Notes Toward a McCahon ABC


Colin McCahon is a prophet in our midst, an Old Testament figure who uses the role of the artist to rail against man's inhumanity to man and the landscape and who bares his soul continually in his work in order to teach by example. Fears, doubts and a wavering faith in the face of death and the destruction of the land and the dignity of its people are his constant concerns. 'One person with real faith could stop the war. . .' he wrote in the 1940s. Since this time he has been trying to change the world and our way of seeing it in thirty years' prolific output of the most polemical and monumental paintings made in this country.

Cast very much in the same mould as William Blake, Colin McCahon is a visionary and indeed shares with Blake a belief in 'art's redeeming power'. He has written of the vision he had as a youth driving with his family in Otago: 'Big hills stood in front of little hills, which rose up distantly from the flat land: there was a landscape of splendour, order and peace. . . I saw something logical, orderly and beautiful belonging to the land and not yet to its people. Not yet understood or communicated, not yet really invented. My work has largely been to communicate this vision and invent a way to see it.' The landscape has continued to be a constant point of reference in his painting, even in the most apparently abstract of his works.

Colin McCahon is often considered an Abstract Expressionist. Nothing is further from the truth, although his organisation of the picture plane and the scale of his painting owes much to this school (as it does to Mondrian, whose philosophy, incidentally, was also based on a firm conviction that art could change the world). McCahon's intentions are quite different from the Abstract Expressionists.

His paintings are anachronistic in this age when it has become fashionable for art to be stripped of all figurative content. McCahon deals in metaphor. His paintings tell stories. He is painting parables much as did Giotto and the painters of the early Renaissance.

The first overtly religious paintings occurred in the middle 'forties after McCahon had seen, in 1945, some men erecting a power pole with a cross beam. He saw this mundane incident as a symbolic re-enactment of the crucifixion in the New Zealand landscape and it struck him with the force of a revelation: 'The nearest thing I am likely to see to a crucifixion group.' At the time he was deeply engrossed in the work of Giotto, Michelangelo, the fourteenth century Siennese painters and the iconography, imagery and symbolism of Christian art. It was logical then for McCahon, at this time, to borrow liberally from these early sources of our cultural heritage and turn them to his own ends: ends which were in essence little different from those of sacred art.

The themes and symbols which McCahon developed at this time in his early paintings have remained constant throughout his entire oeuvre. The cross is the central device and has occurred both structurally and symbolically in his work ever since, as have the themes of light and water, night and day, death and resurrection. Colour must also be taken into account in any consideration of McCahon's use of symbols, for it, too, especially black and white, is employed symbolically.

The depiction of light, both as a physical phenomenon and as a metaphor for the light of the spirit, has been a constant preoccupation. McCahon has always taken literally Christ's injunction 'l am the way, the truth and the light', and the statement 'God is light'. This conviction and mystical attitude to light, with the monochromatic grey palette employed in its translation on to canvas, McCahon shares with Petrus van der Velden whose regard for light as a supernatural force is most powerfully expressed in the Otira paintings. Indeed McCahon's painting The Days and Nights in the Wilderness Showing the Constant Flow of Light Passing into a Dark Landscape, 1971, is inscribed 'Homage to van der Velden'.

The story is told of Van der Velden that he would lie on his back in the sun until the weather turned, then he would take off to paint the storm. McCahon's involvement with the elements is barely different. His studio at Muriwai is situated near the top of a cliff, and he frequently walks the short distance along the road to the cliff-edge where he stands surrounded by a vast expanse of sea and sky. The awe-inspiring vastness of this space is itself the subject of many of the recent paintings.

Even in the most apparently secular of his paintings, the Synthetic Cubist-derived Titirangi and Kauri paintings of the period 1952 to '58, light, and the mechanics of painting it, are the prevailing concern.

It is significant that the first symbol McCahon was to use in his painting, in about 1945, was for light, when the lamp or candle as a metaphor for both spiritual illumination and the life-giving force on this planet appeared in his painting either by itself or with the gently curved jug of water symbolising the passive feminine aspect in the creation of the world. In such paintings as The Lamp in my Studio, c1945, Christ as a Lamp, c1947, and The Promised Land, 1948, these symbols occur, and in The Virgin and Child Compared an explicit key to them is spelt out.

Christ as a Lamp 1947
oil on board
(Collection the Artist)

In Christ as a Lamp McCahon has simplified the forms to a cross and a circle, yet contained within this apparently simple symbol is a further symbol, Christ himself who as 'the light of the world' stands for a redeemed mankind. To compound the symbolism still further the combined circle and the cross can also be read as the biological female symbol. In the use of these symbols McCahon is developing an alphabet to depict a personal cosmology, light and water, male and female, the source of all life.

Throughout his entire oeuvre McCahon has employed this symbolic alphabet. The mother and child contained within the circle in There is only One Direction, 1952, is implicitly echoed in Eight, from the Numerals series of 1965, just as the cross and circle of Christ as a Lamp is reiterated in the Ten from the same series and later in the Noughts and Crosses series of 1976.

The sources of McCahon's imagery have always been vernacular. His Crucifixions and Ascensions are set in the local landscape, they depict his family and friends. Calligraphy is triggered by the wording on a Rinso packet. The Noughts and Crosses series have their beginnings in a sheet of paper covered in games played by his daughter and grandson. In this spontaneous and obvious expression of his symbolic code recurring a generation later McCahon finds profound confirmation of his faith. He continues to invest the stuff of everyday life with a deeper significance and to paint his family and friends although today the symbols that depict them are somewhat less personified than were the biblical characters he used previously. A good example of this is Moby Dick Seen Off Muriwai Beach, 1972. The Y in the painting represents McCahon's small grandson throwing his arms in the air in delight at arriving at the beach. Thus the tau cross, the pictograph for man throughout his work, is adapted in this painting to symbolise the child.

'My painting is almost entirely autobiographical', he has written, 'it tells you where I am at any given time, where I am living and the direction I am pointing in. In this present time it is very difficult to paint for other people - to paint beyond your own ends and point directions as painters once did. Once the painter was making signs and symbols for people to live by: now he makes things to hang on the walls at exhibitions.'

From the outset McCahon's painting has been a struggle to communicate. It is a sad irony that even his most deliberately direct work, the word paintings, continue to be obscure and inaccessible to most of us. There are none so blind as those who will not see. Blindness also is a theme in his work. He has spoken of a 'white-out' at Muriwai where everything was obliterated all day by low cloud - not fog but cloud - where nothing was visible beyond a few feet. Walking on the beach during this whiteout was a powerful visionary experience for McCahon akin to the earlier visions of the crucifixion and the structure of the land. John Caselberg, in his consideration of McCahon's The Shining Cuckoo, 1974, has written eloquently of this event, and of this part of the North Island's west coast, which in Maori tradition, is the pathway of the spirits of the recent dead on their way to Cape Reinga, the leaping-off point to Hawaiki. During this walk McCahon strongly felt the presence of his late friends, the poets Baxter, Brasch and Mason. This experience is documented in the large eleven-panel painting Walk With Me, 1973, and led directly to the series Blinds, 1974. Painted on canvas blinds, they refer to this experience and, also punningly, to an endemic national blindness to spiritual values. There is also a logical parallel here with Paul's blindness on the road to Damascus. McCahon's identification with the apostle had begun about 1946 with I Paul to You at Ngatimote and I Paul, 1948.

That McCahon should have so powerfully experienced the spirit trail is not surprising given his long empathy for maoritanga, particularly in his feeling for and personification of the land.

The first explicit use of Maori subject matter occurred in 1965 with the appearance of the koru motif in drawings for a commission to design a Caltex logo and the Six of the Numerals series in which the koru takes the form of a pointing arrow, a symbol of direction. There were also paintings at this time which contained the word 10, which according to Percy Smith's informant, Te Whatahoro, was in the Whare Wananga, the unspoken name for the supreme being. These paintings coincided approximately with the painting of the Catholic symbol XP, 1965, which also incorporated the koru.

In 1969 McCahon based several paintings upon Matire Kereama's book The Tale of the Fish. Among these is a thirty-six panel genealogy of the. Te Aupouri tribe of the far north from Kaitaia to Cape Reinga; the whakapapa of the canoes Ngatokimatawhaorua, Ruakaramea, Tinana, Mamari, Kurahaupo and Tainui. The larger painting on the two door panels The Lark's Song, 1969, is also taken from this book. The use of birds and aeroplanes as symbols for the human spirit goes back as far as the drawing for Dear Wee June, 1945, and the lumbering aircraft in I Paul to You at Ngatimote, c1946. These motifs are extensively developed in the Jet Over Muriwai series of 1973 and The Shining Cuckoo, 1974.

There is a strong millenarian quality to McCahon's vision. The landscape of 'splendour, order and peace' is not far removed from Blake's city of God in 'England's green and pleasant land'. Earlier paintings such as The Promised Land, 1948, and Was This the Promised Land, 1962, reflect this quality. It receives its fullest expression to date however in two paintings that pay powerful homage to the millenarian vision of the Maori prophets Te Whiti, Te Kooti and Rua. The Parihaka Triptych, 1972, which the artist presented to the Parihaka people, commemorates Te Whiti, and the large Urewera canvas (which hangs in the Urewera National Park Board building at Waikaremoana) Te Kooti and Rua Kenana. In this smoulderingly beautiful painting McCahon depicts the brooding majesty of the Urewera country and also the inseparable bond between the people and the land which is the very essence of maoritanga and which should be the heritage of all New Zealanders.

'Painting can be a potent way of talking' he wrote in the Survey catalogue in 1972. As daily the rape of the land continues, and by the minute the spirit of more New Zealanders is being broken, Colin McCahon, after thirty years, is still a voice in the wilderness.

When will New Zealanders listen to the prophetic voice of our greatest painter who has made his life's work the celebration of this land and its people? When it is too late?