Monday, March 30, 2020

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.


“COLIN McCAHON: IS THIS THE PROMISED LAND? Vol.2 1960-1987” by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $NZ 79:99)

When I reviewed on this blog the first volume of Peter Simpson’s authoritative survey of the work of Colin McCahon, Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction. VolumeOne, I made some obvious points that are worth repeating for the second volume, Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land?: Volume 2. Peter Simpson is concerned primarily with the artist’s work, not with the minutiae of his life. This is not a biography, but an appreciation. In the same format as the first volume, Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? is a robust hardback with wide pages allowing text to be in double columns but, more importantly, allowing for the very many coloured reproductions of McCahon’s work to be displayed in large size. It in no way belittles Simpson’s words to say that this book is a gallery as much as a text, to be viewed as much as read. And, as was true of the first volume, Simpson’s clear prose is informed, his analyses of individual works are detailed, and he nowhere strays into the sort of artspeak that would alienate informed, but non-specialist, readers.

Despite the non-biographical intention of this book, it is nevertheless worth giving a summary of Colin McCahon’s life from 1960 to his death in 1987. (Here I largely cannibalise Peter Simpson’s Introduction). In 1960, McCahon, his wife Anne and their four children moved to inner-city Auckland and were to stay there for the rest of McCahon’s life. But McCahon also for some years had a studio on the wild west-coast Auckland beach of Muriwai. McCahon became deputy director of the Auckland Art Gallery and remained so until 1964. He then accepted a post as lecturer at the Elam School of Art and held that position until 1971. As Simpson tells us later  (in Chapter 2) McCahon got on well with some colleagues, especially Garth Tapper, and was esteemed by many students. But he was hard on those who did not take their art seriously and was rough on students, like the very talented Don Binney, who came from upper-middle-class backgrounds. At this time, he also found more supportive art-dealers. In 1971, he resigned from his Elam lectureship and devoted himself full-time to his painting.

His approach had changed markedly in the early 1960s, with a starker simplified angularity signalled in “Here I Give Homage to Mondrian” in 1961, though there were elements in his paintings consistent with earlier work. For example, he never entirely lost his affinity for landscape. The 16 frames of “landscape theme and variations” (reproduced on pp.60-61) and his series of stylised waterfalls, from the late 1960s, prove this. Despite “text” canvases, landscape dominates his “South Canterbury” (reproduced on p.123) from 1968. In commissioned works commemorating Parihaka, “Monuments to Te Whiti and to Tohu” (reproduced on p.191) there is some form of representationalism with Mt. Taranaki in the background.

In his Introduction, Simpson makes some general comments on the direction in which McCahon’s art was now moving: “In a sense, his paintings only began to take off and become airborne when he moved away from recording direct perception and allowed memory, thinking, belief and imagination to come more fully into play”. (p.13) Visiting the South Head of the Kaipara Harbour had a huge impact on him; he painted many landscapes from memory; he rejected the idea of “pure” abstractionism, saying his art was “impure” art as it always pointed to something beyond itself. Hence he headed towards what Simpson calls a “variable mix of abstraction, landscape, text, number, symbolism and signification” (pp.14-15)

As I have noted, Simpson’s survey keeps many aspects of McCahon’s private life in the background, as his main focus in on the art. We do hear of colleagues, fellow-artists and art dealers and of some fractious relationships. As Simpson records in Chapter 3, McCahon admired much about James K. Baxter, but had a serious falling-out with him when Baxter criticised him for being too “bourgeois” in accepting a university position (p.161). Nevertheless, Baxter’s premature death in October 1972 shocked him and he made many artistic memorials to Baxter. Only late in the text are we told “Increasing ill health resulting from alcoholism meant that McCahon was no longer able to drive himself to Muriwai and painting there was gradually phased out. A new studio was built behind the house at Crummer Road [in Grey Lynn] where many of his later works were painted.” (p.287) Shortly thereafter we learn more about boozy parties with the younger artists “Philip Clairmont”, Tony Fomison and Allen Maddox (pp.297-298), which led McCahon deeper into drink. The Epilogue to Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? tells us of McCahon’s last years when he had stopped painting and dementia, exacerbated by alcoholism, led to episodes where he got lost and didn’t recognise familiar places.

Also only towards the end of the text are we told much about the artist’s wife:  “Anne McCahon died in 1993. As time has passed, there has been increasing recognition of the sacrifices she made to support her husband’s career” After noting a 2017 exhibition of Anne McCahon’s work, Peter Simpson continues “McCahon valued her critical intelligence highly and regularly consulted her about his work.” (p.350) Occasionally I wondered if, without compromising the emphasis on the art itself, Simpson could have told us more about the domestic situation which is, after all, a major factor in every artist’s inspiration.

How McCahon’s works were received is a major theme of this book. His style was often ridiculed or reviled. Just before the period that Volume 2 covers, McCahon was alarmed and depressed by negative reviews of his “Painting” (1958). The negative reaction to his “Gate” series almost drove him back into representationalism. In the early 1970s, the director of the Dunedin Public Gallery ridiculed McCahon’s work and set up the crass stunt of inviting visitors to “paint your own McCahon”. In 1978, when one of his paintings appeared in the Dowse Art Gallery in Lower Hutt, a city councillor said it could have been knocked up in a meal break. That same year, when “Victory Over Death 2” was gifted to the Australian government, there was much public derision. Publicly McCahon ignored all this. Privately he was very depressed. And a failure to connect with what McCahon’s work was about continued after his death. Simpson points out the irony that the very anti-materialist painting “Storm Warning”, which McCahon donated to Victoria University of Wellington, was later (in 1999) cynically sold by the university, for profit, to the private sector (p.330).

One of Simpson’s most painstaking accounts of a controversy surrounding McCahon’s work is his narrative (in Chapter 5) of the contested Urewera mural, which was commissioned by the board of the Aniwaniwa Visitors Centre. They hoped McCahon would simply celebrate the picturesqueness of the Urewera – but McCahon chose to celebrate the Tuhoe people. In telling this story, Simpson helpfully gives detailed background information on both Rua Kenana Hepetipa and Te Kooti Arikiranga Te Turuki, whom McCahon’s mural recalled. After having trouble with the (mainly Pakeha) board which had commissioned the mural for touristic purposes, McCahon then ran into trouble with the Tuhoe people, who thought his mural was inappropriately honouring one person. Only after lengthy negotiations did McCahon alter his mural to their satisfaction. (The mural is reproduced at pp.268-269) There is the coda to this story (on p.350) when, in 1997, years after McCahon’s death, the mural was “kidnapped” by Maori activists and returned only after negotiations with an art-lover as go-between.

As well as focusing on the artist’s work, Simpson chronicles the rise in McCahon’s reputation, in spite of the attacks upon him. There were a growing number of retrospective exhbitions of his work in his lifetime, and growing respect from serious art critics. By the late 1960s, he was becoming the dominant contemporary New Zealand painter. Simpson notes that in 1969, when Gordon Brown’s and Hamish Keith’s New Zealand Painting – An Introduction was published, McCahon was one of only three artists awarded a full chapter and “The choice of McCahon to design the book’s cover – a waterfall motif – emphasised his increasing domination of the contemporary scene; it implies that in a sense the history of New Zealand painting was viewed through the lens of his work, a point made by Francis Pound and other critics.” (p.103)

Only rarely was McCahon’s work “protest” art or directly related to political causes. His “Gate” series in the 1960s referred to nuclear weapons and he joined the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). When some of his work was part of a group exhibition in 1971, McCahon commented on his recent painting of Muriwai:

My paintings in this exhibition are all about the view from the top of the cliff at Ahipara and Muriwai. I am not painting protest pictures. I am painting what is still there and what I can see before the sky turns black with soot and the sea becomes a slowly heaving rubbish tip. I am painting what we have got now and will never get again. This in one shape or form has been the subject of my painting for a very long time.” (p.151)

If his art was only rarely political, however, this does not suggest artistic quietism. McCahon was, as he had been since the late 1940s, engaged in a certain sort of spirituality which always implied a critique of accepted values. Religious belief, and a questioning of religious belief, were major parts of this critique. The very title Peter Simpson has chosen for this volume, Is This the Promised Land? points to the centrality of such concepts in McCahon’s later work. The Biblical journey to a promised land was often suggested in McCahon’s earlier landscapes and was alluded to in his letters. He had produced a painting called “The Promised Land” in 1948,  and the very last multi-panel sequence he painted included “The Flight from Egypt” – the Hebrews heading for the promised land.

In the later 1960s, when he was freed to paint full-time as he was no longer lecturing at Elam, McCahon accepted a commission to paint glass windows for a Catholic chapel in Auckland. This, says Simpson, “had a profound impact on his imagery, which was increasingly informed by the iconography of Catholicism” (p.75). At about the same time, he was impressed by the Protestant-sponsored New English Bible, a new translation which rendered the text with “dynamic equivalence”, making it more colloquial and accessible. From this point on, all the written Biblical texts that appear in McCahon’s work were taken from the New English Bible. Even so, Catholic imagery prevailed. The “Visible mysteries” series was informed by Catholic liturgical works and McCahon often adopted an image of the heart influenced by the traditional Catholic image of the Sacred Heart.  There were renderings of the Stations of the Cross, sometimes reduced to Roman numerals counting from I to XIV. Rosary-like beads appeared. And very often the Cross, even if sometimes a Tau cross. Specifically Catholic imagery persisted right up to “Five Wounds of Christ” in the late 1970s, by which time “text” paintings had become dominant in McCahon’s work.

In the earlier 1960s, in a letter to a friend who was also a painter, McCahon wrote: “You see I don’t paint places. I paint “thinking about God”. But I hope he knows it & likes it. You, my dear, do this too & sometimes I feel place overcomes his beauty.’ ” (p.13) By the late 1970s, in another letter, he wrote “Beauty is only looking for God. And as a lot of us find He can be a real SCARE” (p.286). This last phrase suggests there was much ambiguity in McCahon’s belief, as Simpson points out when commenting on McCahon’s “Victory over Death 2” with its (AM I) / I AM “It is far from being a clear, unambiguous affirmation of faith. On the contrary the prevailing tone of the work is as much conveyed by the expression ‘now my soul is in turmoil’… [it] dramatises existential conflict and uncertainty…” (p.147) In a biographical note for an exhibition in 1981, McCahon wrote “I think I am a Christian – perhaps I am. I think I am a good guy – but I’m not…” (p.328). Ambiguous or not, faith remains a major element in McCahon’s work. As a personal comment, I think the degree to which Chistianity influenced him is evidenced best in the photograph (on p.342) of McCahon in the mid-1980s, ravaged by alcohol and dementia, sitting with a young granddaughter under the Chi-Rho Christogram over his fireplace.

Simpson refutes the claim [made in a catalogue for an exhibition in Sweden in 2002] that McCahon’s very last paintings, quoting Ecclesiastes, were yielding to despair and therefore rejecting faith. Putting the Ecclesiastes quotations in context, Simpson concludes “Truer to the shape of McCahon’s career than to give Ecclesiastes the last despairing word, is to see the final burst of activity as an artist in 1979-82 as articulating a never-ending dialogue between Ecclesiastes and St Paul, despair and hope, doubt and faith.” (p.333) Backhanded proof of the religious intent of much of McCahon’s work comes in Simpson’s account of an exhibition of McCahon’s work in the Netherlands, which  clashed with that country’s very secularist sensibilities. (I also speculate mischievously how much English-language-text-loaded canvases could have been a barrier to non-English-speaking people). While noting that McCahon’s high reputation now is largely limited to New Zealand and Australia, Simpson remarks in the very last page of his text: “A further factor in constraining the spread of McCahon’s reputation is the challenge his religion-inflected work presents to a largely secular Western world.” (p.359)

Here, however, is a great defect in the review you have just been reading. Peter Simpson’s two volumes are as much about the artist’s style as they are about the artist’s beliefs or intentions. In detailed but accessible prose, they examine how the paintings are conceived and constructed, what materials are used, what type of paint applied and what effects are achieved. For all but the specialist, this is the definitive publication on the subject.

Personal Note:

My review of Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? ends above. What follows is a purely personal reaction to McCabon’s later phases. Without wishing to be decried as a philistine, I am not greatly drawn to the period of texts, numerals and signification. I am not necessarily in bad company. Peter Simpson notes that Charles Brasch stopped collecting McCahon’s work post-1958 (p.103). When he considers the “Numerals” series, Simpson also notes that they require of the viewer “patience and faith” (p.78). Indeed they do – and maybe faith more than anything.

Why my resistance to much [not all] of McCahon’s later work, with which this second volume deals? I am not opposed to non-representational painting, but too often I sense that whatever meaning many of McCahon’s later paintings have derives from things outside the painting itself. I stop long and linger over the reproduction of McCahon’s “Easter Landscape Triptych” (1966 - reproduced at p.111). I more-or-less get the deliberate contrasts of darkness and light, suggesting the emergence into daylight of the Risen Christ; I see the contrast of straight lines (horizontal and diagonal) with the more organic curved lines in each of the three panels. The curved lines are reminiscent of both the hills that McCahon had painted in his earlier phase and the stylised waterfalls he had painted more recently. And of the stone rolled away from the tomb. Of course I recognise that the three panels take us from Good Friday to Easter Sunday – with the strong diagonal line in the centre panel suggesting death. The overall composition is reminiscent of a cross… But am I reading all of this into the painting because of the title? Would it actually have these meanings for us at all if it were presented “cold”, with no title to tell us that it was related to Easter?  Read the painting without the prior cue and it would be an interesting design. [As soon as I think this, I of course have to acknowledge that it would take many viewers a long time to associate Broadway with Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” without the title to tell them.]

I could raise the same objection with so many other canvases, for example “Walk Series C” from 1973. You would have to have prior knowledge of the Stations of the Cross to understand what the Roman numerals from I to XIV meant.

As for so many of the text paintings – doesn’t the text itself get read first to make meaning? In fact, wouldn’t the text itself have largely the same meaning if it were read in a Bible? “A Letter to the Hebrews (Rain in Northland)” (1979) appears on six sheets of Steinbach paper and presents most of the letter’s Chapter 11 (almost 1000 words).  One could argue that placing this text on paper isolates it and heightens it. But, assuming that we read the text on the canvas, we have a literary experience and not an artistic one.

I’m sure there are McCahon-ists who could answer my objections… but I am not sure that I would be persuaded by them. I am saying none of this in a reaction against McCahon’s religious purpose or beliefs – certainly not – even if they have apparently annoyed some commentators and alienated them from his work. Perhaps in the end I am saying that McCahon’s texts and numbers are attempting to depict metaphysics that simply can’t be depicted in this form.

I’ll leave it there before I start stumbling over my own tongue.

None of my comments in this coda reflect on Peter Simpson’s excellent work. De gustibus non disputandum est.

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