New Zealand’s Van Gogh? Kirsty Farquharson

Colin McCahon: The Man and the Teacher
Agnes Wood
David Ling
$39.95
ISBN 0 908990456

Most of us have had a teacher at some stage of our lives who has inspired us and whom we have worshipped to some degree. Most of us, though, have not chosen to write books about these teachers. Agnes Wood has, and her book Colin McCahon: The Man and the Teacher attempts to shed light on this “controversial and misunderstood” man, and his influence as a teacher.

McCahon is arguably New Zealand’s best-known painter, as the dust-jacket of Wood’s book reminds us. His painting, from the late 1930s to late 1970s, has been approached and received variously by artists and critics. He was painting at a time when New Zealand was trying to forge its own identity, and because of his distinctive style, he has been seized upon by nationalist critics as evidence that New Zealand culture had come of age. McCahon focused on what Gordon Brown has called “the singularity of the New Zealand landscape”, thereby creating distinctively New Zealand art. Wystan Curnow went so far as to say that McCahon “invented painting in New Zealand”. This kind of nationalistic art criticism is now being questioned, and artists and critics are re-evaluating the place of McCahon in New Zealand cultural history, or trying to topple McCahon’s gigantic reputation, which, like his paintings, towers above us.

While these debates continue amongst art historians, the response of most New Zealanders to McCahon seems to have moved from “My five-year-old could do better” to acknowledging that McCahon is important and (or maybe because) his works are valuable, but perhaps without quite knowing why.

Against this background, Wood has written her book, discussing McCahon’s life, and gathering together the experiences of McCahon’s students, to give us a perspective of him as a teacher. The opening lines set the tone of the book:

This is a story of Colin McCahon, the man, the painter and the teacher, an indivisible trinity, a tormented genius, misunderstood and maligned. He was driven by his obsession and ambition to sacrifice his life to his painting, and in doing so, he condemned himself, his wife and his family to years of poverty. He suffered degrading vilification and critical abuse, and the alcohol which was his solace eventually destroyed him.

Clearly, this is not going to be a book that challenges the McCahon myth. Instead, in the first section of the book, Wood sets up McCahon as New Zealand’s Van Gogh. Both, so the stories go, were tortured, misunderstood, impecunious geniuses, struggling to express their unique vision to an unsympathetic world. Both had periods of mental illness, and Wood suggests that their illnesses could have been caused by the same thing – a certain chemical in oil paint.

Wood is lucky in her choice of subject. McCahon’s life lends itself easily to The Great Misunderstood Genius myth. His prophetic utterances about the New Zealand landscape are eminently quotable. He had a vision of “something logical, orderly and beautiful belonging to the land and not yet to the people”, and in his Northland Panels he laments that New Zealand has “a landscape with too few lovers”. Wood also reminisces, “as I write, memory evokes a bitter-sweet nostalgia”. This combination of nostalgia and McCahon’s martyred life is not particularly useful. Romantic and appealing as the myth may be, it doesn’t help us understand the art, the art community and market, or the society in which the art was created.

In the last two sections of the book, Wood records students’ descriptions of McCahon as a teacher. Her research is impressive here – but the students all say much the same thing. They either got on with him or they didn’t. Those who got on with him gained a great deal, though they didn’t always realise until later what they’d learnt. Those who didn’t get on with him quickly left, having learnt nothing. This helps draw a picture of McCahon’s obsessive, black-and-white, and at times difficult character, but 70 pages of these opinions become repetitive, with little analysis from Wood to alleviate the repetition, or shed further light on these responses.

What is useful about the book, though, are the students’ insights and analyses of McCahon and his work. In contrast to the view that McCahon’s landscapes captured the only true essence of New Zealand, Don Binney points out that “The land that McCahon saw from his early life in the South Island was a land of penury and chastisement. McCahon heartland. I tend to inherit the pastures of plenty …. very fertile, very lush”. McCahon’s bare hills are not the only view of New Zealand. Then there is Richard Killeen’s observation that “he relied on the land – man alone, the religious thing, pain and anguish. If you hadn’t had a McCahon you would have had to invent him anyway. He was a product of his time.” This goes a lot further towards explaining McCahon’s influence on New Zealand art and the whole McCahon phenomenon than the rest of the book.

Also useful is the material Wood provides about McCahon’s wife, Anne Hamblett, another artist, who more or less stopped painting to support McCahon and their children, despite receiving little thanks for it, several infidelities, and discovering after his death that he had written her out of his will. This aspect of McCahon’s life is seldom discussed, and neither are the last years of his life when he became increasingly ill as a result of his alcoholism, and an increasing burden on his wife. While Wood provides us with this information, it is frustrating that she doesn’t analyse it or draw conclusions from it. She certainly doesn’t pull any punches, but his flaws add to, rather than diminish, his status as hero.

So what has this book given us? Has it contributed to our understanding of McCahon, the man and the phenomenon, and art and culture in New Zealand? Are a student’s fond memories of a teacher relevant to anyone other than his students? Unfortunately there is not a lot that is new: instead the book reinforces hackneyed stereotypes and provides pat answers to now irrelevant questions. It is time to start asking some new questions.

Kirsty Farquharson tutors art history at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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