Colin McCahon

Aotearoa New Zealand, b.1919, d.1987

There is only one direction

  • N. Barrett Bequest Collection, purchased with the support of Christchurch City Council's Challenge Grant to the Christchurch Art Gallery Trust, 2011.
  • Reproduced courtesy of Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust
  • Oil on hardboard
  • 805 x 665mm
  • 2011/229
  • 1952

This pared back, strikingly modern Madonna and child was painted in the Christchurch suburb of Phillipstown where Colin McCahon, perhaps New Zealand’s most acclaimed twentieth-century artist, lived with his family between 1948 and 1953. In contrast to the typically grander, often lavish treatment of this traditional subject within art history, McCahon’s composition is personal and startlingly bare, reduced to two naked figures framed within a rough oval that emphasises their close and enduring connection. Without haloes, thrones or attending angels, their identity is alluded to only through their grave sense of purpose and the work’s uncompromising title.

McCahon gave There is only one direction to the renowned writer James K. Baxter and his wife Jacqueline, marking the friendship between the two families and McCahon’s position as godfather to their young daughter Hilary. The painting sat above Baxter’s writing desk for many years.

(Unseen: The Changing Collection, 18 December 2015 – 19 June 2016)