With the release of Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? Vol 2 1960-1987, eight months after the first volume, it can now be seen that Peter Simpson has produced the exemplary exploration of the New Zealand painter's creative thought and career. Set in a biographical framework, Simpson's work allows the reader, for the first time, to follow and evaluate McCahon's complete achievement. It is a magnificent portrait of the man as a working artist.
The book is dramatic, plunging from the light into the darkness. It tells the story of a painter at the height of his powers and his fade to black, culminating in the two great "dark" paintings found on his studio-floor after his death. In between are the blazing reds of the "bleeding heart of Jesus" re-entering the skies above Ahipara, the subtle greys of a Muriwai beach walk with godwits; and the deep green weight of the Ureweras and all the history of that contested land.
The two-volume set is a landmark publication. Simpson's account will become standard, illuminating both the continuous development and the mature productions of the premier New Zealand artist. The exploration of McCahon's decisions reveals the considerations behind many well-known canvases, while others must now be seen in a completely new light.
Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction Vol 1, 1919-1959 was published in late 2019. It ended with a natural break – McCahon's decision to move from his home amid kauri in Titirangi to inner-suburban Grey Lynn. This creatively quiet year was the perfect intermission. McCahon would soon resign from his job at the Auckland Art Gallery to take up a teaching position at Elam School of Fine Arts. Then, in 1971, he would leave Elam to paint full-time, working on some of the largest and most important works of his career.
Volume Two, Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? 1960-1987 raises questions that are not often asked or answered in an era of personal exposé, when the tittle-tattle gossip of a painter's life is frequently given more value than his creative work. It is Simpson's skill as a writer and researcher that McCahon's painterly maturity and his artistic decisions become a suspenseful narrative, which reflects back upon the inner lives of every New Zealander.
By dealing with McCahon chronologically instead of thematically, Simpson's narrative has an organic structure and the complex interplay between the man and his creations is made clear. The two volumes are not technically a "life" of McCahon, although they contain many fresh personal revelations. McCahon's letters, fulsomely quoted, open up access to his thoughts. No other book on McCahon has mined the written archive to such effect. The letters are human, perceptive, diaristic, sometimes wry and always of interest. They deserve complete publication.
Simpson gives the reader a privileged over-the-shoulder view of the work of a man at the peak of his powers. McCahon's Victory Over Death 2 (now in the Australian National Gallery), the Urewera Mural, Walk (Series C), The Song of the Shining Cuckoo, A Letter to the Hebrews (Rain in Northland) are all fully backgrounded and described. The ability to flip between text and finely reproduced full-page images is immensely helpful. The inclusion of associated materials like photographs, gallery announcements, sketches, and relevant historic images enrichens the book and completes the reader's immersion.
McCahon's mid-career subjects, from Te Urewera to Parihaka, from Māori canoe genealogies to West Coast beaches – along with the constancy of the "despair and hope" of religion - are all fully explored. Simpson provides a guide to the creation of every key work and theme. He makes the previously unobserved note-worthy and connects his insights. McCahon, despite the continual controversies and the zig-zags of his public valuation, easily remains the single great visionary New Zealand painter.
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But Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? ultimately plays as a tragedy. The painter's decline into alcoholism and dementia is made plain in the increasing darkness of his canvases – with the caveat that McCahon's last works possess a potency akin, in some ways, to the Spanish painter Goya's final "Black Paintings" in the 1820s. They are stripped back to the bare bones and open on to the void. With its spare text from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, I considered all the acts of oppression, found face-down on McCahon's studio floor after his death in 1987, might be minimal in its simplicity but its impact is maximal.
In one of the strangest recent decisions of literary committees, Simpson's first volume did not make the list of finalists for the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, while Justin Paton's "once over lightly", essayistic McCahon Country inexplicably made the cut. The release of Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? Volume 2 simply re-emphasises this bewildering error of judgement. Simpson's readable perceptions and his ability to create an effective narrative, coupled with in-depth research and high production-values, makes his book one of the finest and most fundamental recent New Zealand art publications.
Reviewed by David Herkt
Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? Vol 2 1960-1987 (Auckland University Press, $80).