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A sense of mounting riches

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

The second of two McCahon focused volumes by Peter Simpson is out. Janet Hughes has a read of Colin McCahon: Is this the Promised Land? and reports back.

You can read Janet's review of volume one, Colin McCahon: There Is Only One Direction, here.

Colin McCahon: Is this the Promised Land? Vol 2 1960-1987

Peter Simpson

Auckland University Press

I expected that reviewing the second half of this magisterial work would be a token task, confirming that it sustained its sky-high standard of scholarship and fulfilled its promise of comprehensive accounting. It does, for sure, and I’ve written previously about the massive and scrupulous scholarship underpinning the enterprise; but it also redoubles some of the satisfactions of the first volume, and springs the odd surprise.

The big surprise is that it grows more and more readable, harder to put down. This is not just because preliminary material has been got out of the way. It is not just because the better-known works come to the fore visually, and the heights of his career dominate the story. Nor is it just that the voice on the page becomes more supple, as will happen in the course of a long work.

The key to the immense readability as well as the thorough scholarship is the skill with which Simpson interweaves strands of biographical, historical, and critical insight, and a vast array of evidential documentation. It’s not just a matter of imposing order while developing a chronological narrative focused on the works. He also makes sure that earlier understandings accrue, elaborating on them and equipping the reader to grasp the weight of thinking and feeling and intention that piles up behind successive iterations of McCahon’s themes. There is an exciting sense of mounting riches and progressive illumination.

I continued to wish that page numbers were provided for subsequent mentions of works – yes, they are all in the index, but I got tired of flipping to it, or through the chronological clumps of illustrations, in a big, heavy book. But I recognise that more references would have made for a spotty-looking page and might amount to overkill for many readers’ purposes.

First published ArtZone #84


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