‘Finding God in the mystery of creation’

The centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth is being marked in Dunedin and two linked exhibitions at the city’s leading public art institutions — the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and the Hocken Library — give art lovers a rare chance to see the story his works tell when shown together. Rebecca Fox reports.

 

New Zealanders are going through turbulent times at the moment, but spare a thought for artist Colin McCahon.

He was born at the end of World War 1 and during the Spanish ’flu pandemic and grew up during the Great Depression and World War 2, Hocken Collections head curator, pictorial collections, Robyn Notman says.

An art lover enjoys the new Colin McCahon exhibition at the Hocken Library. PHOTOS: LINDA ROBERTSON
An art lover enjoys the new Colin McCahon exhibition at the Hocken Library. PHOTOS: LINDA ROBERTSON

"It was really rugged. Think what it was like to be an artist trying to find your voice and the way you wanted to paint."

Those struggles can be seen in the works by McCahon that are on show in "Colin McCahon: A Constant Flow of Light".

Focusing on the period from the mid-1930s to mid-1970s, the exhibition includes some of his most well-known paintings and represents many of the artist’s key ideas, formal aesthetic innovations and influences.

Notman says the title of the exhibition is inspired by a longer inscription on the University of Otago’s McCahon mural A Waterfall Theme "as there is a constant flow of Light, and Because of perceiving the power of Light with uninterrupted force we are born into the Pure Land".

"The forms of the land — the mountains, rocks and trees, the sky and sea, light and air — were his ‘Pure Land’."

McCahon was always interested in light, sight and visibility and his works show how he used paint to add light into his work as well as on to it, Notman says.

"He was interested in light and beauty and finding God in the mystery of creation."

Colin McCahon. PHOTO: NEW ZEALAND MAGAZINES
Colin McCahon. PHOTO: NEW ZEALAND MAGAZINES

The Hocken exhibition is being held parallel to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s exhibition "A Land of Granite: McCahon and Otago", which focuses on McCahon’s time in Otago and his exploration of Dunedin and the region’s landscape.

Although born in Timaru, McCahon grew up in Otago and attended art school in Dunedin. He held his first exhibition at the Otago Art Society.

Hocken Library head curator, pictorial collections, Robyn Notman surveys the ‘‘Colin McCahon: A...
Hocken Library head curator, pictorial collections, Robyn Notman surveys the ‘‘Colin McCahon: A Constant Flow of Light’’ exhibition at the Hocken Library.

Although he moved away, spending many years living in Auckland, he returned to Otago on numerous occasions, with his visits influencing many of his works.

The Hocken Collections holds one of New Zealand’s most important and extensive collections of his art and archives relating to his work and life, including works such as Dear Wee June (1948), The Song of the Shining Cuckoo (1974) and The Wake (1958), which were gifted to the gallery by McCahon.

Many of his friends and supporters also donated important works to the gallery, such as arts patron and poet Charles Brasch, who gave The Virgin and Child compared (1948), I Am (1954) and Crucifixion with lamp (1942), and theatre director Rodney Kennedy, who gifted The Mount Arthur Range, Nelson (1946), which relates to McCahon’s work with the theatre and set design.

More than 35 paintings are on display, in addition to sketches and other works on paper and documents given to the gallery.

The sketches and documents show the thought processes behind some of his works and relationships.

Otago Peninsula, 1946. Collection of Dunedin Public Libraries, Rodney Kennedy Bequest....
Otago Peninsula, 1946. Collection of Dunedin Public Libraries, Rodney Kennedy Bequest. Reproduction courtesy of the Colin McMahon Research and Publication Trust.

"He wrote a lot of interesting letters using a very direct form of speech, so when you read it you feel like it is to you as well."

One of these is the text he co-wrote with poet John Caselberg titled On the Nature of Art, where he wrote that he regarded his painting as "strictly autobiographical and regional".

"The relation of time and place always interests me."

There is also the letter McCahon wrote asking if he could use the words of Ralph Hotere’s father, Tangirau, in Te Tangi o te Pipiwharua, The Song of the Shining Cuckoo (1974) and questions if he got the words right.

"Art always came first for McCahon. What was really important to him was what he read, thought about or the conversations he was having," Notman says.

"Those were the things he wanted people to look for in his work."

The gallery has also has on loan works from the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, Te Manawa in Palmerston North, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, Dame Jenny Gibbs, and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

 

COLIN MCCAHON

  • 1919 Colin John McCahon was born in Timaru. His maternal grandfather was photographer and painter William Ferrier.
  • 1937-39 Attended Dunedin School of Art.
  • 1939 First exhibited his works at Otago Art Society. 
  • 1942 Married fellow artist Anne Hamblett and had four children.
  • 1953 The family moved to Auckland and bought a house in Titirangi. McCahon worked at the Auckland City Art Gallery.
  • 1956 He became Keeper and Deputy Director of the Auckland City Art Gallery.
  • 1964 He became a lecturer in painting at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts.
  • 1972 A second retrospective of his work was presented at Auckland City Art Gallery. Struggles with health effects of alcoholism and dementia.
  • 1987 He dies in Auckland Hospital.
Source: The Colin McCahon Online Catalogue

 

TO SEE

‘‘Colin McCahon: A Constant Flow of Light’’, Hocken Collections, runs until March 6, 2021.
‘‘A Land of Granite: McCahon and Otago’’,  Dunedin Public Art Gallery, runs until October 18.
 
 
 

 

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