McCahon Country by Justin Paton (Penguin Random House NZ, in association with Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki), 304 pp., $75
This year is the centenary of the birth of Colin McCahon, and among the publications celebrating that event is Justin Paton’s McCahon Country. It is not the only one. The first of Peter Simpson’s two-volume chronicle of McCahon’s life and work will be published in October 2019, with the second to follow in June next year; and Wystan Curnow’s long-delayed opus is also rumoured to be coming out in 2020. None of these books is, or will be, properly speaking, a biography. Indeed, three decades after his death, we still lack a comprehensive life of the artist. Gordon Brown’s Colin McCahon: Artist, first published in 1984, is more an elucidation of the work than of the man; as is Simpson’s work; as Curnow’s presumably will be. As Justin Paton’s book, with qualifications, also is.
This is the way McCahon wanted it to be. He was deliberately elusive as a biographical subject, a moving target you might say, keeping one step ahead of pursuit and pursuers. He was notoriously difficult to photograph, gnomic or contradictory in his public utterances, with a compulsion to keep his personal life private. All of this was in the service of the work, for which he had impossibly exalted ambitions, and to which he dedicated his time and energy, his skill and commitment, his hard-won wisdom and well-protected naivety, his extraordinary visual acuity: all his attributes and deficits as an artist and a man.
In an age as prurient as ours, this strategy is bound to attract the attention it was designed to deflect; and so everyone who writes about McCahon has to confront the question of his privacy, the relation between his life and his work, even the veracity of the biographical approach to art history: something so ingrained it seems peculiar when we do not find the work explained by the life; or, alternatively, the life explained by the work. McCahon’s intuition – that this was a trap he was not going to fall into – remains exemplary. It is part, though only a part, of his solitary grandeur as an artist.
Justin Paton’s approach to the subject is elegant and innovative. He has made a book consisting of thirteen – perhaps fifteen – short essays, each of which examines an aspect of the McCahon oeuvre that is then illustrated, beautifully, in the succeeding pages. The titles, all nouns, seem to tell a story of their own: ‘Land’, ‘Valley’, ‘Bridge’, ‘Bush’, ‘Road’, ‘Word’, ‘Light’, ‘Sky’, ‘Guide’, ‘Veil’, ‘Night’, ‘Whenua’, ‘Fire’ (note the inclusion of both ‘Land’ and ‘Whenua’). These are framed, as it were, by an intro and an outro called, respectively, ‘Here’ and ‘There’.
This structure allows Paton to consider the work in a chronological fashion without confining him to the limits of chronology. His discussion of the late (1978–79) series, Truth from the King Country: Load-bearing structures, for example, from which the splendid cover image comes, finds its place in the third section, ‘Bridge’: an error, I thought, on first sight; but on consideration, not. They are paintings of viaducts in the bush, especially that area around the western flanks of Ruapehu, with the massive interdiction, or gate, of a black tau cross standing before the ochre and dark-green hills. Bridge and gate, it turns out, are commanding metaphors of the McCahon enterprise.
Paton is a stylish and graceful writer. His sentences are luminous, insightful, free of the clotted jargon that afflicts so much art writing these days. He is well read, intellectually astute, emotionally intelligent; able to move from the particular to the general, from the first person to the third, from landscape to painting with a swiftness and economy that are always illuminating. Fragments of his own life story enter the text, unobtrusively, and never for their own sake. He is a fine observer of landscape, and some of his best passages of writing occur when he recounts his visits to places McCahon has painted.
The other outstanding attribute of this book is the choice of works. Given the amount of exposure the McCahon oeuvre has had – in retrospectives and catalogues as much as in books – we might think we know it well, at least in general outline. Paton’s selection uncovers overlooked gems, such as, in the section ‘Veil’, what he calls ‘the strangest and sparest drawings Colin McCahon ever made’. They are of mist, rain, fog, and seaweed on the beach at Muriwai. The real subject of these works is, however, he ventures, ‘the bare and receding beauty of the world seen in the light of our inevitable mortality’.
This is one example out of many: in each of the thirteen sections are hitherto obscure works that must now become part of the canon. See for instance the two Urewera paintings, loaded up with sawdust and sand, courtesy of Buster Black, which begin the illustrations in ‘Whenua’. The same may be said, inter alia, about the first volume of Peter Simpson’s diptych which, although its selections are chronologically bound and therefore more precisely determined, also illustrates works many of us will not have seen before. McCahon turns out to have been an artist more prolific, and more unusual, than we knew.
And more enigmatic too. Recently I came across a list, compiled in 1972 with theatre director Chris Cathcart, of ten writers McCahon admired: Yuan Mei, G.M. Hopkins, John Caselberg, Peter Hooper, R.A.K. Mason, M.K. Joseph, Frank Sargeson, Roger McGough, D’Arcy Creswell and Matire Keremea. Some of those names are familiar; some are quoted in the works; others are more surprising. Yuan Mei (1716–1797) was a painter-poet of the Qing dynasty and also a writer on food; Roger McGough, a Liverpudlian poet, was a member of the band Scaffold which had a hit in 1968 with ‘Lily the Pink’. Of the non-New Zealand writers on that list, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ name is the most resonant. He was, McCahon often said, his favourite poet.
Hopkins was a closet writer, a Jesuit priest, a professor of classics: a divided soul. The conflict between his religious belief and his literary talent made him feel he had failed at both worship and composition. McCahon was as conflicted; he never resolved the dilemma between faith and doubt, or between art and life. Between beauty and terror, joy and pain. Paton is staunch in his intent to show how the artist used these dilemmas as an engine for his work; also in his explication of the ways in which McCahon’s paintings point beyond themselves to similar dilemmas in the lives of those who are their presumed, or actual, audience.
Paton is also perceptive in his understanding of the relationships that exist between particular McCahon paintings, or series of paintings, and the landscapes they were made in or about. This is a tricky subject. McCahon landscapes, especially in the latter part of his career, are syncretic not representational, while retaining the artist’s preternatural ability to depict details of rain, wind, cloud, skies, seas and hills, the white light behind the horizon that glows in even the darkest paintings.
McCahon’s reticence about the particulars of his life may not have been simply because he wanted people focus upon his work; it is also possible that he felt those conflicts that drove his art were somehow shameful; that they arose, in W.B. Yeats’ words, ‘in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. Another virtue of Paton’s book is its tact; aware of the desperation that lies behind much of McCahon’s work, Paton lets that knowledge inform his discussions of the paintings without seeking validation in biography. Impeccably documented, this is the best introduction we have had so far to the thematics of an extraordinary oeuvre.
William Blake in the notes to his lost painting, A Vision of the Last Judgment (1808), wrote:
All life consists of these two: throwing off error and knaves from our company continually, and receiving truth or wise men into our company continually. He who is out of the Church and opposes it is no less an agent of religion than he who is in it: to be an error, and to be cast out, is a part of God’s design. No man can embrace true art till he has explored and cast out false art (such is the nature of mortal things); or he will be himself cast out by those who have already embraced true art.
This is as succinct and poignant a summary of McCahon’s dilemma as I have read. Colin McCahon’s resolutions of it took place in art but never, it seems, in life; as in a Greek tragedy, he was consigned from birth to a kind of perdition – the solitary confinement, he said, of a painter’s life. It is rare to come across a person who may be an impossible subject for biography, but McCahon is one. Who would dare? Nevertheless, if you read between the lines of Justin Paton’s excellent book, you will find a tender and loving portrait of the man, alongside a fierce and just account, full of lovely surprises, of the work he accomplished.
MARTIN EDMOND was born in Ohakune, New Zealand, and now lives in Sydney, Australia. His most recent book is Isinglass, a ficcione about a refugee (UWA Publishing, Perth, 2019). His illustrated memoir of Red Mole theatre, Bus Stops on the Moon, is due out in 2020.