COLIN McCAHON: THERE IS ONLY ONE DIRECTION (VOLUME ONE 1919 - 1959)
by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $75)
Reviewed by David Herkt
To discover a newly published book that tells an essential story – coupled with handsome design and copious illustrations – is a rare thing. To find that it contains unknown perspectives and fresh information simply seals the deal.
Peter Simpson has been working towards Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction for more than two decades. Volume One has just been released; Volume Two will follow in early 2020. It will remain a fundamental work for the future.
McCahon is the quintessential New Zealand artist – a pioneering visionary and the country's only painter to have a global reputation. But Simpson reveals just how rudimentary our knowledge of the man and his works has previously been.
As he is at pains to explain, Simpson's book is not a biography of McCahon. It contains "biographical elements" – places, dates, people, trips, opinions, and jobs – but "such details are always subordinate to the art he produced".
That said, Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction is by far the most extensive "life" yet written. It demonstrates the fundamental link between an artist, his experiences and philosophy, and his consequent creative vision.
Simpson's book includes quotes from hundreds of McCahon's letters. It is the first real glimpse of his career as a painter as he saw it. Previously, his letters have been an almost untouched resource but now they are given pride of place. At one stroke, everything is changed.
"I was very lucky," McCahon wrote, "and grew up knowing I would be a painter. I never had any doubts about this." Simpson chronicles McCahon's development as an artist from his first ambition at the age of 14, through art classes and early influences. It is the story of a young man with the conviction of his calling – and how he worked single-mindedly to achieve it.
Between 1937 and 1946, McCahon spent time as a seasonal labourer in Nelson (apples, tobacco, hops), with periods of other itinerant work, while continuing his apprenticeship as an artist. His friendships with editor and poet Charles Brasch, painters like Toss Woollaston and Doris Lusk and poets like James K. Baxter would shape and influence him.
Simpson clearly demonstrates the growing relationship between a young man and his familiar landscapes, which would come to artistic fruition in the following few years. The book's large and numerous images enable the reader to follow his argument and the narrative with pleasure.
A wedding present to McCahon of C.A. Cotton's book, Geomorphology, with its photographs and diagrams, would be of immense influence. Stripped-down landforms came to expose the geological "bones" of the land in paintings that continue to fascinate contemporary viewers.
The explosion of McCahon's art in the late-1940s produced works that had their origins in both the Renaissance and comic books. Twenty years before American "pop" artists, McCahon was using speech balloons. "Eloi, Eloi, Lama, Sabachthani" announces Jesus from the cross in a white backgrounded graphic bubble.
These new religious works connected to a European tradition while putting a Kiwi spin upon it. Angels floated above Nelson hills. The crucifixion and annunciation occurred against stark, glacial landforms.
Simpson opens each chapter with an initial summary and then focuses upon the works of the period. It is a book which recounts constant change and invention. McCahon's great early achievements in landscape subjects and the paintings depicting biblical themes are entwined and assessed.
The important Takaka Night and Day (which was so large it had to be painted around the corner of the studio) is amply backgrounded by reference to McCahon's writings and statements. Simpson also convincingly argues that the enigmatic The Green Plain of 1948-49 has its roots in van Gogh. "I can never express my angels", he writes.
Then McCahon and his family moved to Auckland in 1953. Simpson records the shock of his encounter with Titirangi's regenerating kauri bush, the sea at French Bay and the forever-changing northern light. The outburst of new paintings with their dappled under-canopy of bush, the verticals of kauri, and dapples on Manukau waters will remain a cornerstone of future New Zealand art.
In 1954 came the first painting made of words – 3D lettering, out of Hollywood or display advertising. Janet Paul remarked in a review that McCahon was one of "the few painters with the character and persistence to go on thinking for years of solutions for the same problem". A visit to America opened up a host of new directions. In McCahon's subsequent works, the painted word took new dominance. There were changes in style, size, imagery and materials. His encounters with the paintings of artists like Jackson Pollock would be career-changing.
Simpson pauses in 1959 as McCahon is about to move into Grey Lynn. It is a natural division.
Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction (Volume 1) belongs in every New Zealand home. With more than 300 illustrations, it is an alluring and profound coffee-table book. But for its real readers, it will be a wonderfully responsive and permanent triumph.