It’s 100 years since the birth of Colin McCahon and along with all the exhibitions and celebrations, two new books about the artist have been released: Justin Paton’s McCahon Country and Colin McCahon: There Is Only One Direction, first of two volumes by Peter Simpson. Janet Hughes has read them both and reports back.
Penguin Random House
‘Come with me through McCahon Country’, says Justin Paton in his introduction, and he is a most informative and companionable guide. Any approach to Colin McCahon has to be selective, since the painter was so prolific – an online catalogue runs to over 1,600 works. Paton examines McCahon’s oeuvre through the primary lens of landscape, of ‘country’ understood both literally and figuratively.
His account of the painter’s aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual territory feels comprehensive, though it examines only a couple of hundred representative works (depending on how you count the several massive series). This has to do with careful selection of the paintings, I think, but also the meticulous way he analyses and above all connects them. He starts with the place, the geographical subject, and a scrupulous reading of the image as artefact and experience. Then he follows up visual and verbal cues, reaching wide and deep, incorporating insights from McCahon’s writings and other biographical sources, and accumulating connections with the other paintings covered.
The introductory chapter sets out a way of seeing, and also sets the tone:
So often, entering a landscape by McCahon, we encounter a kind of doubleness or flicker. The hill in Nelson is also Golgotha – the ‘place of the skull’, where Christ was crucified. This waterfall is also an image of divine grace descending….And we notice that, alongside the New Zealand place names…there are many others that are elsewhere, ancient, unfixed, or, above all, biblical….The tremendous sense of specificity in his paintings goes along with a tremendous sense of reach.
This encapsulates the promise the book makes, and the lucid, jargon-free style in which it is delivered. The result is immensely readable.
Paton takes us on a journey though the succession of places McCahon lived in, drove through, wrote about, depicted and interpreted – painting by beautifully reproduced painting. The grouped illustrations are helpfully arranged in order of mention. The book is organised effectively in themed chapters – or perhaps essays, each shapely and complete, and self-contained to a point. The titles pertain mainly to generalised place – Land, Valley, Bridge, Bush, Road, Sky – and they trace a broad chronology of McCahon’s work, with the occasional overlap or backstep.
A dense web of connections is spun, through time and space, and into metaphysical territory. Chapters headed Light, Guide, Veil, Night, Whenua, and Fire take on McCahon’s other big subjects – religion, language (English and Te Reo), history, and tangata whenua. Paton gradually elucidates the way McCahon developed his distinctive visual language. Its ‘doubleness’ is dissected and its allusive riches unfolded.
Paton’s writing has its own ‘doubleness’; he addresses the reader directly, and doesn’t hestitate to write ‘I think’, acknowledging subjectivity while avoiding any air of self-absorption. But the voice is also authoritative, and it delivers a sophisticated insight. ‘Artspeak’ is quite simply absent, and the complexities of McCahon’s aesthetic are illuminated with clarity. Plain speech is used with subtle, persistent precision to explore the idiosyncratic iconography emerging in the sequence of paintings; but Paton also articulates an intensely felt response, with an eloquence that could fairly be called poetic, especially in its graceful and purposeful use of figures of speech.
He calls the Titirangi of McCahon’s early work ‘a laboratory of light and a gentle landscape cathedral’, catching his distinctive melding of intense scrutiny with reverence, and imagines in this ‘thicket of forms’ the ‘whump and fluster’ of kereru. He is especially good at characterising the formal properties and physical execution of the images: ‘flurried night sky’ captures both cloudcover and brushwork; the Northland Panels sequence proceeds by ‘painterly jump-cuts’; the Fourteen Stations offers ‘a mobile architecture, a church made from paper’, concluding with ‘heartbreaking verticals – the lifeline of white paint running out as McCahon pulls his brush down the darkness’.
Paton expresses amazement at ‘the way McCahon shifts gears, with a soft, quick tap of the clutch, from the everyday and the exalted’. He excels at articulating these parallel dimensions, their physical and iconographical expressions, their charge of meaning, the complex traffic between them. I was hopelessly spoiled for examples of this poetic precision, my review copy thick with underlining. It makes Paton good company, while good design and reproduction and a solid apparatus – notes, bibliography, list of works, index – ensure that the volume will be a very good companion.
Colin McCahon: There Is Only One Direction. Vol 1 1919–1959
Auckland University Press
This first of two volumes represents a massive undertaking, a comprehensive survey of the work of New Zealand’s most lauded painter, who was also dauntingly prolific. Peter Simpson brings formidable credentials to the task – decades of cross-disciplinary inquiry specifically into McCahon, and a scholar’s way with research and documentation. The study is strenuously thorough, seeking to account for every aspect of the work and its interface with the life, the times, and the art world. He traces crosscurrents and contradictions pertinaciously, handling the voluminous evidence with a light touch and straightforward clarity.
Signalling always where he is going, Simpson takes pretty much the opposite approach to Justin Paton, who lets analytical insights accrue from a descriptive approach, via technical particulars and visual understandings. Simpson stands further back from the intersection of hand, thought, and subject. He also concerns himself more extensively with context – influence, reception, and especially McCahon’s extensive writing about his work (besides of course taking on the whole oeuvre, whereas Paton traces the landscape strand though it).
The volume is finely produced and generously illustrated with excellent reproductions. There are several hundred works by McCahon, including some interesting ephemeral items, and many other images besides. You’ll need your page-flipping finger at the ready. The apparatus is extensive and scholarly, though I would have liked the illustrations listed in page order up front, in addition to the list of ‘artworks’, arranged alphabetically within calendar years.
Simpson insists that this is not a biography, ‘biographical elements’ being ‘always subordinate to the art he produced’. Documenting the convergence upon the work of the life and the environment is his particular strength. A compelling feature of the work is the extensive quotation from McCahon’s letters. They help to tell the story scrupulously, sometimes cutting through accreted McCahon legend, evoking the person and also reinforcing strands of interpretation.
And they help pull the account back always to ‘the art he produced’. This, and the way the subject is allowed to speak for himself where possible, lends the volume a scrupulous authority.
The strands of research, observation, and interpretation are interwoven lucidly, without jargon or pretension. The style lacks the elegance of Justin Paton’s prose; and Simpson does not much address technique, which for me is a loss. But to ask more from such a comprehensive treatment would be unreasonable – it is the circumscription that lets Paton exercise his gift for elucidating style.
Supposing I had to choose between these books, I would opt for Paton’s grace of style and subtlety of insight, his sheer re-readability. But I would forgo reluctantly the Simpson volume as an authoritative reference source, and for its fullness and sense of the whole man. They are both beautifully produced, but the Paton volume has the edge in page design and detail, such as the illustration page numbers supplied in the margins.
First published ArtZone #82