22 Nov 19

Colin McCahon: Letters and Numbers


A light is currently shining on Colin McCahon. 2019 marks one hundred years since his birth. In New Zealand, where McCahon was born and lived until his death in 1987, he is widely regarded as the country’s most significant artist.

I look back with joy on taking a brush of white paint and curving through the darkness with a line of white.1Colin McCahon, quoted in ‘Colin McCahon: a survey exhibition’, Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland, 1972, p. 31.

Colin McCahon, 1972

Some have even gone so far as to say that his name is synonymous with New Zealand art.2Wystan Curnow & Robert Leonard, Colin McCahon: On Going Out with the Tide, City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, Wellington, 2017, p. 1. That is not to suggest, however, that his journey as an artist was without difficulty, or that public recognition came easily. McCahon’s work attracted criticism and divided audiences at different times throughout his career.3For example, in the 1940s McCahon’s depictions of biblical scenes in recognisably New Zealand landscapes were considered shocking and, by the 1980s, his use of Maori symbols and language became a lightning rod for debates around cultural appropriation. He was plagued with persistent self-doubt, yet was driven to communicate his deeply personal vision, developing an inventive visual language that traversed wideranging themes and subjects, including the landscape and environmental concerns, Christian and Maori spirituality and the symbolic potential of numbers and words. An uncompromising artist, McCahon relentlessly interrogated existential questions and never shied from difficult subject matter, as his friend, the poet Charles Brasch once remarked:

There is a bitter and unpalatable truth in these paintings: they tell us something about ourselves which had not been made plain before.4Charles Brasch, ‘A note on the work of Colin McCahon’, Landfall, vol. 4, no. 4, Dec. 1950, p. 338.

Colin McCahon was born in Timaru in 1919.  He grew up in Dunedin and began exhibiting in 1939. In 1942 he married fellow painter Anne Hamblett and from 1944 to 1948 they lived a peripatetic existence, moving between various locations in New Zealand’s South Island, picking up seasonal work in tobacco fields and orchards. In 1948, the pair and their young children settled in Christchurch by which time McCahon was exhibiting regularly. In July to August of 1951, McCahon travelled to Melbourne under the anonymous patronage of Charles Brasch to view the collection of European paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria. In Melbourne, he became a student of the artist Mary Cockburn-Mercer, taking classes in her Bourke Street studio. In a letter to Brasch, McCahon wrote:

In 1951 in Melbourne I was privileged to meet and all too briefly work under Mary Cockburn-Mercer, an associate and friend of the great Cubist masters. Mary, herself a Cubist … was above all a painter of great integrity. Her simplicity in her art and living pointed to her having learnt well the artist’s most difficult lesson, to accept disillusionment and to work within one’s limits.5Colin McCahon, ‘Beginnings’, Landfall 80, vol. 20, no.4, Dec. 1966, Christchurch, pp. 361–2, <www.landfallarchive.org/omeka/items/show/22242>, accessed, 12 Aug. 2019.

In 1953 the McCahon family moved to Auckland, where McCahon worked at the Auckland City Art Gallery in various positions, including Keeper and eventually Deputy Director. From 1964 McCahon lectured in painting at the University of Auckland Elam School of Fine Arts, leaving in 1971 to concentrate on painting at his coastal studio in Muriwai, north-west of Auckland. By 1983, McCahon had ceased painting due to declining health. He died at the Auckland Public Hospital in 1987.

In 2019, the NGV is marking the centenary of the artist’s birth with Colin McCahon: Letters and Numbers. Drawn from the Collection with the addition of private loans, the display provides an opportunity to consider some of the concerns that preoccupied the artist during the final decades of his life. Numerals, texts and biblical themes are recurring features in McCahon’s paintings; attributes shared by all of the works in the exhibition. Influenced by the use of text by Italian Quattrocento painters such as Fra Angelico, words first appeared in McCahon’s paintings in the 1940s in the form of cartoon-like speech bubbles in biblical scenes set in recognisably New Zealand landscapes. However, words in his immediate environment were also a source of inspiration, such as in advertising graphics and hand-painted signs at roadside stalls.

McCahon’s choice of texts was highly selective and personal. He chose excerpts that resonated with him or that which had a personal significance. Time and again he turned to passages from the Bible, repeatedly returning to the story of Lazarus, A Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament and Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. He also used words from contemporary poets, lyrics from popular songs and sometimes simply phrases he had overheard. McCahon’s eclectic mix of source material is evident in his Written Paintings and Drawings series, 1969, (NGV Collection and private collections). First exhibited Barry Lett Galleries, Auckland, in 1969, these ‘scroll paintings’, which number more than seventy in total, were installed edge to edge in no apparent order. In these spontaneously ‘written’ works, McCahon drew upon favourite books from his own collection, such as those gifted to him from friends and family including The New English Bible, a gift from his wife, Anne Hamblett; Journey Towards an Elegy and Other Poems by Peter Hooper, a gift from his friend and poet, John Caselberg; and The Tail of the Fish: Maori Memories of the Far North by Matire Kereama, a gift from his daughter Catherine. Excerpts from these texts would also reappear in his later paintings.

McCahon’s use of texts drawn from biblical sources corresponded to his affinity for Christian symbolism, yet he did not consider himself Christian. He often demonstrated an equivocation towards his cited texts. As the curator and art historian Wyston Curnow has noted:

It is important to stress that McCahon is not the author of the texts he uses. For all that he identifies with them, he did not write them. He presents himself as a recipient of the language – as he is the recipient of all the signs, symbols, conventions that form the content of his work. He enters the language as a reader who would share his reading with us.6Wyston Curnow, I will need words. Colin McCahon’s Word and Number Paintings, National Art Gallery, Wellington, 1984, unpaginated pamphlet.

Indeed, McCahon’s delivery of his chosen texts rarely appears declarative or straightforward. His distinctive cursive script feels personal and direct, but it is also erratic and tentative, marked by hesitation and doubt, as New Zealand poet and critic Gregory O’Brien astutely notes:

With its frequent smudges, crossings-out and impulsive capitalisations, McCahon’s … writing is never an easy read. The paintings do not offer ‘illuminations’ in any literal sense of the word – they cast darkness and mystery rather than light or clarity.7Gregory O’Brien, ‘Rain in Northland: Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere and the painted word’, in Christine Lorre-Johnston & Mark Williams (eds), Journal of New Zealand Literature, vol. 32, Victoria University, Wellington, 2018, p. 59.

A sense of both urgency and hesitation is evident in Letter to Hebrews (Rain in Northland), 1976, where despairing passages from Ecclesiastes, a book of the Old Testament, extend across a suitably bleak rendering of the landscape of Northland, the most northerly part of the New Zealand’s North Island. The atmosphere is sultry and damp weather seems to be closing in on a long dark land mass interrupted by an occasional shaft of light falling in between sheets of rainfall. There is a sense of foreboding in McCahon’s script writ large in the sky, delivering its message of uncertainty. Occasional black rectangles, reminiscent of redacted text, suggest mistakes or erasures, or perhaps a change of heart.

The earliest use of numbers in McCahon’s work occurred in the late 1950s in a series of small drawings of individual numbers. McCahon experimented with composition so that the necessity to ‘read’ the works first as numbers, played a secondary role to the paintings being read as abstract compositions. In 1965, he further developed these ideas in the major thirteen-part work Numerals and singular works, such as One, 1965. McCahon regarded each number painting as a self-contained entity, both formally and conceptually. He was also fond of ambiguities, often playing with slippages between signs and meanings. In One, for example, the ‘I’ represents both the capital letter ‘I’ and the roman numeral for the number one, while the word ‘one’ has dual meaning as a number and a third-person singular pronoun (in contrast to the first-person singular pronoun ‘I’). Of the number paintings McCahon said:

I’ve tried to give them a very definite purpose, both in their shapes and really what numbers say, and numbers do say a hell of a lot.  They mark a time and a place …8Colin McCahon, quoted in Gordon H. Brown, Colin McCahon; Artist, Reed Books, Auckland, 1984, p. 135.

Though words and numbers are constants in McCahon’s work, the landscape is also never far away. His depictions of places are often generalised rather than faithful depictions of specific locations, represented to convey symbolic content focused on notions of physical and spiritual journeys. From 1971, McCahon was able to devote himself to full-time painting at his studio on the coast at Muriwai. Here, he produced some of his most important works,  including The Five Wounds of Christ no. 1,1977–78, and the Beach Walk series,1973 (various collections), which reference the subject of Christ’s journey through the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Like many other of his paintings made at Muriwai, they reference the Maori belief that the spirit of a deceased person journeys into the afterlife by travelling north along the coastline to Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga Wairua), reflecting the artist’s affinity with both Maori and Christian symbolism. The Beach Walk series had a deeply personal significance for McCahon, as they were created at time when he was coming to terms with the death of his mother and two of his close friends: poets James K. Baxter and Charles Brasch.9Brasch was a friend, patron and ardent supporter of McCahon. In 1951 he funded McCahon’s first overseas trip to Melbourne, where he studied paintings in the NGV Collection with the Australian painter Mary Cockburn-Mercer. Later than year, McCahon made a book of ink drawings on the life of Christ as a gift for Brasch. After Brasch’s death in 1973, the Hocken Library, University of Otago, Auckland, published a limited-edition facsimile of the publication. McCahon wrote about these works:

People should know perhaps that I don’t regard these canvases as ‘paintings’ … they are just bits of a place I love and painted in memory of a friend who now – in spirit – has walked this same beach. The intention is not realistic but an abstraction of the final walk up the beach. The Christian “walk” and the Maori “walk” have a lot in common.10Colin McCahon, letter to Peter McLeavey, 16 August 1973, quoted in William McAloon (ed.), Art at Te Papa, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2009, p. 311.

McCahon arguably found his most powerful metaphor in his use of white on black, consciously referencing ideas of light and darkness and the corollaries of faith and doubt in a Christian sense.11Several authors note that McCahon’s use of black and white correspond to the parallel Maori concepts of ‘Te Ao’ (the light) and ‘Te Pō’ (the darkness). See Anthony Byrt, ‘Colin McCahon’, Artforum, Oct. 2017, <www.artforum.com/print/201708/colin-mccahon-71241>, accessed 22 Sept. 2019. In I applied my mind, 1982, an exemplary work and one of the three final paintings that McCahon made before his death, passages from Ecclesiastes reflect his crisis of faith at the end of his career. Painted in white against a black ground, the artist’s distinctive cursive script appears to fade in and out like a flickering light in a darkened space or a faltering electrical current. McCahon once wrote, ‘I only need black and white to say what I have to say. It is a matter of light and dark’.12Colin McCahon, quoted in Marja Bloem & Martin Browne, p. 29.

Notes

1

Colin McCahon, quoted in ‘Colin McCahon: a survey exhibition’, Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland, 1972, p. 31.

2

Wystan Curnow & Robert Leonard, Colin McCahon: On Going Out with the Tide, City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, Wellington, 2017, p. 1.

3

For example, in the 1940s McCahon’s depictions of biblical scenes in recognisably New Zealand landscapes were considered shocking and, by the 1980s, his use of Maori symbols and language became a lightning rod for debates around cultural appropriation.

4

Charles Brasch, ‘A note on the work of Colin McCahon’, Landfall, vol. 4, no. 4, Dec. 1950, p. 338.

5

Colin McCahon, ‘Beginnings’, Landfall 80, vol. 20, no.4, Dec. 1966, Christchurch, pp. 361–2, <www.landfallarchive.org/omeka/items/show/22242>, accessed, 12 Aug. 2019.

6

Wyston Curnow, I will need words. Colin McCahon’s Word and Number Paintings, National Art Gallery, Wellington, 1984, unpaginated pamphlet.

7

Gregory O’Brien, ‘Rain in Northland: Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere and the painted word’, in Christine Lorre-Johnston & Mark Williams (eds), Journal of New Zealand Literature, vol. 32, Victoria University, Wellington, 2018, p. 59.

8

Colin McCahon, quoted in Gordon H. Brown, Colin McCahon; Artist, Reed Books, Auckland, 1984, p. 135.

9

Brasch was a friend, patron and ardent supporter of McCahon. In 1951 he funded McCahon’s first overseas trip to Melbourne, where he studied paintings in the NGV Collection with the Australian painter Mary Cockburn-Mercer. Later than year, McCahon made a book of ink drawings on the life of Christ as a gift for Brasch. After Brasch’s death in 1973, the Hocken Library, University of Otago, Auckland, published a limited-edition facsimile of the publication.

10

Colin McCahon, letter to Peter McLeavey, 16 August 1973, quoted in William McAloon (ed.), Art at Te Papa, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2009, p. 311.

11

Several authors note that McCahon’s use of black and white correspond to the parallel Maori concepts of ‘Te Ao’ (the light) and ‘Te Pō’ (the darkness). See Anthony Byrt, ‘Colin McCahon’, Artforum, Oct. 2017, <www.artforum.com/print/201708/colin-mccahon-71241>, accessed 22 Sept. 2019.

12

Colin McCahon, quoted in Marja Bloem & Martin Browne, p. 29.