More than a century after he was born, Colin McCahon (1919-1987) remains a key figure in New Zealand painting. Readers in Melbourne can see his work until April 2020 in Colin McCahon: Letters and Numbers at NGV International. Fellow New Zealander Justin Paton marked the centenary of McCahon’s birth with a new monograph on the artist’s work, McCahon Country. In the extract below, from the chapter titled ‘Land,’ Paton explores the painter’s connection to place in his early work from the 1940s.
by Justin Paton
Think of the moment when you first arrive in a place. There’s the immediate rush of sense impressions: light, smell, sound, colour, temperature. Then, soon after, the desire to range wider and understand the lay of the land. If it’s hilly, there’s a natural impulse to seek out the highest ground — to rise above and see where you are in the bigger picture. This impulse to orient may have its origins in ancient habits of shelter and self-preservation: to survey the landscape is also to take stock of where threats might lie. But for someone attuned to the spirit of place, there’s another reason to go higher. To climb to a lookout and stretch your gaze is a kind of attainable revelation. Up there, wrapped in distance and air, you’re located and also elated.
McCahon’s first major landscapes pursue height and perspective in just this way. They are paintings that seek to raise our spirits by elevating our viewpoint. Created between 1946 and 1949, while McCahon was still in his 20s, they are a young artist’s paintings in their ambition, their hopefulness and their eagerness to know. And they are the work of a painter who was striving to invent a way to see the unrecognised beauty of his country. The place in the paintings is Otago Peninsula, east of McCahon’s hometown of Dunedin: a run of green land that rises and rolls for 20 kilometres towards the South Pacific horizon. Out there, past Ōtākou marae and on to Taiaroa Head with its albatross colony and pā site, it’s easy to find yourself thinking of what New Zealand once looked like — how it looked before it was named New Zealand. Antarctica feels close on this southeast coast. The trees lean back in deference to the easterly. And overcast skies often grant the views a soft and even beauty.
A belief that the world was enriched by being made into art was part of McCahon’s family inheritance. His maternal grandfather William Ferrier was a professional photographer, a painter and a lay preacher in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition; McCahon recalled the walls of the Ferrier family home in Timaru ‘hung floor to ceiling with water colours and prints’. McCahon’s own parents, Ethel and John, encouraged their children, and the young Colin especially, to look at art and to make it. They also nurtured a Christian and specifically Wesleyan sense of reverence for the world as it was — a belief that God could be found in the commonplace. This pursuit of peace and order in the familiar informs McCahon’s 1946 painting of Otago Peninsula, a commission — £20 plus costs for materials — from his early patrons Mario and Hilda Fleischl. Since getting his first bike at the start of his high-school years, McCahon had been exploring the peninsula (tough going on the steeper climbs: the bike was single-speed). Walking was the other way he’d come to know its scale and contours. According to McCahon’s biographer Gordon Brown, a 15-kilometre walk with his friend Ron O’Reilly along the heights of the peninsula underpinned the Fleischl painting, and to look at it is to feel the elation and effort of time spent walking, looking and piecing the view together. The eye rides up and into the view along a succession of softly jostling ridges, the landscape cleared of everything except a foreground road and the soft dark trees and shelter belts. There were frustrations for McCahon in the creation of this ambitious painting, whose two-metre wide surface, huge by the standards of the time, is dense with adjustments and revisions. But it is an early instance of what will become an abiding impulse in his art: to go through or beyond the outer look of things; to reveal an inner order.
McCahon kept looking at the places he loved; he was always coming back to rediscover them. And in his next large peninsula painting (Otago Peninsula, 1946–49), we sense a painter finding the place he needed to see. The green of the earlier work has darkened into smokier tones; its friendly contours have given way to a grander visual music. The lifts and falls of the high flanks and ridges ‘conduct’ the viewer’s eye out to the horizon, and to yield to this rhythm is to notice how the painter is shaping our progress — providing pauses (the inlets), hurdles (the hills), and headlands and openings from or through which one can reach the glow of the Pacific sea and sky. Note, in particular, how carefully McCahon has positioned Harbour Cone on the painting’s left against the blue of the sea behind it, protected — attended, you could even say — by the strip of sand at Aramoana to the west and the green hump of Taiaroa Head to the east. By opening a line of light from inner harbour to the open water, McCahon offers, to use a translation of ‘Aramoana’ made famous by his painter friend Ralph Hotere, a ‘pathway to the sea’. He gives the pyramid-like form of Harbour Cone a special, backlit significance — the first and certainly not the last time he’ll use light to halo a cherished landform. And beyond all this he grants to the peninsula a primordial, almost animistic vitality, as if some mighty creature is turning and settling beneath the pelt of the earth. McCahon’s close engagement with te ao Māori is still two decades away, but looking at this painting you sense why he was later drawn to Māori understandings of place, which see the land not just as geology but as a powerful and sustaining being. The painting now hangs at Dunedin Public Library, not far from the old Carnegie Library where McCahon’s parents took the teenaged McCahon and his brother and sister to read on Monday evenings; McCahon remembered its art books fondly.
The extract above is from McCahon Country by Justin Paton, published by Penguin NZ.