The controversial art of Colin McCahon - revered and reviled in equal measure throughout his life and since his death - returns from Holland this weekend with the opening of A Question of Faith at Wellington's City Gallery.

The exhibition - which this book documents in lavish detail - was curated by Marja Bloem for the prestigious Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. With this well-produced (and reasonably priced) book now available, New Zealand and Australian audiences are better served than the Dutch who had to deal with McCahon's idiosyncratic and challenging art virtually unaided. One wonders what they made of it.

Not yet having seen the exhibition, I must confine my remarks to the book. There is much to praise and inevitably some questions to be raised.

A Question of Faith has three main parts; the first is illustrated essays by Rudy Fuchs (Stedelijk director), Marja Bloem, William McCahon (the artist's eldest son), Murray Bail (Australian novelist) and Auckland art writer Francis Pound. The centrepiece of the book is full-page colour reproductions of all the 78 paintings exhibited. The third part is documentation of McCahon's career by Steven Miller, Martin Browne and Marja Bloem, made up of a lengthy chronology, a detailed bibliography and a comprehensive list of exhibitions.

It is something of a surprise to find Sydney art dealer Martin Browne's name with Marja Bloem's on the title page. Sixteen of the works in the catalogue are described as "Courtesy of Martin Browne Fine Art, Sydney" including those on the front band and back cover. What this means is nowhere explained; presumably these are works that Browne either owns or sold.

It is unusual for an art dealer to have such an intimate role in a museum-generated exhibition and book.

The reproductions are generally of excellent quality and are the largest set of images of McCahon's work yet available. Usefully, where text is used extensively on a painting (as with biblical texts or the Maori text of The Lark's Song) a full transcript is provided. Apart from the exhibited paintings, around 50 other works (plus many photographs) are reproduced within the text.

The exhibition does not aim to be comprehensive; as the title suggests it places emphasis firmly on the spiritual/existential dimension of McCahon's work.

The biblical narrative paintings of the 1940s, the Elias series of 1959, the huge written paintings from the New English Bible around 1970, and the last paintings with pessimistic texts from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes - these are the focal points of the selection.

Many famous works that do not fit with this governing theme are left out - the Otago Peninsula paintings, Takaka night and day, On Building Bridges, Northland panels, The Wake, The Second Gate Series, Landscape theme and variations, The Parihaka triptych, and Urewera Mural, for example. Fortunately, most are reproduced in the book.

The exhibition/book's agenda is laid out in the essays, especially those by Marja Bloem and William McCahon.

Bloem writes: "Virtually to a man, critics and art historians have approached the subject from a secular, humanist, liberal position."

McCahon adds: "The works have frequently been judged solely on an aesthetic or art-historical basis by those who ... have tended to dismiss this unique visual symbolic commentary."

This is bound to be the most disputatious aspect of this generally impressive project, but without controversy, the spirit of Colin McCahon would surely be absent.

Stedelijk Museum/Craig Potton


* Peter Simpson is the author of Answering Hark: McCahon/Caselberg: Painter/Poet.