Sunday, June 21, 2015

Colin John McCahon (1 August 1919 â€" 27 May 1987) was a prominent artist in New Zealand. Along with Toss Woollaston and Rita Angus, he is credited for introducing modernism to New Zealand art in the early twentieth century. He is also regarded by some people as New Zealand's greatest painter.

Early life and development

McCahon was born in Timaru on 1 August 1919. As an infant, McCahon was taken to Dunedin by his mother. During his primary school years he spent a year in Oamaru, New Zealand. He showed an early interest in art which was stimulated by the work of his maternal grandfather, photographer and painter William Ferrier, as well as regular visits to exhibitions.

He attended the Maori Hill Primary School and Otago Boys' High School. At age 14 he began taking Russell Clark’s Saturday morning art classes before enrolling at the Dunedin School of Art (1937â€"39), where Robert Nettleton Field proved an inspirational teacher. McCahon later attended the Dunedin School of Art. He first exhibited his works at the Otago Art Society in 1939. His artwork Harbour Cone from Peggy’s Hill was considered too abstract, and was excluded from the Otago Art Society's exhibition despite their rules entitling each member to submit one work.

The War Years

At the beginning of World War II, McCahon worked in prescribed industries in support of the war effort. Later he travelled around the South Island getting seasonal work, leaving his family at home. His work from this time reflects the places he went to, particularly the Nelson region.

McCahon’s first mature works, religious paintings and symbolic landscapes such as The Angel of the Annunciation, Takaka: Night and Day, and The Promised Land, emerged in the years immediately after the war.

A portrait of McCahon was painted about this time by Doris Lusk.

Married Life

McCahon married fellow artist Anne Hamblett (1915â€"1993) in 1942 at St. Matthew's Church, Dunedin. As a wedding present, McCahon and Hamblett received a book by G A Cotton, The Geomorphology of New Zealand. The book would prove to have an influence on his art.

In 1944, the couple painted a collaboration of children's illustrations in watercolour called 'Pictures for Children.'

The couple would eventually have four children.


By 1948, McCahon and Hamblett had relocated to Christchurch.

Thanks to the generosity of Charles Brasch (the Dunedin-based poet and founding editor of the literary journal Landfall), McCahon was able to visit Melbourne from July to August in 1951 to study paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria.

In May 1953, McCahon moved his family to Titirangi, Auckland, where they bought a house. Partly as result of his exposure to the area, "around this time his landscapes featured beach, sea, sky, land, boats and kauri trees...", he started working at the Auckland City Art Gallery, first as a cleaner, then as a custodian of the paintings, and finally, in April 1956, as the Deputy Director. McCahon assisted in the professionalisation of the gallery and with the first exhibitions and publications to record New Zealand art history.

Between April and July 1958 McCahon and his wife visited the United States on Gallery business, but also used the opportunity to see art that interested him. Paintings such as The Wake and the Northland panels reflect McCahon’s immediate response to this visit, and his stylistic development accelerated over the following decade.

In 1964, McCahon started working as a lecturer at the Elam Art School in the University of Auckland.

Teaching and exhibiting

In 1960 the family moved to a house in central Auckland, and in August 1964 McCahon resigned from the Auckland City Art Gallery to take up a position as a lecturer in painting at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts. He taught there for six years, influencing a generation of artists, including Richard Killeen, Robin White and Ian Scott.

During the 1960s McCahon was increasingly successful in having his work shown and recognised both in New Zealand and internationally. In January 1971 he left Elam to paint full-time.

The 1970s were richly productive years for McCahon, with numerous exhibitions. A second retrospective of his work was presented at Auckland City Art Gallery in 1972 (the first, a joint exhibition with Toss Woollaston, was held in 1963).

Later years

By the late 1970s McCahon’s health was deteriorating because of his long-term alcoholism, and by the mid-1980s he was suffering from dementia. In 1984 the exhibition I Will Need Words was presented as part of the Biennale of Sydney, but McCahon was barely able to appreciate his growing international reputation. He died in Auckland Hospital on 27 May 1987. On June 6, 1988, his ashes were scattered throughout the Muriwai headland.

Auckland City Art Gallery presented another retrospective the following year, Colin McCahon: Gates and Journeys. Further major exhibitions, both in New Zealand and overseas, have followed.

Style and themes

McCahon is best known for his large paintings with dark backgrounds overlaid with religious texts in white. He was also an extensive landscape painter and was inspired in part by the writings of New Zealand geologist Sir Charles A Cotton.

Thematically, his art was at times concerned with developing a painterly nationalism. McCahon himself explored issues of Christianity and pacifism both within and outside of this national identity.

McCahon's graphic design work, in theatre, posters and jewellery, is lesser known, although said to be influential in his art practice.


McCahon developed his own take on expressionism, influenced by both Robert Nettleton Field (1899-1987) and German Expressionism. At the Dunedin School of Art, McCahon met Rodney Eric Kennedy (1909â€"1989), Doris Lusk, Anne Hamblett and Patrick Hayman. McCahon, Lusk and Hamblett, and to a lesser extent Hayman were later hailed by J. D. Charlton Edgar (1903â€"1976) as "the first cell of modern art[ists] in New Zealand". This was the first true New Zealand School of art.

During a visit to the United States in 1958, McCahon saw paintings by Barnett Newman, Kazimir Malevich, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian and Willem de Kooning. Before this trip he had only ever seen these works reproduced in books. He was struck by their physicality: of Pollock's works, McCahon said these were "pictures for people to walk past". He was also influenced by the installations of Allan Kaprow and the sensation of walking through an artwork rather than walking past it. After this trip, McCahon's use of scale and space shifted, most notably in The Northland Panels. This work consists of eight panels, monocoat on canvas.


A continued theme within McCahon's art is the exploration of the religious. His landscapes in particular are imbued with a sense of the spiritual. Even more overtly, McCahon often sets Biblical scenes in the contemporary New Zealand landscape. His Otago Peninsula (1949, currently in the collection of the Dunedin Public Library) was the realization of a schoolboy vision inspired by Otago.

A Te Papa profile of McCahon has described his landscapes as "often stark and empty (rather than picturesque), raising questions about the human histories of these seemingly unpopulated landscapes."

Muriwai paintings

In the series "Necessary Protection," McCahon represents the Muriwai coastline as a site of spiritual nourishment.

Word paintings

McCahon's large-format 'word paintings' combine his religious and abstraction tendencies. He started incorporating words into his paintings in the 1940s, a move which was often criticised by the public, but which he felt was necessary to directly communicate with viewers of his art.


Family house museum and artists' residency

The McCahon family house in French Bay, Titirangi, Auckland, now serves as a small museum about Colin McCahon and his family. The house is surrounded by large kauri trees (at least for semi-urban standards).

On the same section is a more contemporary house and studio which serves as the base for the McCahon artists' residency. The contemporary house hosts three artists each year, for three months each.


A major retrospective of his work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam introduced McCahon as "the first modern New Zealand painter of major international importance."

Works stolen

In June 1997, the Urewera Mural (a triptych) was stolen from the reception of the Department of Conservation Āniwaniwa Visitor Centre at Lake Waikaremoana.

It was eventually determined that the painting had been stolen by Tuhoe activist Te Kaha and an associate Laura Davis. After 15 months missing, it was returned in August 1998 after negotiations involving arts patron Jenny Gibbs, Te Kaha and Tuhoe member Tame Iti. It required more than $5,000 worth of repairs once it had been returned. It was finally returned to the visitors' centre in September 1999. When it was stolen, the mural was thought to be worth $1.2 million, but that figure was later updated to $2 million.

In late 2006, manuscripts including seven Colin McCahon poems, along with a Charles Goldie painting, and an unbound copy of the Oxford Lectern Bible were stolen from the University of Auckland Library during the Christmas break. It was believed that the thieves broke into a secure room at the Library by prising open a locked window. Art experts and police said at the time that it would be difficult to sell the items, in New Zealand or overseas, as anyone who knew about the artists would be very suspicious. By October 2007, all the stolen items â€" valued at over $200,000 â€" were returned, after negotiations between police and a man who knew who had stolen the items concluded. Following the incident, security was increased at the Library.

In popular culture

Tobias Cummings & The Long Way Home's "Canoe Song" refers to several of McCahon's works its debut album, Join the Dots.

McCahon is the subject a 2004 biographical documentary titled Colin McCahon: I Am, produced by Television New Zealand and directed by Paul Swadel.


Further reading

  • Ivan Bootham, "The Message As Art: An Exploratory Catechism of McCahon Word Painting" in Art Words Ho! 1989, pp. 22â€"34.
  • Gordon H. Brown,Colin McCahon: Artist. Reed Books, rev. ed. 1993.
  • Gordon H. Brown, Towards A Promised Land: On the Life and Art of Colin McCahon. Auckland University Press, 2010.
  • Agnes Wood, Colin McCahon: The Man and the Artist. David Ling Publishing Ltd, 1997.
  • Butler, Rex (25 July 2012). "Victory over death: The gospel according to Colin McCahon". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  • Alderton, Zoe (2015). The Spirit of Colin McCahon. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 1443872326. 

External links

  • Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki: Works by Colin McCahon
  • The Colin McCahon database and Image Library
  • Museum of New Zealand Collections Online person page
  • University of Otago Digital Collections: Works by Colin McCahon
  • McCahon, Colin John, 1919-1987 McCahon, Anne Eleanor (née Hamblett) 1915-1993 McCahon, Colin and Anne : Papers, 1914-1989, ARC-0772 Hocken Library

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