Colin McCahon: The Titirangi Years, 1953-1959
Auckland University Press, $49.95,
A half-century ago, the literature of New Zealand art fitted on a single shelf, or – with a full collection of the periodical Art in New Zealand – perhaps two shelves. Eric McCormick’s Eric Lee Johnson (1956), reputedly the first monograph on a New Zealand artist, was a recent addition. While a complete collection may then have seemed feasible, today it is impossible to collect everything published on New Zealand art – in part, because so much is of an ephemeral nature, produced in brochure or home-baked booklet mode and effectively evading the bibliographic radar. As American art historian James Elkins argues in What happened to art criticism?, never has there been more art writing, and never has it been less read.
Yet genuine critical engagement exerts a special magic, one evident in Peter Simpson’s highly readable survey of Colin McCahon’s earliest years in Auckland. While the narrative is suited to a reader who has never encountered McCahon in any shape or form, Simpson’s archival research offers material of interest to the dedicated McCahon buff. The book’s refreshingly modest format makes for particular ease of handling, including in bed. And despite the economy of format, it includes an impressive 80 full-page plates as well as many images interspersed in the introductory text – all reproduced in full colour. Even the monochrome (or nearly monochrome) works are reproduced in colour, allowing an appreciation of McCahon’s use of colour that is beyond the reach of traditional “black and white” illustrations.
The book derives from an exhibition Simpson mounted at Titirangi’s Lopdell House, commissioned by the McCahon House Trust to celebrate the restoration of McCahon’s residence and the construction of an adjacent studio-residence. In mid-1953 the rudimentary cottage was only just affordable by the almost-34-year-old artist, bravely transferring his family from Auckland on the strength of a job offer from the Auckland City Art Gallery. By shifting to the bush-covered slopes that McCormick memorably terms a “sylvan slum”, McCahon and his family entered a radically different environment from their familiar Christchurch. Friends were told of the warmth – both atmospheric and social – of the northern city: “Not mock English or Scottish but becoming N.Z. & possibly what one might call Pacific.” In a telling aside, McCahon expressed amazement “at the way the rest of the country hardly exists to Aucklanders”.
The visual environment exerted an immediate impact on his painting, whether the distinctive forms of the young kauri trees surrounding the house, the idyllic French Bay at the bottom of the road, or the broad city vistas experienced on the endless bus trips to and from work at the gallery. These were McCahon’s “Cubist” years, when his landscape imagery shattered into faceted planes. Simpson stresses the impact of the kauri trees on McCahon, quoting a botanist’s marvellous description of the leaves – “long, sessile, entire, glabrous, thick” – but playing down the sexualised imagery of phallic shafts matched with testicular globes. The abstraction of these works is amusingly signalled by a recipient’s uncertainty over which way was up – whether the gifted image represented a vertical tree or a horizontal landscape.
Simpson divides his text into five chapters. The first sets the scene for the move to Auckland, while the second discusses McCahon’s curatorial career at Auckland City Art Gallery. Excerpts from letters to his Christchurch friend, the poet John Caselberg, include devastating assessments of artists as varied as Goldie (“the Lindauer stuff just wiping Goldie off the map as a painter”) and Henry Moore (“sculpturally bad – has back and front instead of movement around”). The third chapter deals in greater length with McCahon’s work from 1953 to 1958, including the famous “text” paintings that connect him with a wider literary culture and anticipate so much of his later work.
The fourth chapter recounts Colin and Anne McCahon’s momentous visit to the United States in 1958, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation. This was when McCahon’s knowledge of international art, of necessity based almost entirely on reproductions, was unsettled by first-hand experience of contemporary American art. This was work that could be epic in scale, that often abandoned conventional framing and stretching of the canvas, and in which series of works attempted to engage viewers in new ways – all features evident in McCahon’s later work. The post-American output of 1958-59, which includes the iconic Northland Panels, is the subject of the final chapter. As Simpson persuasively argues, McCahon’s prolific and highly experimental “Titirangi years” represent a pivotal period in the artist’s career.
Curators and art historians are perhaps the most avid readers of the “credit line”, those words on a museum artwork’s label that reveal the mode and date of acquisition. While Simpson’s list of reproduced works includes this crucial information (a condition stipulated by galleries and libraries), it is unfortunately absent from the texts accompanying the actual reproductions. Most people scrutinise the information alongside reproduced works, rather than at the back of the book, and these “credit lines” importantly identify the friends and supporters who purchased (or were given) McCahon’s works and who later ensured that so many entered public collections. Nevertheless, Simpson’s captions usefully supply the numbers of each work’s identity on the McCahon database. With its current representation of almost 1600 paintings, drawings and prints, this resource is the most substantial documentation of any New Zealand artist’s output.
As McCahon attested in 1972, “My painting is almost entirely autobiographical – it tells you where I am at any given point, where I am living and the direction I am pointing in.” McCahon scholarship has relied heavily on these evocative texts and, while Simpson acknowledges the dangers inherent in privileging McCahon’s own perspectives on his work, he admits that the artist’s comments “are often so revealing and eloquent that they are too interesting to ignore”. Simpson’s judicious quotations from McCahon’s unpublished letters are among the book’s strengths and suggest that, in addition to a decent biography, we might keenly anticipate the collected letters.
Roger Blackley teaches art history at Victoria University of Wellington.