into finely-wrought, painterly expressions of angst. Antipodean life was seen as a two-way movement of desolation: in a harshly beautiful land animals die of thirst; its ' inhabitants, no longer able to live in accommodation with nature, become bewildered shades in an alien culture. Human life in the city grows potentially violent or spiritless and disparate.

The paintings in these two decades are the work of men and women who had experienced unemployment, fascism and world war and had held in imagination the blast of those first atomic bombs. Do these artists 'interact with society' or stand against it as its critics? Their paintings made individual protest against the indifference of society, and reflect the mid-century litany of pain from Spain to Hiroshima.

Colin McCahon was born in 1919 and his work has been fused in the same crucible. One of the most brilliant early paintings in I will need words reads: Let us possess one world. Each has one and is one. There was a theme implicit in the Australian historical exhibition which McCahon's paintings make explicit: that we are the accomplices of those things to which we are indifferent. He and they ask us what we are about? If we are prepared to read them they can make us aware that in living, as in art, the important question is never 'what' but 'how'.

Angst, in 1984, in the Gallery of New South Wales is magnified, technically processed, physically enlarged. Content reflects the values of materialist society, but is it ambivalently critical? The artists use video, photographs, performance, assemblies of manufactured detritus; collage and sculptures of wood, cloth, metal, papier-maché; words, printed or painted.

In this business of communications when artists use the currency of television and advertising they take the risk that we - the viewers - will give their work that unserious brevity of attention which we are accustomed to give to these media.

'On vast surfaces visual imagery is quickly-brushed, purposely rough, made so that he who runs may read. While the painters of the 'forties to the sixties were making well-crafted compositions, the contemporary artists refuse to make precious objects or paintings to be revered and stored in public galleries or collected as investment. What are they making? Names? Reputations rather than (or as well as) critiques of society?

Untitled (One, two three) 1965
oil on three panels,
each 1220 x 915 mm.
(Private Collection,

Art and Language is the signature of a bright British pair (born 1944 and 1945), Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden, who appear to have worked out how to have it all ways. From their lists of selected individual exhibitions, selected group exhibitions, selected bibliography, they seem to have carried the expression of 'critiques of painting of expression' to dizzy heights of critical acclaim - and commercial success? Their apologist explains with a choice, almost endearingly mystifying, paragraph of art-gobbly-gook (it's a collector's piece). Here is a sample:
Art and Language produced paintings ... which would remainder their universalizing claims by eventually bombarding and illuminating them with their own reflected contingency.

The Studio at 3 Wesley Place painted by Mouth (1982) is a confusion of deceased painters at work in a chaotic space. It makes fun of art-establishment attempts to build up the current 'return to the Studio' as a serious aesthetic movement. In this brilliantly awkward, visually 'dated' drawing, the painters use their wit to ask the question which has disturbed the past ten years: is there any longer a place for painting?

Two women carry scepticism much further. Cildo Meireles, who lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, papered three sides of her space with identical small elements - bank notes. Each note was engraved with verisimilitude, but valueless-zero currency.

Anna Oppermann (West Germany) in her Ensemble on the Economic Aspect (1978-1981) - has a go at the whole Art Establishment (Art and Language included) in a prime example of the self-perpetuating installation (300 x 600 x 900 cms). If you stay to work it out, or listened to the artist's explanation in translation, you find that Oppermann excoriates both the dealer who equates art and money and the artist who plays a double bluff, pretending to send up the journalistic, mass-media painting, while hoping to get into the dealer's selection of photographs and stay within the system.

In a show as big as the Biennale one walks through, first getting a general feeling, stopping at some work, staying to watch part of a video or read some sentences from the messages printed or moving in dots of coloured light: listening to the comments of other viewers.

Subsequent visits are concentrated on trying to see what each work is conveying.

One returns to stay longer with certain images whose meaning is complex and held freshly within its form. Finally one goes again to the few which enlarge perception.

The day after the opening it was possible to skulk behind a crowd of students being lectured about the paintings. How quick the Australians were in assimilating, classifying, explaining: each work being treated with a Zen acceptance, a remarkable even-handedness.

'Image-snatching' was a phrase frequently used. It appeared to mean that a painting was enhanced by being a melange of visual quotations, a sort of Eng.Lit. exam paper of attribution and explication.

Juan Davila helped by labelling his borrowing on the painted surface with the written name of each originator.

The organizers gave pride of place to a huge coloured photograph of young men's satisfied desire, On Sexuality and Politics, by Juan Davila (not reproduced in the catalogue); and to the impeccably silk-screened photographic images of Gilbert and George. Young male beauty and violence put sycophantically to serve middle-aged, middle-class sensuality and avarice. It was very commercial, cool and elegant. It was whimsically British: power made acceptable. Professionally presented, this work was given the accolade of his preference by the Director of the Gallery of New South Wales in his opening speech.

Amongst commercialised sex and apocalyptic messages, Ralph Hotere's work stood with great individual elegance and finish on its humdrum ground: a wall of long corrugated-iron, dribbled with white enamel, stencilled with words, stylish scribbles of dull black or toned colour over white numerals. Most of the verbal messages were written from right to left, as though the artist were concealing his heart.

There was not the reflected colour nor the vibration behind surfaces of Hotere's Baby Iron exhibition at Janne Land's gallery in 1983. In this multinational company Hotere's work clearly shared origins with Colin McCahon's: but if a message was there to be understood its relevance appeared to be confined to the surface itself.

Black Window towards
acrylic and lacquer on board,
1219 x 1219 mm.

Tim Garrity's catalogue notes, taken from an Otago review, spelled out 'the peculiarly adventist smelter saga' in phrases which must baffle any but the provincial. I perhaps do no more than point out my own boundaries when I say I responded most vividly to works with a vital individuality (De Chardin's 'fire of expectancy'): works which grew from the stillness of a concentrated existence. Rilke in a letter to Clara Westhoff written in 1903 spoke of great concentration being the key to creation and put his finger on to thip maker's unalterable quest: 'Somehow I too must discover the smallest basic element, the cell of my art, the tangible medium of presentation for everything, irrespective of subject matter.'

In the Biennale context the fire of concentration burned strongly away from the 'centres' (away from, though clearly less sophisticated). Colin McCahon's Victory over Death, his one painting in this big exhibition, stood quietly, with a qualitative difference. It is about the human spirit - here and now. And it is about painting: the quality and significance of the marks themselves. Nature, in cloud space, in light, flows out from the great letters of God's name: I AM.

The sense that human life carries forward a stream of history, holds together past and present, also flooded the images which a Chilean artist, Eugenio Dittborn, had composed from old photographs of a young swimmer and a diagrammatic drawing of the mummified head of a girl sacrificed in the sixteenth century.

Eva Man-Wah Yuen, a sculptor from Hong Kong, in her installation The Third Face carried an individual poetry, a layered sense of the resonance of human life through centuries of Chinese civilization. Human life - given meaning, not made negligible by, death. Lorca's duende at work.

The Irish artist, Michael Mulcahy, in At War (1983) could paint, but not close, the wound. An etiolated puppet-man hung by a rope to a red tree over an abyss of sea and a roped-off night sky.

Jörg Immendorff identifies viewer and victim with powerful visual metaphor by floating on the picture-plane images derived from the swastika: swollen, bandaged, mutilated, scarred, nearly-human shapes which speak dreadfully of power and its victims.

Listening to Nelly Richard made me feel like one or those children brought up by apes ... French intellect at work in analytic language born at the Sorbonne, rethought in Spanish after ten years of life in Chile and relayed into English. Nelly Richard held that the effect of transporting works from 'peripheral regions to appear in an international setting means giving up part of their own motivation as works. To show these works in another continent involves risking renunciation of the past because the new context ignores and denies all that precedes them; it means risking mutilation of their present by suppressing every linkage to what defined their milieu. Europe and the USA set ideas of precedence and assume the privilege of novelty: for us on the periphery any attempt to evaluate in European terms falsifies. A model is effective within its social dynamics.'.

We must know what makes our difference. Our problem: 'to construct a technique of critical discernment by dislodging the concepts by which internationalism is judged.'

That the British/Europeans/Americans do indeed consider themselves as the originating, colonizing centres of art was evident in the questions formulated for another forum: What are we fighting for: representation and sexuality.

Let us possess one World each has one and is one All ye holy Saints of God make intercession for us

The above texts have been McCahon's for nearly forty-five years. Here is the content of his paintings in the Power Gallery. They date from 1947 to 1982. They are language made visible - they tell us about meaning and how we communicate. They are not offset posters or dots of moving lights. They are subtle and movingly beautiful: from the Blakean Elias Triptych (August 1959), where two panels of words make a coloured cosmos flanking the landscaped way, to the austere white on black Untitled: Is there anything of which one can say, look, this is new? (March 1982), where texts from Ecclesiastes, the varying weights and shapes and arrangements of phrases, move with a Mozartean sense of modulation and have the effect of sound, of the artist's voice interpreting meaning.

(Is there anything
of which one can say, l
ook, this is new?. . .)
acrylic on unstretched canvas,
1955 x 1810 mm.
(Collection of the
Bank of New Zealand)

Landscape and light flood through these texts. Nature unifies the Son of Man's journey. The birds fly through the fourteen Stations of the Cross in Te Tangi o te Pipiwhararua (the song of the shining cuckoo, a poem by Tangirau Hotere) October 1974.

McCahon has walked out of the Valley of Dry Bones. As a philosopher and as a painter he has found his own way. In New Zealand we have not had a Felton Bequest. We have neither Old nor Modern Masters in the original in our art galleries. McCahon has sought his own peers in the Museum without Walls. He has understood and learned from Cézanne and Cubism, from Giotto and Titian, and has stood against Rothko and made his own way round the huge road-block of Mondrian.

The effort alone would deserve our respect: his paintings compel it. Since the early nineteen-forties many people have learned to see this place because Colin McCahon set out to find ways of symbolizing our landscape. The ever-present sea, the Otago peninsula, the chequered Canterbury plain, the ridged hills of Nelson, the cubist growth of kauri trees, the brilliant, watery, fractured light of the Waitemata, the green 'landscape with too few lovers' of the Northland Panels. He has made us see headlands curve into the sea like the rumps of great elephants, and skylines divided with high, dark ridges of hills.

Above all he has made us more sensitive to light. In the words of the text to the Song of the Shining Cuckoo: Alight, my friend, aligbt. Alight there and rest.

Photographs by Jeremy Richards and Julian Bowron by courtesy of the National Art Gallery, Wellington, and the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council