Monday, November 4, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“COLIN McCAHON: THERE IS ONLY ONE DIRECTION. Volume 1, 1919-1959” by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $NZ 75); “MOPHEAD” by Selins Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press, $NZ 27:99)
2019 is the centenary of the birth of Colin McCahon (1919-1987), regarded by many as New Zealand’s most iconic painter. The most significant event related to this is likely to be the publication of Peter Simpson’s two-volume survey of McCahon’s life and work. The first volume is Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction. 1919-1959. The second volume, Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? 1960-1987, is scheduled to appear in May 2020.
With this publication, Peter Simpson again confirms his position as one of the most distinguished chroniclers of our artistic and literary history, as already evidenced in his Bloomsbury South and his editing of the Charles Brasch Journals1958-1973 (both reviewed on this blog). His author’s preface to Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction gives a detailed account of his long connection with McCahon’s work, as both curator and author of catalogues and explanatory books about the artist. He tells us that the book’s title comes from McCahon’s comment that a poet or artist needs “one direction” – a clear vision or concept to guide his work, even if the subject of that vision changes.
To make one clear bibliographic comment, this is a large and capacious book, just shy of 360 pages (including index, bibliography and scrupulous notes and references). I’m sure Simpson wouldn’t take offence at the remark that, while his text is excellent, among the book’s chief attractions are the large reproductions of McCahon’s work, often spread over two broad pages. In effect, the book itself becomes an accessible gallery of McCahon’s major paintings. Spending time with them is as important as spending time with the text.
Simpson’s prose style is clear, clean and unambiguous. Unlike some writers on the fine arts, who appear to be addressing a coterie or in-group, Simpson is aware that he is writing for a wide audience. As he says in his Introduction, “this book is intended not only for the already knowledgeable but also for those reading about McCahon for the first time.” (p.21) As well as glossing some art-related terms in his text, he does not hestitate to explain who certain well-known artists and writers were. This does not mean writing down to the reader. It means that there are none of the wilful mystifications one finds in some works on art (especially postmodern ones), which seem designed to put up barriers against the hoi-polloi.
Simpson is at pains to note that Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction is not really a biography. Though it is arranged in chronological order, and though it does give an account of the artist’s life, its focus is on the man’s career and it is primarily an exploration of his work and development as an artist. Simpson reiterates this sentiment in his “Conclusion”. This volume finishes when we are almost two-thirds of the way through Colin McCahon’s life, because that is almost exactly halfway through his career as an artist. Hence the second volume will explore just as much artistic ground as the first.
Nevertheless, the biographical contents are important. Born in Timaru, Colin McCahon spent most of his younger life in Dunedin and Oamaru. He hated being a pupil at Otago Boys’ High School and managed to persuade his parents to send him to the Dunedin School of Art instead. Although Dunedin was where his parents lived, and although he visited them often, in later life he came to loathe Dunedin. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he moved between Nelson, Dunedin and Wellington, often following seasonal labouring jobs, as painting in itself did not provide an income to support a family. In 1942, when he was 23, he married fellow-artist Anne Humblett, and they settled in Christchurch for a number of years. In the 1950s he made the major shift to Auckland’s westernmost, semi-rural suburb of Titirangi, in the Waitakere Ranges. He held an important position at the Auckland Art Gallery. He did not become the gallery’s director (although he considered applying for the post) but he did deputise before the arrival of the new director Peter Tomory. Simpson notes all the various residences that McCahon and his family occupied, and notes the worries they often had about making rent. But McCahon’s wife and children are left very much in the background and are the subject of passing comments only. The biographical narrative fades out in 1960, when McCahon and family relocated to the inner-city Auckland suburb of Newton.
What is more dominant is Simpson’s careful account of how McCahon’s style changed, and the way different artists influenced him at various stages of his career. Toss Woollaston was an important early influence, when McCahon was almost exclusively a landscape painter, interested in geomorphology (the basic shape and structure of the land) and stripping landscapes down to unpopulated and treeless images. At that stage there was the strong influence of Cezanne and the earlier impressionists. A major change in McCahon’s artistic focus came when in he was in Nelson in 1948-49. In place of the people-less landscapes, he painted New Testament scenes of the Crucifixion, the Annunciation and the Resurrection, all placed in recognisably New Zealand settings. He now claimed as his masters the (religious) painters of Renaissance Italy. Simpson is very careful to note this was no sudden religious “conversion”, as McCahon had always had some sort of religious sensibility. After his move to Auckland, and after visits to Australia where he received some tuition, McCahon had greater awareness of cubism and a new way of conceiving of physical forms. There followed his Titirangi paintings of kauri and of French Bay and his move into abstraction. His paintings had always been “symbolic” rather than “representational”, but this was a major change.
Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction ends at the point when he had been for four months in the United States in 1958, and had seen art with which he was previously unfamiliar. He was moving to the greater use of words and script as part of his artistic expression. This was to lead into those stark black, white and grey canvases with verbal statements – but wording was not entirely new in his paintings as he had already made much use of speech bubbles in his earlier religious art.
As Simpson documents it, McCahon was very reliant on a close circle of friends and correspondents when he needed moral support, especially as his work was so often controversial and attracted much loud, and public, negative criticism. The first such controversy was in 1939, when the Otago Arts Society rejected the 20-year-old McCahon’s first well-known painting, “Harbour Cone from Penny’s Hill”. In solidarity with him, some other artists withdrew their work from the OAS exhibition. Later, A.R.D. Fairburn and Denis Glover loathed his religious paintings, and wrote barbs against them. McCahon’s sometime mentor and patron Charles Brasch was, at first, also very negative about the overtly religious works, but he later changed his mind. Most condemned of all were the text-dominated canvases that came later.
It is hard to explore McCahon without at some stage discussing the religious element in his work. In his Introduction, Simpson considers McCahon’s religious art and the matter of whether he was, or was not, a Christian. McCahon had a conventional Presbyterian upbringing and was for a while associated with the Quakers. A crucial point in his life was when, as a young man he “found his own god”. As Simpson notes “Landscape and religion were never entirely separate in McCahon’s imagination.” (p.39). God, or belief of some sort, was implicit in landscape itself. Yet this could suggest a vague sort of pantheism, and the obvious fact is that, in two major phases of his career, McCahon’s terms of reference were specifically Christian ones. This is apparently an embarrassment to some commentators; and non-believers who wish to see McCahon’s work in purely aesthetic terms can point to a few letters and comments where the artist disavowed any specific form of belief. This rather ignores the fact that doubt is, and has always been, an essential part of religious faith. Few thinking believers have “blind faith”, and questioning God or dogma has always been part of the religious experience (check out sometime “dark nights of the soul” from Augustine to John of the Cross to Therese of Lisieux and others). Simpson says “Such questions of belief and disbelief were never finally settled for McCahon, but – to the undoubted benefit of his painting – were matters of continuous ongoing self-exploration and struggle.” (p.57) Quite so. If all the Elias paintings (there is a generous display of them at pp.308-313) are about “misunderstanding” and “doubt”, they are still firmly in the religious tradition.
Both visually and in terms of its commentary, Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction is a rich and rewarding book. I hope this judgment is implicit in all the above comments. I’ll conclude with a couple of minor matters.
First, as a barbarous philistine, I found it endearing that McCahon apparently loved watching Westerns when he went to the movies (Chapter 3) – their horses and sweeping plains and music. Without being precious about it, I would say this chimes with the man who loved landscapes – and especially naked and underpopulated landscapes waiting for some human imprint.
Second, a little gulp of sorrow comes to the throat in reading this statement early in the book: “Throughout much of his life, McCahon was an indefatigable letter writer, a practice that with the advent of personal conmputers has virtually disappeared.” (p.20) Simpson isn’t the first to note this, but it does at once suggest how hard it will be for future biographers to get at the intimate thoughts of people from our own era.
Some purely personal responses:
I’ve already finished my review of Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction; but I thought I’d add a few purely subjective remarks.
In his Introduction, Simpson notes, correctly, that people who like one phase of McCahon’s artistic development often do not like another. He sees the great divide in opinion relating to the change in McCahon’s techniques after his 4-month trip to the USA in 1958. In other words, people who like the earlier McCahon landscapes and (more-or-less “representational”) religious paintings, tend not to like the later abstractions, cubism and text paintings – and vice versa. Personally, the text paintings interest me, as do the Titirangi kauri paintings. But irremovably embedded in my mind are the early landscapes, and I think it has to do with my early exposure to them in childhood. McCahon’s masterly “Otago Peninsula 1946-49” slapped me in the eye as soon as I first saw it on display in Otago, and for years a postcard reproduction of it has been pinned, by a thumb-tack, to my study wall. It’s a masterpiece. I saw “On Building Bridges – triptych” (painted in 1952) on dsplay in the Auckland City Art Gallery as a child, and of course, having a logical child’s mind, couldn’t figure out why the three pieces did not neatly fit together. Now I think I get it. But the really iconic painting for me (and I’m sorry that it comes so early in McCahon’s career) is “Takaka, night and day”, painted in 1948. Again, this was a childhood encounter in the Auckland City Art Gallery. I recall an adult saying that the hills looked like upraised knees, and ever since, I’ve detected an implicit anthropomorphism in much of McCahon’s early, people-less, landscapes. Even more mysterious was the concept of night and day in one canvas. This is still the painting I first think of when I think of McCahon. All three of these paintings are reproduced in Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction.
Here’s a second, unrelated, comment. I’m surprised Simpson does not make more of the French artist Georges Rouault. I grew up in a house where there was a framed print of Rouault’s “The Old King” hung at the entrance to our playroom – a very daunting image which I remember thinking was a representation of King Herod. When I looked at “Fifteen Drawings for Charles Brasch” (pp.174-175 of Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction) they struck me as being in exactly the same style as Rouault’s work on similar themes. I viewed a gallery of Rouault’s work, in a side-room of the church of Saint Severin, when I was on a trip to Paris 2017; and McCahon immediately popped into my mind. The similarity is unignorable. But Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction has only one passing mention of Rouault (p.129).
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I’m dealing very briefly with Selina Tusitala Marsh’s enjoyable picture-book Mophead not because I’m giving it the flick, but because I can say very briefly what it is and who its prime auduence is.
Mophead is a sturdily bound hardback telling an inspirational story in pictures as much as in words. It was both written and illustrated by Samoan-Palagi poet Selina Tusitala Marsh, New Zealand’s first Pasifika Poet Laureate. As a kid, she was often ridiculed by others at school for her huge mop of frizzy hair, and she earned the nickname “mophead”. Embarrassed, she tried to tie up and control her hair until a talk at school by Sam Hunt told her that it was best to be herself. So now she rejoices in her mop of hair as an expression of who she is (a bit like Cyrano de Bergerac and his proud nose). And she has carried her trademark mop confidently into the various adventures of her adult life.
The pictures are lively and expressive, the text is bold and the message is clear. I can see Mophead going down very well with schoolchildren who need a bit of encouragement and confidence, and that is the book’s target audience. I am happily passing it on to one of my teenage grand-daughters.Any misgivings? Much of it is self-promotion (I sang before the Queen, I met President Obama etc.). But I guess that’s part of the self-confidence the book is promoting.