Kauri tree landscape by Colin McCahon


This article first appeared as 'Mighty kauris inspired McCahon' in The Press on 10 February 2015.

Just before Christmas 2013 Christchurch Art Gallery received a very welcome phone call from a lawyer in Wellington offering a Colin McCahon painting as a bequest from the estate of Jean Norrie. Leaving Kauri Tree Landscape to the Gallery was a wonderful gesture by Jean and it provides a great companion piece to another McCahon painting of the same title that came to the Gallery's collection from the Canterbury Public Library.

Kauri Tree Landscape (1955) is from McCahon's extraordinary Kauri Tree series which he completed between 1953 and 1957 when living on the edge of the Waitakere Ranges at Titirangi. McCahon's kauri paintings reflect his interest in Cubism during the 1950s. His first Cubist inspired paintings were completed here in Christchurch during the early 1950s after he had spent time studying the principles of Cubism in Melbourne under Mary Cockburn-Mercer.

At Titirangi McCahon zeroed in on the kauri trees that surrounded his house and in Kauri Tree Landscape the tall, straight trunks of the kauri dominate. They stretch up to the sky with sunlight being defused as it filters down through the branches and foliage. Shafts of light become fractured forming abstract cubist shapes as they fall through the foliage of the kauri forest.

Shortly after arriving at Titirangi from Christchurch McCahon wrote to his close friend and supporter Ron O'Reilly that he was now "the proud possessor of a house at Titirangi, a patch of native bush and about 20-odd very lovely kauri trees and a sunporch & sundeck looking right into the tops of a nikau palm grove. A lovely little beach about 200 yards away & shops & so on about 10 minutes walk up hill...We have nothing left to buy even a table let alone such luxury items as chairs. Not that that matters..."

By 1960 McCahon had left his 'magnificent' kauri trees at Titirangi for the inner-city Auckland suburb of Arch Hill. He occasionally returned to the kauri tree subject in his painting during the 1960s but never to the same extent of the kauri paintings of the 1950s.

Today McCahon's house at Titirangi is run as the McCahon House Trust and features a museum and artists' residency. Sadly McCahon's kauri trees from which he drew so much inspiration have fallen victim to kauri dieback disease. This disease has recently taken hold on kauri stands in the Waitakere Ranges and the Coromandel Peninsula to devastating effect. Kauri dieback disease is caused by a microscopic fungus that attacks the trees through the root system and can kill trees of all ages. Two of the McCahon kauris have had to be cut down while a further 23 kauri on the property have the disease and are currently being used for treatment trials. Seeds from the kauri at McCahon's house have been collected and are being grown in a quarantined nursery where research will be conducted to try to overcome the dreaded kauri dieback disease. Here's hoping a solution to this devastating disease is found swiftly and future generations can enjoy the same kauri trees that inspired McCahon in painting Kauri Tree Landscape.