Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith
Marja Bloem and Martin Browne
Craig Potton Publishing, $59.95,
Don Binney: Nga Manu/Nga Motu – Birds/Islands
Auckland University Press, $49.99,
In the set I moved with in Auckland in the early 1970s – which included several would-be artists, some of whom are still making and exhibiting work today – Don Binney was dismissed with amused disdain; while Colin McCahon was regarded with reverence bordering upon awe. We did not linger in front of Binney’s birds, but we always stopped at the McCahons, even if we did not quite understand what we saw. I mention this not because those youthful opinions have any enduring validity, but because they are part of a discourse which both these fine books, in their different ways, address.
Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith is the catalogue for a major exhibition mounted at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. It represents a conscious attempt, in the words of exhibition curator Marja Bloem, “to make a significant contribution to the international recognition of Colin McCahon”. While steadfast in her fealty to McCahon’s achievement, which she rates alongside that of Dubuffet, Pollock and Bueys, Bloem acknowledges in her preface the relative, short-term failure of this ambition: no other northern hemisphere gallery agreed to take the exhibition, which is currently touring in Australasia. The melancholy of this admission, coming at the head of the book, introduces a major theme of both its images and its writing: the artist as prophet crying in the wilderness.
Damian Skinner’s book about Don Binney is a monograph consisting of an introduction, an interview with the artist and a collection of 75 plates spanning 40 years’ work (1962–2002). Its intention to rescue Binney’s oeuvre from that same casual derision my friends and I visited upon it is implicit throughout Skinner’s judiciously understated essay, and explicit in the robust, even combative responses of the artist to the author’s deceptively neutral interview questions. Both pieces of writing sensibly eschew the question of meaning in Binney’s work, while leaving us in no doubt that that meaning is there for all to see in the images. By contrast, the writing in the McCahon catalogue is all about meaning, yet largely fails – I do not mean the word pejoratively – to resolve any of the issues thereby raised.
My first encounter with the McCahon show was a review in one of the New Zealand Listeners which infrequently make their way here to me in New South Wales from across the Tasman. Written by a London-based expatriate New Zealander, its attempted debunking of McCahon’s (assumed) pretensions to international relevance eerily reproduced in print that same smug, smiling scorn we reserved for Binney 30 years ago. There is a long tradition of this kind of response to McCahon’s work particularly, though it is not specific to him nor indeed to New Zealanders. All the same the willed malice from which, in different ways, both these artists have suffered, probably always seems more vicious in smaller societies.
Binney’s resolution of the problem, arrived at in a room full of Buddhas in Seattle in 1991, comes by way of a consideration of the fate of Philip Clairmont: “Art is not Everything anymore – just something, like Everything else.” Its effect in Binney’s painting can be seen in the gradual return of confidence through the 1990s after a decade of rather unconvincing experimentation during which, he says, it was through his drawing that he survived – and he didn’t mean in an economic sense.
No such resolution was possible for Colin McCahon. The terms of his extreme commitment to painting were as black and white as so many of his works. Its origin in the religious background of his family is one of the fascinations of two of the essays here, those by his son William and by Australian novelist Murray Bail. William’s revelations include that his father was a “chosen one” and that fall-out from his adolescent, unorthodox coming to God provoked his thus far devout family to leave their church. Bail’s elliptical, intensely focused “notes” – there are 14 of them – are both resonant and enlightening, confirming that the blocking of his proposed catalogue raisonné of McCahon’s work – by whom? why? – was a major blunder.
Bail’s invaluable perspective as a non-New Zealander is also present in the earlier part of Bloem’s introduction, which includes the information that McCahon possessed a Preacher’s Bible – the texts of which are marked for emphasis as a preaching aid – yielding a metaphor which illumines his entire oeuvre. Bloem’s selection of paintings, focusing “on the spiritual, existential side of McCahon”, is coherent and innovative. The fourth essay, by Francis Pound, ostensibly on the last painting but actually about all of McCahon’s Four Last Things, was first – and controversially – published in 1993 at the time of the sale of said painting for a then record price; it is a typically elegant piece of writing whose argument, by an act of linguistic legerdemain, proves unarguable.
Why do we heap such acrimony on those whose work we do not like? Bail’s suggestion that “Aesthetics is a form of ethics; one produces the other” is surely part of the reason, but not the whole explanation. McCahon faced public ridicule all his working life. As late as 1982 – the last date he wrote on a painting – a Christchurch radio station capitalised on alleged public outrage at the purchase price of $10,000 for a painting by inviting listeners to paint their own McCahons. This kind of insult is not about aesthetics or ethics, but the inability of people to tolerate difference.
Don Binney’s travails were of another order. While I don’t know this, I suspect he has always had a loyal following amongst art buyers and as a result has probably never lacked for sales since his initial, immediate fame in the early 1960s. What happened to him, as it did to Philip Clairmont, was that he fell out of fashion. In other words, it was the art world, not the public, who tried to do him in. Fashion, like prejudice, which it closely resembles, is not really about ethics or aesthetics, but power and money, and especially the power and money that flow from the possession of a reputation. This can, of course, be a reputation as a critic as much as an artist.
For example: you can see in Damian Skinner’s cham-pioning of Don Binney (as in his earlier resurrection of Michael Illingworth) another turn of the wheel, a restoration of a once despised elder by a representative of another generation, less (or differently) blinkered than the last. Such a return is of course implied in the initial scapegoating; and so it goes. But it can’t happen without there being some merit in the work and this is where things become interesting. I had not looked at a Binney for years – I’ve seen them here and there, in books and on walls, but I haven’t looked at them. For me, they existed in the realm of the déjà vu, but without the frisson of strangeness that term implies.
Yet, looking through this book, two piercing images came back from wherever they were buried. One was of a painting not in Skinner’s book but which hung, I think, in the Auckland University library. It was of a seabird, perhaps a gull, in a blue sky over a green landscape. What I remember about it is not the image per se, but the object. The painting, which must have been on board, was slightly warped; and there was minor damage to the painted surface. The effect on me was to demystify the piece in precisely the opposite way that McCahons were mystified: the Binney seemed humble, quotidian, a thing. It was a central insight in my education about painting, and this was where it came.
The other image was of a large-headed, blond-haired man with big teeth, who always seemed isolated in the crowds milling about at Barry Lett gallery openings or elsewhere, a slightly lugubrious presence I felt obscurely sorry for because he was Don Binney and we all laughed at his work.
Needless to say – or perhaps not – I no longer feel that way about his painting. Whatever else it may be, it is not derisory. Skinner’s book is full of images of – above all – serenity; it is also full of echoes, of places I have or might have been to, birds I have seen or may one day see. Binney, it turns out, can paint Sydney, Oaxaca or Kilauea with the same composure as he does Te Henga or Rakiura. Nor are birds the only beings in his world – there are moko, a feather gorget, a dolphin, and more; and his pure landscapes are imposing.
There are echoes here too of many other artists, some well known, some not. As well as those Skinner mentions (Michael Smither and Robyn White, and 19th century water-colourists Kinder and Sharpe), I glimpsed traces of workers as diverse as Rita Angus, Doris Lusk, Bill Sutton, Stanley Palmer, Peter Siddell, Robin Morrison, Brent Wong, Grahame Sydney. This is in marked contrast to the awe-ful singularity of McCahon; and if Binney’s work does not have the grandeur and pathos of McCahon’s, why should that matter? He is doing something different, succinctly represented in this handsome, unassuming volume.
I encountered Colin McCahon once in person. It was on a Sunday night in a Chinese restaurant in Greys Avenue in 1973. There were four of us, tailing off from our usual weekend’s drinking; the only other patrons were an older couple sitting opposite each other at a table on the far side of the room. One of us, a painter himself, recognised Anne and Colin McCahon and went over to pay his respects. I watched them covertly for the rest of the time we were there. He was gaunt, wore a paisley shirt and had a look of intense suffering; she was fuller of face, but seemed, if possible, to be suffering even more than he was. They did not speak to each other at all that I saw. If I had not known who they were, I would have thought he was a working man, a carpenter perhaps, and that he and his wife had long since run out of things to say to each other.
It seemed incredible to me that this was the man who had painted Takaka Day and Night and Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury and the Northland Panels and the Gate series and all the other paintings I loved then and still love now. I mean I thought that personal happiness must follow upon the ability to paint such luminous, reverberative paintings, that the magnificence of the works must belong to their maker as well. I did not know that a god could despair of his creation.
There was another connection, which I did not find out about until a few years later. On one or other of the bedroom walls in the houses I grew up in, there hung a yellow-brown painting of hills around a harbour with trains and boats and planes and even a hot air balloon in the sky. There is one almost exactly like it, except more brightly coloured, illustrating the chronology prepared for the catalogue by Marja Bloem and Martin Browne: for this was one of the children’s paintings Colin and Anne McCahon collaborated on in Dunedin in the 1940s, bought by my parents for their first child, my eldest sister Virginia. I looked and looked and looked at this painting as a child because of its complexity, its detail and, most of all, its joyousness.
One of the salutary aspects of this catalogue is the way it traces, in word and image, the path from that naïve joyousness through to the bleak final utterances which immediately preceded McCahon’s silence. Along the way, you also learn that joy in creation never deserted the artist, however deep his despair, until he stopped working. In this way, A Question of Faith manages the rare feat of joining the suffering of the man to the majesty of the work. The selection is generous: there are fine illustrations of all 75 exhibited paintings, many smaller but still high quality reproductions of other works, excellent supporting documentation, and a range of beguiling photographs. Whether or not Colin McCahon achieves international recognition does not matter to me nearly so much as that I will soon be able to see this show in Sydney.
Martin Edmond lives and works in New South Wales. His Chronicle of the Unsung will be published in March 2004.