Colin McCahon
A Basis for Understanding


'Coming to terms with new paintings by Colin McCahon has never been easy,' wrote Ron O'Reilly recently. 'Their power can be felt whilst their meaning and beauty are being struggled for.' Such uneasiness before the work of a painter is fairly unique in our own cultural environment, but is far less so internationally when trying to understand the work of other twentieth-century painters. The generalised attempt needed to relate to such painters must also give rise to a basis upon which McCahon's output can be viewed. In attempting such a foundation I have laid out four broad paths to establish aspects common to the understanding of numerous modern artists, but these will not supply the criteria to explain the particular aspects of an individual artist's work in detail.

First, the relationship of the work of art to the viewer. Art is concerned with defining feelings, but by themselves feelings do not equal art. Likewise, laughter or the sob of sorrow may betray the presence of emotion, but 'feeling' is more than just emotion, for it can reflect the intellect; a fact expressed when we say: 'He has a feeling, or a natural bent, for mathematics'. In art, feelings are not just transitory (in the strict sense) as they are in life. Colin McCahon, returning to Auckland after an intensive tour of the United States of America, recalls: 'I fled north in memory and painted the Northland panels.' In essence this parallels Wordsworth's recollection in tranquillity. 'Feeling' in art is built around an idea, a vision or a conception, and made to fit the language or the medium of art. Feeling is given artistic order to make it comprehendible. Recalling the period, in 1953, when McCahon had recently shifted from Christchurch to Auckland, he wrote: 'At this time the bush and the harbour were of prime importance as subjects - so was the whole magnificent spread of Auckland seen from Titirangi Road on the endless journeys into town every morning. The November light for that first year was a miracle. It remains an obsession and still a miracle. After the south, the drenching rain and brilliant sun, the shattered clouds after thunder and the rainbows that looped over the city and harbour through the Auckland light produced a series of watercolours called Towards Auckland.' Such a passage indicates the presence of strong feelings in the painter, but do we necessarily get the same sort of feelings when we look at these watercolours? No. Here we can take Susanne Langer's lead and declare: what we have is a symbol of these feelings felt by the artist, embodied in the paintings.

What the artist does is to symbolize his feelings through the forms of art; the images, colours and shapes he uses. Art is the symbolic expression of feeling, or, as some would have it, what gives to art its spiritual significance. When writing about his two large paintings, Landscape: Theme and Variations, McCahon says: 'I hoped to throw people into an involvement with the raw land, and also with raw painting.' It is this idea of 'raw land' that McCahon symbolizes.

Tolstoy and Kandinsky thought that it required from the spectator only to look at a picture in order to gain the same feelings as those experienced by the painter: a somewhat psychologically naive over-simplification of the process that takes place. What the artist has produced is a symbol of his feelings, not the feelings themselves. If the viewer does not make an effort to come to terms with the artist's symbolic expression of his feelings and ideas, then the meaning of the picture will remain hidden. We, the viewers, must interpret this symbolic representation of feeling if we are to understand the artist's 'state of soul', to use one of McCahon's favourite phrases. This process of coming to terms with a painting is not too difficult when a simple landscape is involved, but when the artist uses conventional symbols, or his own symbolism, the problem is compounded.

Takaka: Night and Day 1948
oil on canvas, 889 x 2108 mm.
Auckland City Art Gallery)

The next consideration concerns symbols, their use, complexity and interpretation. Commenting on the 1948 painting Takaka; Night and Day, McCahon writes that 'it states my interest in landscape as a symbol of place and also of the human condition. It is not so much a portrait of a place as such but is a memory of a time and an experience of a particular place'. In this work McCahon is already producing a diagram of perception but one where he supports his own symbolic representation with that of a geographical concept of underlying land structures. As such, it is not a difficult painting to understand. In the formal sense of artistic construction McCahon's work is often fairly simple, but what confronts the viewer when faced with McCahon's work, and what makes it appear difficult to come to terms with, is the symbolic aspect of his work. In 1957, as McCahon has stated, 'I came to grips with the kauri and turned him, in all his splendour, into a symbol'. The use of 'splendour' is significant in this context and indicates the direction in which the symbol was utilized. But McCahon used the kauri motif in a number of ways, behind which lay differing intentions: the semi realistic, Cezanne-type kauri in Kauri (unfinished), 1953, the formalized kauri in the lithograph Kauri, 1957, the highly abstracted wash drawing Kauri, 1954, the fragmentary, cubist-type abstraction in Titirangi: Winter, 1957; while the kauri panels in The Wake, 1958, act as visual resting points between the more compact word panels containing John Caselberg's poem. This multiplication of a single motif is also seen in the cliff and the tall perpendicular rock that edges Maori Bay in the Necessary Protection series.

Titirangi: Winter 1957
(Collection Hocken Library, Dunedin)

The intertwining of the same motif in differing situations is what gives to the kauri, the cliff and rock motifs, their symbolic richness, for, like true symbols, they have multiple shades of meaning. Further to this, McCahon's use of a symbol will frequently be related to similar symbols used in his past production and this is where the interpretation of his work presents the greatest difficulty to the viewer. But the problem rests with the extent to which the process of interpreting such symbols can be taken. Too frequently the tendency is to read into the symbols, used in a particular painting, a meaning never intended. The knack of interpreting symbols in a work of art rests on a respect for the facts - the images, words, colours, etc., which the artist has used in his work. Or, as in McCahon's case, where symbols in one picture make direct reference to a symbol used in other paintings, even if the context differs to some extent. Interpretation involves gaining possession of the facts rather than trying to construct some fancy theory which is more in the viewer's mind rather than being related to the information offered by the painting. Statements by the artist can be useful in this respect, in that they can ensure that the viewer is on the right line of approach. But this can also depend on the artist's ability to verbalize. In McCahon's case such statements are clearly made even if what he says is oblique. On the Necessary Protection series McCahon has stated: 'They have to do with the days and nights in the wilderness and our constant need for help and protection. The symbols are very simple, The I of the sky, falling light and enlightened land, is also ONE. The T of sky and light falling into a dark landscape is also the T of the Tau or Old Testament or Egyptian cross.' Less simple than it may appear, this statement is at least a starting point.

However, the artist's real statement is the painting itself; the verbal statement is no more than a pointer, a clue to the viewer of a possible path to follow. McCahon occasionally supplies similar clues in brief phrases incorporated into some of his pictures. One such example is the drawing dated Easter 1973, Aeroplane over Muriwai, where the viewer is given certainty to the reading of the cross-like shape in the sky. McCahon will also elucidate his intention through the use of sub-titles as well as phrases incorporated into the painting. Take Days and Nights in the Wilderness where the subtitle reads, showing the constant flow of light passing into a dark landscape, so that this sub-title clearly outlines a basic theme inherent in the Necessary Protection series. Yet this painting contains further clues, for by dedicating the painting as a 'Homage to van der Velden' something is said about the quality of both light and landscape, while the landscape is particularized by the phrase near the top of the painting, 'Ninety Mile Beach with Haumu Hill'. However, despite such clues, McCahon's work is still not easy to interpret in an obvious way. As Lucy Lippard has said: 'Difficult art generates ideas and issues difficult to articulate.' Too often we expect commentators on art to so simplify the problems of art as to sound like a news reader reading head-line news items.

Like any other serious artist, no matter what his medium, the complexity of McCahon's symbols are such that their richness does allow for more than just one possible line of interpretation, and it is partly this which has gained for McCahon his stature as an important New Zealand painter. Such ambiguity of multiple interpretation may be deliberately utilized, and in his comment on his 1971 painting, Mondrian's Chrysanthemum of 1908, McCahon has stated: 'This is perhaps a chrysanthemum, perhaps a sunset: quite possibly a bomb dropped on Muriwai - all these things can be beautiful, some most deadly.' Such a comment is a cautionary note to the viewer against taking a too dogmatic interpretation of a particular symbol.

The third aspect which McCahon shares with many painters of recent times is the compression of the artistic language he uses. This involves a deliberate reduction in the clues offered by the artist in his work of art. A painting will rely on a few, usually highly simplified elements to carry the artist's message. This involves a type of inverted visual enrichment, in an artistic sense, intended to suggest more than what is actually shown in the work of art. The American abstract painter Ad Reinhart has neatly summed this up: 'Simplicity in art is not simplicity., less in art is not less.' The simple, generalized boldness of McCahon's symbolism clearly illustrates this tendency. Take the land shown in Moby Dick seen off Muriwai (see issue 7), the landscape that is further reduced in Necessary Protection and the Jump paintings: anyone who knows the Muriwai area has no trouble identifying the highly simplified, schematic images to which McCahon has reduced this particular landscape. Such simplification of the landscape, recalled in memory, as is McCahon's habit, is evident in the Manakau watercolours of 1954, the Northland landscapes of 1958-9, and the North Otago landscapes of the late nineteen-sixties.

The use of numbers and words is a further example of this compression, and is a category for which McCahon has shown a particular preference. The liking of many contemporary artists for series, where a number of paintings share, in common, a set motif, theme or conception, is also an extension of this notion of compactness: again a device used extensively by McCahon.

All these aspects so far considered, the act of feeling, the use of symbolism, compactness and series, can be summed-up in McCahon's own comment on his series from 1966, The Fourteen Stations of the Cross: 'This series is closely related in feeling to the Numerals and some of the Waterfalls as well as to many other paintings. It follows the earlier Stations made for the Upland Road Convent. They are all concerned with Man's fall and resurrection. They also relate to the Elias subject but treat it in a different and new way. . . I am saying what I want to say in these paintings but I am still too abstract.'

The last broad aspect to consider concerns the basis for viewing the work of individual modern artists, and McCahon in particular. To understand, or at least come to terms with, the latest work by a contemporary artist, the viewer needs to have a reasonable acquaintance with the past production of that particular artist. This is a problem specially relevant to the modern era, with the first hints becoming evident in the early nineteenth century and becoming increasingly more apparent as we approach our own time. Generally, most artists, up until the eighteenth century worked within a style which was universally accepted at the time the artist was active so that the problem of style which confronts the contemporary artist was hardly known in the past, and certainly was not a crucial problem, even to a mediocre artist prior to 1750.

On Building Bridges
(triptych) 1952
oil on board,
each panel 1067 x 914 mm.
Auckland City Art Gallery)

The contemporary situation, therefore, makes heavy demands on the viewer when it comes to contemplating the artistic output of a given painter, if the pictures produced by that painter are to be adequately appreciated. In this respect McCahon's work is demanding. Yet, such links that a recent painting might have with paintings from the same painter's past, can only be demonstrated effectively by means of the paintings themselves, or second best, by some form of photographic reproduction. Take the T-shaped cross in the painting The Days and Nights in the Wilderness, 1972, and compare it to the T-shaped altar in Visible Mysteries I, 1968, or the cross incorporated in the word painting Let be, Let be, 1959, or the bridge structure in the left panel of the triptych On Building Bridges, 1952, or the Crucifixion, 1950-52 (owned by the Caselbergs), and in comparing these, see what echoes from these former paintings are relevant to the T-shaped cross of McCahon's latest productions: yet such references become meaningless if one lacks a good knowledge and visual memory of McCahon's creative output as seen as a whole. For example; what is the spatial relation between the cross and the landscape in most of the paintings listed above, and is this relationship more than just a compositional device? Again, how does the use of the lamp in McCahon's early religious paintings tie in with the 'line of white' 'curving through the darkness' in the Waterfall series, or the 'light falling through a dark landscape' in the more recent Necessary Protection series? This interaction and criss-crossing of images and symbols within the total output of McCahon's work is one of the notable characteristics of his approach to painting. In recent series, like Teaching Aids, Clouds and Rocks in the Sky, there are obvious visual links, especially the painter's use of numbers. All three series use numerals up to fourteen, and in works painted since 1966 this usually implies some connection with the fourteen stations of the cross. If this is considered, then a series like Walk with me, 1973, which at first glace appears quite unrelated, has to be reconsidered in this larger context, while one must question a series like Noughts and Crosses, which is stylistically related to Teaching Aids, to consider the possibility of a similar, larger inter-relationship. What we see revealed when such a process is considered is an artist with a cohesive outlook on life where it is difficult to separate his approach to art from his outlook on life. 'My painting', says McCahon, 'is almost entirely autobiographical - it tells you where I am at any given time, where I am living and the direction I am pointing in.

While McCahon talks of his art as being autobiographical, he remains involved in the struggle for forms which embody feelings readily understood as human feelings related to other human beings and not just concerned with himself. The starting point may be personal in origin but he has the ability to project on to a larger, more universal canvas. In the Jump series McCahon may have started with thoughts on the Commonwealth Games, but the theme has been universalised to include the existentialist's leap into the unknown - the uncertainty of the creative act. At the same time, the Jump series contains implications similar to the Gate series of the early 'sixties, the Gate being 'a way through' to a possible future, as well as the place Jump has within the context of the larger Necessary Protection series. As Wystan Curnow has written, in McCahon's output 'there are no single works, but sets, series, and finally one work, the life work. McCahon would seem to obey these injunctions: it must change, it must be direct, it must be sacred - a matter of life and death.'

That is far enough at present for me to go, for Curnow's statement marks out the theme of his essay in the exhibition catalogue, McCahon's 'Necessary Protection'. For readers still curious as to the meaning Curnow implied, then read his essay, for it is now up to him to take you further ahead.