Listen to senior curator Justin Paton discussing Victory over death 2 by Colin McCahon. Generously provided by RDU 98.5FM
Related reading: Colin McCahon, McCahon and van der Velden
8 June 2008
Two decades after Colin McCahon's death, this touring focus exhibition brings together paintings and works on paper by one of the most widely acclaimed New Zealand artists.
What We Talk About With McCahon
Where to begin when writing or talking about Colin McCahon? I remember seeing one of his paintings for the first time, a North Otago landscape painted deep green with a sunless white sky on a piece of hardboard, hanging at the Forrester Gallery in Ōamaru while on a family trip when I was a young teenager. I felt like I recognised the landscape depicted from what I saw around me growing up, but I hadn’t seen it reduced to something so stark and primal before.
Colin McCahon’s shift to Titirangi in 1953 was a watershed moment in the artist’s career, providing the inspiration for him to develop his interest in cubism and abstraction.
To Colin McCahon
James K. Baxter’s 1952 poem ‘To Colin McCahon’ is an important marker in the long and sometimes tempestuous artistic relationship the two men shared. On an immediate level, the poem is a response to McCahon’s painting There is only one direction (1952), which he presented to Jim and Jacquie Baxter to mark the birth of their daughter Hilary after they had named McCahon her godfather.
In 2014 we purchased an important landscape work by Colin McCahon. Curator Peter Vangioni speaks about this new addition to Christchurch Art Gallery’s collection.
The way a work of art is framed affects our perception of the piece. A bad frame can detract and distract, a good frame enhances and even extends a work. While the Gallery has been closed we have updated frames for a number of works in the collection.
This article first appeared as 'Mighty kauris inspired McCahon' in The Press on 10 February 2015.
On a recent printer's residency at the Otago University's Otakou Press Colin McCahon's huge mural painting Waterfall Theme and variations dominated proceedings.
In 1958 poet and arts patron Charles Brasch, a great supporter of McCahon, said of the Titirangi works: 'These Auckland paintings seem an entirely new departure. The colour and light of Auckland are different from those of the rest of New Zealand; they are more atmospheric, they seem to have an independent, airy existence of their own, and they break up the uniform mass of solid bodies, hills or forests or water, into a kind of brilliant prismatic dance. Some of the paintings are explorations, evocations, of the kauri forest of the Waitakeres. In some you seem to be inside the forest, discovering the structure of individual trees, with their great shaft trunks, their balloon-like cones, and the shafts of light that play among them. In others you look at the forest from outside, as it rises like a wall before you, built up of cylinders and cubes of lighter and darker colour, with its wild jagged outlines against the sky.'
(From the Sun Deck: McCahon’s Titirangi, 17 September 2016 – 6 February 2017)
“‘Colour is light’ and there is no darkness at all – there is light or less light. In each part, even the darkest, there is some light and the difficulty is to get the different kinds of light showing in even quite small parts. There are no hard lines in nature – the light shines in and round everything and breaks all the hardness by modifying and diffusing the apparently sharp edges.” —Petrus van der Velden
(McCahon / Van der Velden, 18 December 2015 – 7 August 2016)
Today is the centennial of the death of one of New Zealand's most treasured artists, Petrus van der Velden.
This article appeared as 'Divine Innovation' in the The Press on 31 August 2012.
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)
After many, many months in the 'Darkness' of the empty gallery, I can think of no better words than those of Colin McCahon to signify the opening of the new gallery shop at 40 Lichfield Street.
Drop in Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, 10am-4pm Weekends
See you all soon!
An Easter-themed excerpt from an article published in 2010 in The Journal of New Zealand Art History...
Nothing made it into a W.A. Sutton painting by accident, and the white line that rises diagonally through the sky in Plantation Series II is no exception.
One of the exhibitions brought to a halt by the 22 February earthquake was De-Building, which critic Warren Feeney had described only days earlier as 'Christchurch Art Gallery's finest group show since it opened in 2003'. Seven months on, the show's curator, Justin Paton, reflects on random destruction, strange echoes, critical distance, and the 'gazumping of art by life'.
Otira: it's a state of mind
A short road trip to the Otira Gorge was the scene for a conversation between Gallery curator Peter Vangioni and two of the artists included in Van der Velden: Otira, Jason Greig and the Torlesse Supergroup's Roy Montgomery.
Van der Velden: Otira
A first encounter with a painting by Petrus van der Velden more than twenty years ago was the start of many years of research for Gallery curator Peter Vangioni. Peter is the lead author of the Gallery's new book on van der Velden, and talks here of his fascination with the artist's Otira works.
This exhibition brings together a comprehensive selection of Van der Velden's paintings portraying the wild, untouched natural beauty of the Otira region's mountainous landscape.
Fourteen artists with connections to the Mainland are represented in an exhibition that explores the dark underbelly of the region's genteel appearance.
‘As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the pure land.’ Colin McCahon quoted this text often on works between the mid-1960s and early 1970s: he took it from the writings of a twelfth-century Japanese Buddhist monk, Shinran, who was the founder of a tradition known as Pure Land Buddhism. McCahon had long been interested in light as a metaphor both for faith and enlightenment, and had begun a related series of dramatic semi-abstract waterfall paintings in 1964, in which a curve of white light cleaved through darkness. Here the landscape element has been reduced to a simple horizon, a dividing line between sky and sea, or sky and land, at the very edge of vision. (March 2018)
For the exhibition Untitled #1050 (25 November 2017 – 14 October 2018) this work was displayed with the following label:
“As a painter I may often be more worried about you than you are about me and if I wasn’t concerned I’d not be doing my work properly as a painter. Painting can be a potent way of talking.
“Do you believe in the sunrise?
“My painting year happens first in late winter and early spring. I paint with the season and paint best during the long hot summers. I prefer to paint at night or more especially in the late summer afternoons when, as the light fades, tonal relationships become terrifyingly clear.
“At night I paint under a very large incandescent light bulb. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I am only now, and slowly, becoming able to paint in the morning. After a lifetime of working – farming, factories, gardening, teaching, the years at the Auckland City Art Gallery – I find it hard to paint in the world’s usual work-time. It can be difficult to accept that painting too is work.”
—Colin McCahon, 1972
Research for the exhibition Closer (16 December 2017 – 19 August 2018) resulted in the restoration of this work's orginal title. In Dutch 'Begrafenis in den winter op het eiland Marken' and in English 'Burial in the winter on the island of Marken'.
Combining a wintry landscape with an equally bleak portrayal of loss, this painting has captivated many visitors since joining the Gallery’s collection in 1932. Small details, like snow-dusted shoes, noses red with cold, and a woman folded over by grief, are observed with such accuracy and tenderness by Petrus van der Velden that this funeral procession on an isolated Dutch island feels just as real as it looks. However, its most important figure – the reason for the gathering and for all the grief we see – remains unseen. The deceased, said to have been a drowned local fisherman, is present only in the dark shape of the coffin – and in the faces of those left behind.
(Absence, May 2023)
In April 1958 Colin McCahon travelled to the US, responding both to the expansiveness of the American landscape and to the modern American painting that he saw in museums. On his return, his works increased in scale while economising in gesture: the landscape elements of Tomorrow have been reduced to a horizon and lowering sky, with the land bisected by a grey river. He converted his Titirangi garage into a studio, and built an extra bedroom for his children underneath. The studio was gloomy – there was only one small side window for light when the garage door was closed – but it precipitated dozens of new works. Tomorrow was an unfortunate painting, said McCahon, ‘in that it wouldn’t go right, and I got madder and madder. I hurled a whole lovely quart tin of black Dulux at the board and reconstructed the painting out of the mess.’ The black paint (a commercial flooring paint, mixed with sand) dripped down the surface of the work and ran between wide cracks in the studio floorboards, ruining clothes and bed linen in his sons’ room below. He finally finished the painting in May 1959.
Colin McCahon produced his first lithograph in 1954, and in 1957 completed two suites of lithographs, including Van Gogh – poems by John Caselberg. He employed a commercial lithographer for these works with mixed results, likely due to the fact that he had little say in quality control with the printer. Nevertheless, it was ultimately a successful suite. Colin incorporated John Caselberg’s poem sequence, ‘Van Gogh’, into his drawings, writing the poem out across several sheets in his iconic handwriting, which he also usedin his paintings. Colin also worked with other print mediums, including a small potato print also in this exhibition, but it is his lithographs from the 1950s that were his most successful.
Ink on Paper: Aotearoa New Zealand Printmakers of the Modern Era, 11 February – 28 May 2023
“The greatest of all lessons is to learn to see. Many are ‘colour blind’ till they have their eyes opened to nature’s lessons, which she is always trying to teach us. But we must always tell what nature says to us, simply and directly without pretence or falsehood. Tell the Truth. Christ was the greatest artist. His words and pictures are a simple telling of nature's lessons – they are always the Truth. ‘We reason with colours. Colours are dead’, but by telling what nature teaches us the dead colours enable us to express the wonders and beauties of the Creator’s work.”
—Petrus van der Velden
(McCahon / Van der Velden, 18 December 2015 – 7 August 2016)
Petrus van der Velden valued the medium of drawing as highly as painting and was an extremely talented draughtsman. Spontaneously drawn outdoors directly before the subject, this small study shows Van der Velden’s interest in depicting dramatic, stormy atmospheric conditions with strong contrasts of light and dark. In the early 1890s, van der Velden and his family settled in Sumner, Christchurch where they stayed with the Van Asch family. Van der Velden immediately went about sketching in the region, and by the end of the year he had completed several major paintings based on Sumner scenes. Born in Rotterdam, van der Velden established himself as a painter, particularly of marine subjects, before he and his wife emigrated from Holland in 1890. He struggled to make a living in Christchurch, however, and moved to Sydney in 1898. He returned to settle in Wellington in 1904 and died in Auckland.
“For the first three days I did nothing at all but just looked, it took my breath away.” —Petrus van der Velden on his first visit to Ōtira.
Van der Velden sensed something about Ōtira that inspired him to avoid the picturesque in favour of something more powerful, and works like Mount Rolleston and the Otira River contain a great visual energy. The mountains seem to wedge into the landscape, their softness suggests a misty or rainy wind and emphasises the intense silvery light breaking the dauntingly overcast sky. A hint of blue is either a speck of hope or the last gasp of light before the storm completely envelops the land and raging river below.
(Endless Light, 29 June 2019 – 8 March 2020)
In 1958 poet and arts patron Charles Brasch, a great supporter of McCahon, said of the Titirangi works: 'These Auckland paintings seem an entirely new departure. The colour and light of Auckland are different from those of the rest of New Zealand; they are more atmospheric, they seem to have an independent, airy existence of their own, and they break up the uniform mass of solid bodies, hills or forests or water, into a kind of brilliant prismatic dance. Some of the paintings are explorations, evocations, of the kauri forest of the Waitakeres. In some you seem to be inside the forest, discovering the structure of individual trees, with their great shaft trunks, their balloon-like cones, and the shafts of light that play among them. In others you look at the forest from outside, as it rises like a wall before you, built up of cylinders and cubes of lighter and darker colour, with its wild jagged outlines against the sky.' (From the Sun Deck: McCahon’s Titirangi, 17 September 2016 – 6 February 2017)
The word ‘blind’ refers to a screen that cuts out light, but Colin McCahon also uses it to refer to an absence of vision. Questions of faith were important to McCahon and he often used references to blindness to suggest the inability to see the real essence and value of things. McCahon’s style was highly personal and distinctive. Blind V is part of a series of five works painted onto window blinds. The abstract forms have the feel of a beach and sky and it has been suggested that the ‘blindness’ which McCahon refers to was the inability of New Zealanders to really see and appreciate their own unique environment.
McCahon is regarded by many as New Zealand’s greatest contemporary artist. Born in Timaru, he studied art in Dunedin. He lived in Christchurch for a time, became keeper and assistant director at Auckland Art Gallery, then lecturer in painting at the Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, before taking up painting full time in 1970.
For the exhibition I See Red (5 December 2007 - 23 November 2008) this work was displayed with the following label: Colin McCahon’s combination of sky, sea and land is the simplest of landscapes, but by using powerful red and black, he has created a painting filled with mystery and weight.
‘Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning, Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’ goes the old saying. This could be sunset or sunrise, a perfect day to come or a perfect storm. Which would you choose?
“Colour is light, light is love and love is God and therefore on Sundays instead of going to church I teach my children drawing after nature. I have come to the conclusion that painting or drawing after nature, instead of being a luxury is the most necessary for the education of man. […] The aim of our existence is nothing else than to study nature and with so doing to understand more and more how grand and pure nature is and gives evidence of so much love.”
—Petrus van der Velden
(McCahon / Van der Velden, 18 December 2015 – 7 August 2016)
In 1958, Colin McCahon spent several months in America, visiting numerous art museums to see historical and contemporary art from the United States and Europe. Returning to a wintry Aotearoa New Zealand, he struggled to readjust. Eventually he found solace and inspiration in memories of a place very close to his heart – the wild, wind-sculpted landscape of Aotearoa’s Far North. Oil paintings were followed by a series of ink wash drawings, painted on paper spread out over the floor like a continuous, unfolding frieze. They are dark and lonely images, full of longing and a sense of return. “It’s a painful love, loving a land,” McCahon wrote. “It takes a long time.”
(Absence, May 2023)
The hot, dry nor'west winds of Canterbury produce dramatic cloud formations and an atmospheric light. Petrus van der Velden has captured these effects with what is probably Christchurch's River Avon in the foreground. He lived near the river between 1890 and 1893. The colonial woman bent over, occupied with her task of work, has echoes of his earlier Dutch paintings, which focused on Dutch peasants at work. Van der Velden painted in a realist manner, which was influenced by his association with the Dutch Hague School of painters who favoured dark sombre tones and a loose style of brushwork. The nor'west scene is created by using strong contrasts of light and shade (chiaroscuro). Born in Rotterdam, Van der Velden established himself as a painter, particularly of marine subjects, in Holland, from where he emigrated in 1890. However, he struggled to make a living in Christchurch and in 1898 went to Sydney. He returned to settle in Wellington in 1904 but died in Auckland.