Barry Soper: Making sense of Colin McCahon

By Barry Soper

Too many words, not enough pictures says Barry Soper. Photo / Supplied
Too many words, not enough pictures says Barry Soper. Photo / Supplied

Would you sooner have a respectable house in Auckland's Ponsonby or a Colin McCahon painting?

Judging by last night's auction of the latter they'll set you back about the same. For fear of sounding like a philistine, I prefer to look at my art rather than read it and last night's offering was rather a long read, extending across eight panels which former diplomat, the late Tim Francis bought in 1969 for a mere $550.

It got me thinking about McCahons and the cynical part one of them, a well written piece called Victory Over Death, played in our political history. In fact, given the poor state of the relationship between Australia and New Zealand when the art work was gifted to Australia in 1978, and the reception the painting got, its name was a bit of a misnomer.

The old warhorse Rob Muldoon never saw eye to eye with his counterpart Malcolm Fraser, more like belt buckle to eye, given the way the Aussie politician towered over ours. Nevertheless he decided to gift the McCahon to Fraser and the job of handing it over was left to his deputy the hapless Brian Talboys, who himself admitted the painting wasn't his cup of tea.

That view was reflected by those who had to live with it on the wall in Canberra's Parliament House.

One staffer said it looked like a school somewhere had lost its blackboard, while a senator referred to it as a placard and asked whether it was Muldoon's revenge against the Australian people. Another senator called it an unsightly eyesore and asked for it to be removed so it could no longer intimidate senators.

Now that left our Prime Minister with the incredible cheek, chortling. He didn't like the McCahon either, but liked Fraser even less.

At the time Muldoon, who the Aussies liked to refer to as Piggy, confided that he knew that by giving them the painting, Talboy's visit would at least be on the front page of every newspaper in Australia - and he was right.

And the painting ensured that this country wouldn't be forgotten by the Australians, given that its main feature was two simple words - I AM.

The keen bidding at last night's auction, does raise questions over Muldoon's foresight, given that be once observed that Kiwis going to live in Australia increases the IQ of both countries.

This was most certainly a case of a Greek bearing a gift backfiring!

- NZ Herald

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