Toi Toi Toi (Kassel and Auckland: Museum Fredericanium and Auckland Art Gallery, 1998).
In thinking about how Colin McCahon could be introduced to a German audience, a comparison with Joseph Beuys is irresistible. Roughly contemporaries, Beuys and McCahon were artists of the post-war period: McCahon was born in 1919 and Beuys in 1921; Beuys died 1986, McCahon 1987. Both engaged with the project of post-war reconstruction, with its imperatives of healing and redemption. Both posed as teachers with an urgent desire to communicate: big themes, burning messages. Blackboards loomed large for both. Both combined a search for simplicity and directness—public address—with density, difficulty, and self-reference. Both were cast as romantic visionaries, grail questers, even prophets: legends surrounded them, they spawned disciples. Both seemed simultaneously ahead of their time and romantic, almost nineteenth-century figures: McCahon speaking to an increasingly secular audience in the language of the bible, Beuys posing as a shaman. Both enjoyed a complex relation to modernism and internationalism, being modern but ‘provincial’ in relation to the dominant art discourse emerging from the US. Both had strong veins of nationalism running through their work. As well as posing as teachers in their work, both were influential teachers in art schools. The artists who followed them literally made works in their wakes. Both remain essential to the art of their countries, little of which makes sense without reference to them. Of course, McCahon is not Beuys; the differences are just as compelling.
In the 1940s, New Zealand was still a young nation, an isolated place, a cultural backwater. Conditions for producing and receiving contemporary art barely existed. McCahon’s early works came from landscape. Confirmed by his appreciation of Professor Cotton’s technical line drawings of the distinctive faulting and folding of our land, McCahon imagined it stripped of vegetation and signs of habitation, denuded botanically and culturally; a place waiting to be claimed, named, settled; a place waiting for a culture—‘a landscape with too few lovers’. His pictures emphasised the land’s hard, buxom corrugations; its underlying structure; its rhythmic, monotonous geomorphology. This was not a pretty-picture landscape for the tourists, but something assertively, unspectacularly, blatantly here. Massive, rude, and empty, McCahon’s landscapes evoked the biblical ‘wilderness’, calling forth the possibility of a promised land, a utopian reconciliation of the people and the place.
Wystan Curnow has characterised McCahon’s early work through a contradiction-in-terms: ‘expressive realism’. Expressionists deform external reality to express the truth of their inner experience while realists eschew subjective distortions in the hope of capturing the external world. The expressive realist however conflates inner and outer realities, discovering and inventing his true self only in striving for the deep essence of the Other. This quest finds clear expression in McCahon’s Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury (1950), which contains six views of a landscape as though glimpses sampled from a journey. The work refers to the six days of Creation, but, less grandly, it was based on McCahon’s epic bicycle rides in search of seasonal work. God created the world in six days, each day a lurch forward providing a new level of complexity and detail, a new order of existence. And yet, McCahon’s six landscapes vary only in their profile, so it is hard to argue such a sequence. Here, McCahon implies, what is changing, what is being created, is not the World, the landscape, but rather the subject. The subject is refined in spending time with the land, tuning in to it. Geomorphology begets psychomorphology.
In the late 1940s, McCahon populated his bleak, majestic landscapes with figures and tales from the Christian story: Christ and the Virgin, annunciations, crucifixions, depositions, entombments. These works drew on a range of sources. Early Renaissance painters had already staged the Christian story as if it were happening on their own doorstep. The crude black outlines came from Georges Rouault and comics—notoriously, the speech bubbles came from a Rinso soap-powder packet. The artfully clumsy rendering and the mix of high and low sources suggested, to some, something urgent, pious, direct; to others, blasphemy. Poet Charles Brash reported: ‘Colin McCahon is saying that here in New Zealand men who are the sons of God … are betraying and crucifying one another daily, that daily the three Maries are being turned back from the tomb (or that we are looking for truth in the wrong place, and according to the letter and not the spirit) …’1
While they became notorious—critic A.R.D. Fairburn said they might pass as graffiti on some celestial lavatory—the ‘early religious paintings’ were not entirely satisfactory: they made literal, too literal, what was already implicit in McCahon’s unpeopled landscapes. McCahon would turn his back on this approach, rejecting illustration, edging towards a different approach, which we see in his mature works of the 1960s and 1970s. But, what would come next, in the early and mid 1950s, in retrospect, seems like a re-apprenticeship, with McCahon going back to the drawing board, schooling himself in modern ways of composing pictures, retooling himself in cubism and its offshoots. On Building Bridges (1952) says a lot about McCahon’s issues at this point. It offers three views of a distant local terrain framed by the struts of an unfinished or decomposing heavy-metal bridge. Bridges are artificial contrivances that take us places, that offer access to destinations we couldn’t reach otherwise; but McCahon’s bridge does not take us into the land exactly, in fact it could be seen as a barrier, running parallel to the landscape, bypassing it. However, the unraveling of the bridge also echoes the cubist facetingof the landscape, as though each might be melding into the other, or emerging from one another, as though at some deep level there might be some intrinsic sympathy between the bridge (the subject) and the land (the Other). Ambiguous, the work is an imbroglio.
When McCahon returned from his visit to the US in 1958, he made a breakthrough, informed by his exposure to abstract expressionism. McCahon geared up, bringing a new authority, scale, and complexity to the work. 1958 was the year of the Northland Panels, a serial landscape, a landscape narrative, painted on big drops of unstretched canvas. Moving out of the easel painting mode, this was an installation painting, a painting to walk by. The Wake, same year, was like a sequence of giant illuminated pages which filled the room. Text drops featuringpoet John Caselberg’s elegy for his dog were punctuated by thin abstracts representing kauri trees. The space of reading had become a forest of signs, the work an immersive environment. The following year, McCahon produced Let Be, Let Be, taking Christ forsaken as a metaphor for the lot of modern man. In the late 1940s, McCahon would have pictured Christ on the Cross, but, in this painting, the figure is replaced with a sign: a T shape, a Tau cross, the Jewish cross associated with the Passover. This cipher is both image and writing—a letter; is both Christian and pre-Christian. In the context of McCahon’s work, the cross here pointedly recalls the broken bridge in On Building Bridges, as though it were attempting to span the painting. And so Christ takes on the ambiguity of the bridge: he is both a barrier and a way through.
After 1958, McCahon moves onwards and outwards like never before, mixing orders of language, images, signs, and symbols; mixing different registers of significance; multiplying and cross-fertilising ways of making paintings. McCahon synthesises all manner of influences and content: abstract expressionism, minimalism, Maori nationalism, environmental concerns, Japanese scroll painting, Moby Dick … The Christianity complicates everything it comes into contact with, making religious nationalism, apocalyptic environmentalism, holy minimalism, divine conceptualism! With few artists in New Zealand practicing radical styles for McCahon to position himself against and no one else laying down the law, McCahon was free to make it up as he went along, making wilful use of his sources, grounding his explorations not in a broader context but back in his own work. As Wystan Curnow put it, ‘having invented painting in New Zealand, he could now work in a tradition of his own making’.2
Through the 1960s and 1970s, much of McCahan’s work turns on the idea of the fourteen Stations of the Cross. For Catholics, the Stations are a meditational conceit, a ritual by which they might accompany Christ through his last journey and reflect on his suffering. McCahon created many versions of the Stations. In a 1966 work, rudimentary landscape forms stand in for each stop. But McCahon’s most radical innovation was to resist representing the Stations, simply replacing each stop with a number—a mnemonic. His three Teaching Aids (1975) recall blackboards. Each is an array of ten sheets, two-up five-across; each sheet a performance of the Stations, thirty performances in all. McCahon counts up through the Stations this way and that, using Arabic numbers, Roman numerals, and words, sometimes making it to fourteen, sometimes not; with white lines subdividing panels, suggesting compartments, crosses, letters, landscapes. While we might impute specific readings to each panel, with this many variations McCahon is surely suggesting that we might read sense even into a random organisation of numbers if we approach them via the interpretative prompt and spiritual imperative of the Stations. And so the Aids invite and confound our hermeneutic zeal. Marrying the absolute and the provisional, they meet us halfway, affirming faith as a hankering, a coming to terms.
McCahon exploited the deep structural possibilities of Christian myth to create a labyrinthine oeuvre, a body of work we can ‘get into’. But was McCahon Christian? Anxious to promote him as a passionate agnostic who used Christianity as an armature for an art with other objectives, Wystan Curnow cites McCahon’s difficulty with organised religion, his persistent doubt, and his obsession with Christ’s death on the cross, as though this were the literal death of Christianity. Stuart McKenzie, however, characterises McCahon’s project in terms of contemporary theology, in which the death of god, the profane, and doubt are motors for religious feeling. There is, in fact, considerable common ground between these views. It is this: McCahon is aligned with existentialism, investing meaning into a meaningless world, a post-war world that God had forsaken. But more remarkable is how the work implicates us in this. The viewer is set up to relate to the works in the manner that McCahon himself once confronted the land, approaching it as an Other that is not easy, that is recalcitrant and shy to knowledge. And yet, we find ourselves, our own meanings, in it, as if we and they were one and the same. Deciphering implicates us in an invention, the invention of ourselves. McCahon’s work reaches out to embroil us in an epistemological contract.
Paradoxically, the artist who wanted to find a way through became an obstacle for a subsequent generation. In the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a feeling that wherever New Zealand artists wanted to go, McCahon had been there, done that, already. He had pegged out the territory, made his mark, everywhere. McCahon’s work was so heavily essayed, so closely read, and in itself so expansive and complex, so influential, that it seemed to belong to all moments: premodern, modern, post modern; regionalist, nationalist, internationalist; believer, doubter. Gravid, his work seemed to draw everything into itself. However, since his death in 1987, contemporary artists have found a way through McCahon by reading and rewriting the work perversely. Take some of the younger generation of artists in Toi Toi Toi. Ronnie Van Hout mimics McCahon’s ominous early landscapes in his 1992 photographic series, Return of the Living Dead. McCahon’s holy personages are replaced by a model Afrika Korps radio operator, as though conflating McCahon’s presumptive colonisation of the wilderness with Hitler’s dream of world domination and the legacy of German romanticism. Mike Stevenson’s hokey naive paintings of small towns and their churches and church halls from the late 1980s nodded towards McCahon’s early religious paintings. But his more recent works are less an illustration of Pentecostal life than a parallel instance of irrational fundamentalism—righteous and cranky. L. Budd draws on McCahon’s late text paintings, even painting on canvas blinds as McCahon did and often imitating his blackboard look. But rather than achieving a public voice, her works are solipsistic and arcane. It’s as if the search for the truth seriously fell off the rails, but just kept going, echoing McCahon’s voice in the wilderness, the man alone, the unbelievable believer. Peter Robinson draws on McCahon’s preference for plain-speaking vernacular sources—grocers’ signs and cricket scoreboards—as shortcuts to the truth, except in Robinson’s case the truth is the sad state of our race relations. Aping McCahon’s pedagogical aspirations, Robinson casts himself as the bad preacher, the evil McCahon. All these artists show great affection for McCahon in their own way, but as disbelievers they are all concerned to undermine his—perhaps anyone’s—purchase on Truth with a capital T. Perversely perhaps, McCahon’s legacy may have been to have generated a space for folly, disbelief, and cynicism in New Zealand art—a way through.
[IMAGE: Colin McCahon Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury 1950]
- Charles Brasch, ‘A Note on the Work of Colin McCahon’, Landfall, no. 16, December 1950: 338.
- Wystan Curnow, McCahon’s ‘Necessary Protection’ (New Plymouth: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 1977), 4.