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"Those so-called illustrations impress a small
world as if by the apparent use of a tarbrush.
They are deeply crude, unimpressive and illegible,
illustrations with no intrinsic beauty .. . it is
time to compare these crude illustrations with the
paintings of great artists ."
From a letter to the editor of the Greymouth Evening Star from 'Tarbrush', July 1959.1
When shown at the Symonds Street Gallery in Auckland in 1959, Colin McCahon's illustrations for John Caselberg's poem The Wake were met with a barrage of hostile criticism of which the quotation above is but one example. In retrospect critiques such as this cannot be taken seriously. McCahon is considered by many art historians and lay people to be one of the great artists of the 2oth century and for a country the size of rugby-obsessed Aotearoa/New Zealand , that is quite a coup. The very event of viewing almost any of McCahon's works is something of a miracle as one wonders how an isolated country was able to nurture an artist of McCahon's stature during the 1950s and '60s. Obviously, this was not easy and it seems probable that McCahon was to some extent motivated by opposition.
Today, however, along with artists such as C.F. Goldie and Rita Angus, McCahon's extraordinary paintings hold pride of place in Aotearoa/New Zealand 's major art galleries and museums. During his life-time he was able to achieve a profundity in his paintings that continues to escape most contemporary artists, and even long after his death he remains a controversial figure whose story is the stuff of legend . The theft of his Urewera Mural, 1975, from the Aniwaniwa Visitors Centre, 'to avenge the immorality of land confiscation', was as much a cultural issue as it was a criminal one. To be a bona fide cultural icon in Aotearoa/New Zealand one must ultimately be accepted by both Maori and Pakeha. Where the (Pakeha) artist encroaches upon Maori territory (as did McCahon and Charles F. Goldie) this appears only to happen in the fullness of time and following considerable deliberation.
As Curator Peter Simpson explains in his catalogue essay, during the early 1960s 'Caselberg had become intensely preoccupied with the impact of colonialism on the Maori'. Around the same time Maori motifs began to appear in McCahon's paintings and it is likely that this development can be attributed to his relationship with Caselberg. While today, the appropriation of Maori motifs by Pakeha artists is unacceptable, one remember that artists such as McCahon and Caselberg brought issues of colonialism to the fore long before they were fashionable. McCahon was an archetypal tormented artist and both he and Caselberg admired, and were infiuenced by, figures such as Jackson Pollock and Vincent Van Gogh. In Go/in McCahon, The Man and the Teacher, Agnes Wood makes it clear from the outset that McCahon was no angel. 'He was driven by his obsession and ambition to sacrifice his life to painting, and in doing so, he condemned himself, his wife and his family to years of poverty. He suffered degrading vilification and critical abuse, and the alcohol which was his solace eventually destroyed him .'2 Stories of his bouts of drunkenness and violent mood swings continue to frame the way McCahon is seen by his audiences.
In the light of so much having been said and written about McCahon, one is caused to wonder not only if there is anything new to add but also whether it is possible to effectively critique exhibitions such as Answering Hark at all. Consisting of paintings, wall texts, magazine covers and notebooks this exhibition records a lengthy period of bountiful collaboration between McCahon and Caselberg. Simpson has drawn largely upon the archive of the Hocken Library to put together an exhibition that is unavoidably steeped in the enduring mythology of its protagonists. The art gallery/museum style presentation of an exhibition such as this tends to heighten the awe one feels when challenged by the inspirational work for which McCahon and Caselberg are known. Here we see series of significant works such as The Wake and The Second Gate Series (or Gate 11). the latter expressing the artist's fear of nuclear warfare and offering in its 'gate' symbolism a 'way through'. This sixteen panel work of stark and visionary abstraction is one of the first to display McCahon's highly developed social conscience, and even in our 'post' Cold War times its message continues to be chilling. His ability to generate an overwhelming sense of bleakness in these paintings is equalled only by his capacity to generate a sense of hope via the open gate. Hope, however, springs eternal.
Although I have problems with reading large blocks of text on gallery walls or through the glass of vitrines one must be realistic and accept that we will not have access to objects which, over a relatively short time, have gained the exalted status of national treasures. Caselberg's contribution requires some serious concentration and on the surface, seems somewhat secondary in relation to the overwhelming efficacy of McCahon's paintings. That said, it is clear from this exhibition that McCahon and Caselberg collaborated so effectively that any attempt to distinguish their personal contributions is to deny the transparent success of their work together.
Security is a presence that distances audiences while actively enhancing the artists' mythologies. No one can leave this exhibition without the lingering impression of having seen something of enormous cultural significance. Answering Hark is a visual and cerebral journey that illustrates how time has changed the way in which we comprehend work that continues to be both innovative and challenging forty years after its creation.
1. Quoted by Agnes W ood, Colin McCahon, The Man and the Teacher, David Ling Publishing Limited, Auckland, 1997, pp. 32-33.
2. ibid. p. 9 Answering Hark is touring within New Zealand.