Two of the greats of the New Zealand art world – artist Colin McCahon and poet James K. Baxter – were friends. And fell out. As poet Gregory O’Brien says, 'They were such big spirits, I guess they couldn’t last that long in a room together.' O’Brien, Dr Paul Millar, author, professor of English and head of the School of Humanities at the University of Canterbury, and Dr Peter Simpson, writer, critic, academic and curator, are all experts on the work and personalities of these two men. On 6 March 2016 they got together before an audience at the Gallery for a fascinating discussion about Baxter and McCahon.
Camera: Waynne Williams
Director: Liz Grant
'Pākihi is a word for a place that is bare or without trees. The Pākehā surveyors called these cleared areas parkee from the Māori word for no trees, pākihi. Kā Pākihi-Whakatekateka-A-Waitaha: the treeless place, the joyous strutting march through the treeless land of south Canterbury, Waitaha – that’s the old name for the Canterbury Plains.' —Sir Tipene O’Regan
(He Rau Maharataka Whenua: A Memory of Land, 17 September 2016 – 18 February 2017)
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)
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.
From the Sun Deck: McCahon’s Titirangi
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.
Van der Velden: Otira
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
“Once more it states my interest in landscape as a symbol of place and also of the human condition. It is not so much a portrait of a place as such but is a memory of a time and an experience of a particular place.” —Colin McCahon
(McCahon / Van der Velden, 18 December 2015 – 7 August 2016)