new zealand electronic poetry centre


Mark Young



let  us
one World
each   and
has      is
one,    one.

I am not a literary painter though many people think I am.

True. Colin McCahon uses words as forms. They aren’t written but constructed, with fine brushes, and lose almost all conventional associations when considered with their back-grounds. Certainly one remembers the words; but as a visual whole, in the manner in which they were painted. A parallel can be drawn with a large neon sign that stands against a distant sunset. The message, especially if it is only a single word, remains in the mind as an integral part of the landscape, a distinct form whose actual meaning is secondary to the part it plays in the scene as a whole.

Yet it is these verbal paintings (including those whose titles are incorporated) which perhaps provide the gate — a way through — to the man and to the many and varied landscapes that constitute the bulk of his work. In the early days of Japanese cinema there were commentators called benshi who were employed to provide narration for silent films and, if the film was foreign, to explain certain points that were unfamiliar to the audience. Certainly the film could be appreciated on its own, but the benshi, with his skilful commentary, increased the impact and understanding of it.

So, too, with McCahon. Certain paintings and titles throw extra light on his work, increasing both appreciation and understanding of it; and his work in general increases both appreciation of our landscape and of our predicament.

We are popularly supposed to live in a narrow and isolate land, but a land that, due partially to these physical limitations, is some kind of Utopia. This utopia myth is not, of course, confined solely to New Zealand, for as Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes about his country:

I have read the Reader’s Digest
from cover to cover
and noted the close identification
of the United States and the Promised Land.....

Yet to McCahon this can be the Promised Land although his vision of it is entirely different to that which suffers Ferlinghetti’s cynicism. It is not the precious Utopia that politicians think they have developed and that many people think they inhabit, and, more specifically, it is neither narrow nor isolate. McCahon has shown the fallacy of popular thought by laying bare the land in all its actual and terrifying immensity by exposing the external menaces and pressures that erase all pretence of isolation; and yet, though he has removed our supposed Utopia, he was awakened us to the promise that our land holds.

The gap between the vision and the realisation of it is as large as the land, but the land, although at times and in places a landscape with too few lovers or where God, it is all dark. The heart beat but there is no answering hark of a hearer and no one to speak is rarely without hope. There are constant reminders of this in McCahon’s work. His titles — Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is and On building bridges; the exhilaration of a waterfall in its ambiguously black surroundings; the almost metaphys-ical conceit of demonstrating that this land can bear the weight of the Crucifixion and everything that it promises. The body of Christ is laid to rest amongst New Zealand hills; it is only natural that his resurrection will occur here too.

Even in his occasional periods of apparent disillusionment — the Elias paintings and those entitled Was this the promised land for example — his optimism for mankind’s future is still evident. And evident too is his innate honesty which compels him to stay with that which means most to him no matter what the consequences, be they personal doubts or public criticism.

A painting such as Here I give thanks to Mondrian is also a result of this honesty. It is only to be expected that painters should learn from other painters, and yet it is rare to see such a natural, honest and, primarily, personal expression of gratitude. Too often we see influences as copies, gimmicky pastiches of contemporary trends where only the surface aspects have been touched upon. There is none of this in McCahon’s work. He has gone deep into Mondrian — got behind him to see what’s going on are his words — and from this has learned and absorbed certain formal aspects of painting. Not only that: through McCahon we achieve new insight into Mondrian and can better appreciate his work.

There are other painters who have had some influence on McCahon’s work — the early Italians (especially Giotto whose frescoes of scenes from the lives of the saints are comparable to the Northland Panels, The Gate series and the Numbers of McCahon in that each fresco cycle should be regarded as a single work and not as a collection of individual paintings), Tessai, Cezanne — but his love of the landscape, his hope for man-kind’s future and his intense humanism still remain the primary influences.

His paintings, by giving us new insight into its incredible beauty, have restored the dignity of the land. They are evidence of the progress he has made in the realisation of his vision of tomorrow, a vision and a conviction comparable to that which William Blake expresses in the last stanza of Jerusalem. That such a painter could emerge from this land is, in itself, sufficient evidence of the promise the future holds.

Mark Young
Barry Lett Gallery Newsletter, 5 August 1965


Last updated 21 March, 2004