Towards a Promised Land: On the Life and Art of Colin McCahon
Auckland University Press, $79.99,
As I began to read the 16 essays, plus introduction, that make up Gordon Brown’s Towards a Promised Land, I kept thinking of what Gertrude Stein said about Ezra Pound: “A village explainer,” she remarked. “All right if you were a village, if not not.”
New Zealand is often characterised as a village, and Brown would not perhaps mind being called, with respect to his chosen subject, its explainer; he has, since the 1960s, indefatigably, set himself the task of saying what he can see how to say about the works of Colin McCahon. His authorised biography of the artist was published in 1982 and re-published in a revised edition in 1993; this current volume may be represented as the third in a triptych of writings about the artist. Or, equally, as a culmination of a 60-year involvement with the man and the work.
Stein’s remark reverberated in my head at least partly because of the sense of déjà vu I felt upon re-engaging with Brown’s view of McCahon. While I have not read his biography from cover to cover, I have often consulted it over the years, and feel a
degree of familiarity with its contents; and it has taken its place as a substantial source for all subsequent writing about McCahon. So the question arises: why another a book that covers the same ground, why revisit the same topics that have already received Brown’s characteristically exhaustive treatment?
This feeling of déjà vu was amplified by the fact that Brown is not a natural writer. His prose is sometimes laboured, even labyrinthine, and he suffers from a compulsion, if that’s not too strong a word, towards repetition. That most of these essays have appeared before, and some are based upon lectures or talks, exacerbates this tendency towards repetition, particularly in relation to McCahon’s fairly sparse public statements about his work.
Brown, in the introduction, does defend his use of McCahon’s own words, in particular the commentary included in the catalogue of the 1972 survey exhibition in Auckland. “I decided to retain these quotes,” he writes, “as McCahon’s words often carried nuances allowing a flexibility of interpretation.” I’m not entirely persuaded that this is so; or perhaps I mean those nuances don’t necessarily pertain as you read the same remarks in different contexts in successive essays. I often had the feeling, especially in the earlier parts of the book, of being caught in a kind of mirror maze where words compulsively reappear and their repetition obfuscates rather than illuminates: like fragments of holy writ that we mumble out of fidelity to the idea of the artist, even as their meaning leaches away. That sense of being caught in a hall of mirrors may also be what you experience, after long familiarity, with McCahon’s own work.
This is, however, unfair both to Brown and to McCahon; and in fact, as my reading of the book proceeded, I found my admiration for what Brown has accomplished growing. I think the clue to reading Towards a Promised Land lies in its account of the relationship between Brown and McCahon; and that, in some respects, the book functions best as a memoir – memoir of a most occluded and subterranean kind, yet memoir nevertheless.
The introduction, for example, gives a brief history of the two men’s relationship, which began in Christchurch in March 1952, when Brown, a first-year student at the Canterbury School of Art, biked around to the McCahon house in Barbour Street bearing a letter of introduction from James K Baxter. After his bona fides were assessed and he had been admitted – and “some moments of awkwardness” – the two men discovered they “talked a similar language”. The friendship thus initiated lasted until McCahon’s death in 1987, and, it isn’t too much to say, gave Brown his life’s work.
Brown was himself a painter who showed his modernist, constructed, perhaps constructivist works in the 1950s; but ceased painting some time in the next decade. Notwithstanding, it’s clear that his own profession as an artist with a pronounced theoretical approach to the making of work gave him and McCahon a common language. McCahon welcomed him as an acolyte and, as the relationship developed, trusted him in the interpretation of the paintings McCahon himself usually preferred not to explain.
Their relationship became one of artist and writer, analogous to that, say, between Max Beckman and Stephen Lackner; or, in a different way, between Philip Clairmont and myself. In such relationships a balance must be reached between uncritical admiration by the writer for the artist; and the need to temper praise with a proper understanding of what is actually going on in the work. It is clear from this collection that Brown brought considerable gifts to the relationship: the utmost fidelity; formidable recall supported by copious documentation of encounters with both man and work; obsessive research into, and reconstruction of, events and their meanings; occasional illuminations.
These qualities are best expressed in two of the most valuable essays in the book: the fifth, “McCahon in His Studio”; and the sixth, “Colin McCahon and the Theatre”. The first details how, where, when and with what McCahon actually painted; the second clarifies the theatrical nature of McCahon’s work by documenting his enthusiastic participation, most often as a stage designer, in the mechanics of live-theatre production. Neither essay is primarily interpretative; each is the product of observation and/or meticulous research. Without Brown’s dedicated and informed scrutiny, it is clear, we simply would not know what we know after reading these two essays.
The same might be said of the piece on McCahon’s early relationship with Woollaston, though here I wish Brown were more forthcoming about his evidently disenchanted view of what Woollaston went on to achieve. Another time, perhaps.
Elsewhere he concentrates on particular works or series of works, and here he is less successful in making over what he has seen or intuited from his study of their genesis, nature and provenance. This is largely due to his style of writing, which, as mentioned, is often opaque or even resistant. Yet, as I read on, I began to realise that this is not because Brown’s thought is vague or muddled, nor his opinions un- or ill-formed; it is rather that he cannot express the complexity of his views in any other way.
Furthermore, he believes that to take shortcuts or reduce to jargon would be to dishonour the work. And you can, if you are prepared to take the time, puzzle out most of his sentences; and it is worth doing so. In this respect his prose style mirrors some of the difficulties inherent in the work of the man he is writing about.
A further danger of a close writer/artist relationship is that the writer may take a proprietorial view of both man and work, and become intolerant of other interpretations. Brown is, by and large, open to the views of other commentators and often cites these alongside his own. He does, however, take issue with Marja Bloem, co-curator with Martin Browne of the 2002 show, A Question of Faith. The question here is the status of the last paintings, those which quote primarily from the New Testament’s “Letter to the Hebrews” and the Old’s Book of Ecclesiastes.
Bloem, in interview, said: “I believe in his art, but his own faith in it ultimately failed, because he stopped painting at a certain point.” Brown disputes this. He believes that those last paintings were conceived deliberately by McCahon as his final statement of matters of life-long concern; that, rather than a cry of despair followed by unwelcome silence, they are fully-formed, cognisant, coherent works of art; and as such, that the oeuvre is neither truncated nor abandoned, but complete.
Brown writes that McCahon:
had by this time become a man burdened by years of boozing, aware of the ill effects his failing memory was having on his work and … that the death of his mind would precede the death of his body. At this point he realised it was time to cease painting and that the paintings of 1979-80 would be his last.
Some of the evidence for this view comes from conversations Brown had with McCahon in the late 1970s, during which, he says, McCahon asked for his help with paintings he was stuck on. Brown, ever dutiful, always available, came and looked and spoke; but he does not claim thereby to have given McCahon any solutions. Rather, he suggests that the conversations acted as provocations in the face of which McCahon was able to reach his own conclusions.
This is a most intriguing aspect of the book, and I wanted more detail: some of the material is buried in footnotes, and all of it hedged about with Brown’s characteristic modesty with respect to himself and any influence he may have had; allied, naturally, with a retiring man’s pride in what little he may have contributed.
Meanwhile, on the question of the status of the last paintings, I am in complete agreement with him: not because of any special knowledge he (or anyone else) might have, simply because, when I saw those that appeared in A Question of Faith, they seemed to me ultimately uplifting. I remember reading every word of the last four, which use words drawn from Ecclesiastes, and then walking away as if treading on air. What Marja Bloem interpreted as personal despair, I read as accurate summation of the state of the world – a summation that led me as viewer to a position of clarity of purpose as much as vision; the despairing do not deliver those kinds of illumination.
Brown is proprietorial towards McCahon in his attitude to the latter’s drinking and, less seriously, his television watching. While it is easy to understand why he would be censorious about destructive habits in a dearly-loved friend, his condemnations have the effect of obscuring the reasons why such behaviour might have occurred in the first place. I am in broad agreement with most of Brown’s interpretations (and, in respect of his knowledge of the work, he seems more or less unassailable), but I also think there is more to say about McCahon the man; but that might require you to go into murky psychological, perhaps psychosexual, areas where Brown, who is the soul of discretion, would probably not feel comfortable.
Towards a Promised Land is handsomely designed, produced and illustrated. While many of the usual suspects make their appearance again, it is pleasing to see some lesser known paintings reproduced: for instance, the lovely A Southern Landscape, May 1950 – a work which makes me regret McCahon’s (deliberate?) suppression of his lyric capabilities in succeeding decades. The relationship between text and image has been carefully thought through, and there is a sense of easy movement between the two.
This is also a book which repays a close reading of the footnotes, which, if my suggestion of subterranean memoir makes sense, form an indispensable part of the whole.
To call someone as grand (and grandiose) as Pound a village explainer is to suggest that he hammered away about things that any intelligent person might already be expected to understand. Brown’s achievement is different: he has given us a (contestable) view of the artist alongside a portrait of the man that is not simply incontestable, it is recognisably just, tender, loving yet not blind.
As an added bonus, there is a selection in the book of Brown’s own photos, all from a session at Partridge Street in 1968. In a detail from one of these that is on the front cover McCahon, in a black-and-white checked op-art pullover, looks at once enigmatic and penetrating, soulful and vulnerable; while in the darkness of the window behind we see shadows which resemble painterly detail from one of the later canvases: as if his life and art, as Brown believes, really were one whole thing.
Martin Edmond is a Sydney reviewer. His Zone of the Marvellous was reviewed in NZB Summer 2009.