When I First Heard Colin McCahon's Name


With an invitation from Art New Zealand to write on Colin McCahon my thoughts went back to that time when I first heard his name. That was 1954, long before I saw his art or met the man. At the time I lived with my parents, my brother and sister in the old Railway Settlement that then straddled the north-eastern fringe of New Plymouth. One of my pleasures in life was, on coming home from school, heading into the warm kitchen and sitting down to read the evening paper, the Taranaki Herald. It was there that I first read of Colin McCahon. I still have the clipping; it is old, yellowed, and dated November 20th, 1954.

My interest in art was then developing and through this interest I read of the brouhaha that was then raging down the line at Stratford. It appeared that the Stratford Art and Craft Society had received an exhibition of paintings by M. T. Woollaston, Harry Miller and Colin McCahon. The show was a touring package organised by the Community Arts Service, a now defunct section of the Adult Education Branch of the Department of Education. It seemed that when the exhibition had arrived at Stratford it was rejected by the Art and Craft Society who refused to hang it.

In several statements and letters the Society's committee arid some individual members belaboured the artists and their work. As one member noted in a long statement, 'The use of the word crude by the committee implied sheer incompetence in handling, technique and most certainly framing. The public', he added, 'are entitled to have exhibited before them work that is competently executed, neatly displayed and more attractively presented. There was little of refinement or finish - rough sawn wooden frames, in some cases with no paint, and with nails showing badly were evident in numerous works.' Words like 'experimental', 'neo-barbarism', 'hoax', 'masquerading', 'neurosis', 'pigmentary depravity', peppered the pages as the argument built. The sanity of the artists was questioned and found wanting by a local doctor who let fire with both barrels for, as he saw it, 'There is only one place for the displaying of the contents of the murky recesses of the subconscious and that is in the sympathetic privacy of the psychiatrist's consulting rooms'. Through such reports was how I first became aware of Colin McCahon.

Later my parents shifted to Lower Hutt. My interest in the arts deepened, but at the time New Zealand, its artists, poets and writers did not loom large in my life. By 1959 I had left New Zealand and was on my way to see the World. I think it was Frank Sargeson who wrote that you have to leave our country to find yourself as a New Zealander. That was so for me.

I came back in 1962, and shortly after, I saw the McCahon and Woollaston retrospective at the Centre Gallery in Wellington. Many of McCahon's and Woollaston's better known works were in that exhibition. I remember it well, but it is difficult to express my response succinctly. For me it was exciting. The McCahon paintings impressed me with their 'feel': a 'feel' close to several thirteenth century Italian artists whose work I had seen and admired. The colour and the brush-work were strong, expressive; the form, primitive and assured.

One painting I well remember was number 91 in the catalogue, Cross, 1959. As a painting it was of medium size, and in colour moved from a grey-black to a creamy-white, plus some variations in between. The upper section evoked the land, while a large 'X' dominated the lower section. It is an image I still carry with me and I hope always will. It is as fresh today as it was then.

In 1966 I commenced business as a dealer in contemporary New Zealand art and Colin McCahon was one of several painters whose works I showed. Later I met Colin. From him I learnt to be practical and business-like, to be professional. Then, as now, his positive and optimistic view of life have often helped to pull me out of the mire that sometimes afflicts my heart.