Colin McCahon

Fri, 23/02/2018 - 06:46 -- eyeline
On going out with the tide

Colin McCahon: On Going Out with the Tide, held at City Gallery Wellington, is the first major exhibition of the artist’s work since the Stedelijk Museum’s Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith in 2002. Whereas A Question of Faith sought to position McCahon as a significant modernist artist worthy of attention in an international sphere,1 On Going Out with the Tide locates him squarely within the New Zealand context—these works could not have been made anywhere else. However, this is not the ‘regionalist’ McCahon of the early landscape paintings or religious subjects placed in what are seen as identifiably New Zealand settings. Instead, On Going Out with the Tide shows us McCahon coming to terms with imagery, histories and concepts of significance to Māori.

The exhibition is organised in five sections which guide visitors on a path through time, place and the artist’s growing understanding of Maoritanga. There is also an introductory ‘documents gallery’. Let us pause there for a moment and take in a large photograph of two young Māori men, Lionel and Ray Skipper, in work gear and muddy gumboots, hesitating in the doorway of Peter McLeavey’s dealer gallery in 1975, with McCahon’s painting A Poster for the Urewera No. 2 on the wall beside them. In an exhibition that seeks to interrogate McCahon’s work in the context of ‘a tectonic shift in New Zealand culture—emerging biculturalism’,2 this image remains revealing and pertinent.

In the first of the exhibition’s five sections,  the painting Io, in which the letters I and O are positioned above a cave-like black void, and the all-black Journey into a Dark Landscape No. 2 (both 1965) bespeak an artist exploring something only half seen and half understood. We also see him experimenting with the koru form,3 often in relation to letters or numerals. McCahon seems to have comprehended the life-force with which Māori imbued the koru, yet his use of the motif addresses that only occasionally. One particularly jarring instance is to be found in some of his studies for an unrealised mural in the foyer of the Caltex Oil building in Auckland, in which the letters of ‘Caltex’ are elaborated with the familiar curliques of the koru. Today, given Māori involvement in environmental activism against offshore oil drilling, fracking and the like, using the koru in association with a multinational oil company name seems inconceivable; but this was the 1960s and the political landscape in respect of Māori-Pākehā relations has changed dramatically.

Since then the appropriation of Māori content by non-Māori (Pākehā) artists has been the subject of much debate. The use of the koru was something of a touch-paper in this argument. Gordon Walters’s hard-edge koru paintings, in particular, came in for strenuous criticism from commentators like Ngahuia te Awekotuku and Rangihiroa Panoho. Panoho, however, embraced McCahon as an artist ‘who put … uniquely Māori qualities at the centre of his vision of this country’, with ‘an empathy for Māori concepts and approaches’.4

Te Awekotuku also challenged McCahon’s appropriation of Māori language (te reo) and genealogy. At the 1986 National Criticism Symposium and in a subsequent interview, she spoke specifically about his painting The Canoe Tainui (1969), which details the whakapapa (genealogy) stemming from the waka (canoe) that brought the Tainui people from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. Te Awekotuku acknowledged that the text McCahon used was readily available in various publications but contrasted that with ‘the immediate, visual, strong, forceful, right-across-the-wall impact of a huge painting … we’re looking at that point, too, at the difference … between the literary art form and the visual … And a painting is a hell of a lot more powerful!’5 It seems that te Awekotuku was unaware (as were her interviewers) that McCahon’s motivation for writing Tainui whakapapa so large was the birth in 1968 of a grandchild who was, through his father, Ken Carr, of Tainui descent. At this distance it is unclear whether or not this would have affected her judgement of the work. What is clear is that McCahon viewed the work as personal and familial, one of several he made ‘for Matiu Carr, our grandson …’.6

The Canoe Tainui and a second whakapapa painting, The Canoe Mamari, are included in the second section of On Going Out with the Tide. McCahon took the texts from a small, recently published book by Matire Kereama, titled The Tail of the Fish: Maori Memories of the Far North, given to him by his older daughter Catherine.7 The publication also includes historical accounts and personal reminiscences and was the wellspring for a significant group of word paintings made in 1969, in which we see McCahon grappling with questions of mortality, immortality and regeneration, as he had in the ‘Elias’ paintings of 1959 and would continue to do. Here, drawing on Kereama’s writing, he approaches those questions through Māori beliefs in the afterlife.

O Let Us Weep sets a Māori proverb lamenting the finality of death (‘Me tangi kapa ko te mate e te marama’; ‘O let us weep for ours is not the death of the moon’) against the possibility of—and doubt about—resurrection: ‘and he said I am the resurrection and I am the life if a man has faith in me, even though he die he shall come to life … Do you believe this?’ In contrast, the painting On Going out with the Tide draws on the Māori belief that the spirit of the departed journeys to the far north, where it will leap into the afterlife: ‘When I was a child no person died without first asking about the state of the tide, whether it was full or low. People always liked to die at low tide because the tide had to be completely out to enable them to reach Te Rerenga Wairua, “The Leaping Place of Spirits”, in the Far North. This is a large hole at the bottom of the sea which is exposed at low tide, permitting the spirits to go inside.’8 In his painting McCahon includes the proverb ‘Einga atu ana he tetekura. E ara mai ana he tetekura’ (‘When one generation falls, another rises’), which connects the work to the two whakapapa paintings and to later works in the exhibition.

The third section focuses on a specific place—Muriwai Beach, north of Auckland, where McCahon built a large studio in 1969. The subject of the soul’s passage north is further explored in The Days and Nights in the Wilderness showing the Constant Flow of Light Passing into a Dark Landscape (1971), which McCahon inscribes: ‘NINETY MILE BEACH WITH HAUMU HILL’, both places being waypoints on the route taken by the journeying spirit. It is there too in the four ‘Jet Out’ drawings (1973) in which a jet plane taking off is also a cross, symbol of death and resurrection. Christian teaching and Māori cosmology also unite, along with references to the natural world, in The Song of the Shining Cuckoo (1974) in which McCahon represents the flight of the bird and the soul by a wavering horizontal line of dots that traverses five canvases divided into fourteen ‘views’, referencing the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. The work, like the accompanying Series D (Ahipara) (1973), is an example of McCahon’s concept of a painting as a walk through—or along—a landscape. It is in landscape that this third gallery is anchored, be it in the artist’s concern for the fragility of the coastline and the birds that nest on the cliffs or in his second grandson’s response to Muriwai, in the uncharacteristically playful Tui Carr Celebrates Muriwai Beach (1972).

In the final two galleries there is a noticeable shift in tone. As a result of two major commissions McCahon moves from his largely subjective exploration of Maoritanga into the political and historical realm, from a personal response to the natural environment to the Māori concept of whenua or land.

In 1972 he was invited to produce a work for an exhibition titled Taranaki Saw it All: the Story of Te Whiti o Rongomai of Parihaka, held at the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery. One of the more fruitful outcomes of Māori interaction with the Christian missionaries who arrived in the nineteenth century was the way in which certain Māori leaders adapted the teachings of the Bible to prophesy deliverance for their own people in the face of colonisation and the resulting loss of land, sovereignty and mana. Two of these spiritual leaders were Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, the great prophets of Parihaka Pā near the coast of Taranaki, who preached a message of active but peaceful resistance to the British forces who attempted to take over their lands. After years of deliberate provocation on the part of the British and measured defiance by Te Whiti’s and Tohu’s followers, Parihaka was invaded on 5 November 1881. Te Whiti and Tohu were arrested along with many others and, as one Māori Member of Parliament, Hori Kerei Taiaroa, scathingly described, Te Whiti was to be taken around the South Island ‘and have exhibited to him all the ornaments of the Europeans and the wonders to be seen there, with the object of enlarging his mind’.9

In the two Parihaka works included here, McCahon enigmatically reworks this phrase as ‘an ornament for the Pākehā’. He places it in conjunction with a fallen cross, one of its arms plunged into the ground or into darkness. It seems a cross too heavy to bear, and Jonathan Mané-Wheoki has persuasively proposed that it stands ‘ominously for war and violence.’10 Some years later McCahon wrote ‘I hope my cross for the [Pākehā] … annoyes [sic] some people & could restore faith to some others.’11

In its upright form, the cross at the centre of the Parihaka Triptych (1972) is a symbol of hope and salvation, as well as ‘a monument to Te Whiti’. In some of the studies for the Triptych McCahon experimented with the image of Mount Taranaki, but in the finished work he uses the same armoury as Te Whiti—words, including Te Whiti’s own, and the Christian message—to produce one of his most compelling and moving paintings.12

The final section of the exhibition is devoted to the Tūhoe people and their land, Te Urewera, a place of dense forest, waterfalls, lakes and mist. In 1974 McCahon was commissioned to paint a mural for the Urewera National Park Board’s new visitor centre. Like Parihaka, Te Urewera had its spiritual leaders. Te Kooti Arikirangi was a complex figure, a wily and determined warrior who founded the Ringatū church, based on Christian scripture. Rua Kenana claimed to be his successor and created a community close to the sacred mountain of Maungapōhatu, deep in Te Urewera. Both these visionaries are honoured in the Urewera Mural and in the markedly different full-size ‘painted drawing’ for the work, the Urewera Triptych (both 1975); and Rua is also acknowledged here in A Song for Rua, Prophet (Dreaming of Moses) (1979).

The Urewera Triptych, a powerful and monumental black and white composition of abstract forms and words, dominates this gallery. In contrast to the Urewera Mural, with its flat-topped mountains and deep green ground from which barely visible text emerges, landscape is represented in the Triptych only by lightly brushed bands of intense viridian. The Urewera Mural is not on show, and with good reason. The Mural was known in the art world, albeit largely through reproductions and critical analysis, as one of McCahon’s greatest paintings, a profoundly sacramental response to the mystery of Te Urewera. It achieved a very different status and made headline news in June 1997 when Tūhoe activists removed it from the visitor centre in the dead of night. They described their actions as a ‘confiscation’, a lesson in how it feels to have one’s taonga (cultural treasures) stolen.13 The work was returned more than a year later. Tūhoe have now claimed the Urewera Mural as their own. The painting was part of their Treaty of Waitangi negotiations with the Crown and in 2015 it was installed at Tūhoe’s new cultural centre, Te Kura Whare at Tāneatua. They chose not to part with it for the exhibition where it is represented only by a small colour photograph. Its absence is both telling and fitting.

Other works in this section include A Poster for the Urewera No.1 and No. 2 (both 1975) as well as McCahon’s response to the photograph of Lionel and Ray Skipper we saw earlier: Am I Scared (1976). The colloquialism of the text: ‘AM I Scared Boy (EH)’ might seem somewhat patronising, but it is countermanded by the words ‘Cry for me’ at the bottom of the work. And who is scared here? McCahon increasingly knew he was taking risks in delving into Maoritanga. He wrote to Peter McLeavey about showing the Urewera Mural to the National Park Board and Māori elders, ‘I got scared’;14 and Geoff Park notes: ‘The paint on Urewera Mural was barely dry when he was observing how “everyone is getting scared about it.”’15 Today, despite many major advances, New Zealand’s bicultural model remains fraught, the road to ‘cultural safety’ an uncertain and shifting one. And that photograph—well, it could have been taken yesterday.

The exhibition curators describe McCahon’s ‘knowledge and understanding of Māori culture [as] partial and piecemeal.’16 Yet On Going Out with the Tide shows the artist’s growing grasp of Maoritanga both through personal connections and genuine attempts at comprehending a culture he acknowledged he was not part of. From the Caltex works with their decorative and inapposite use of the koru to the emotional and spiritual depth of the Parihaka Triptych and the Urewera Mural is a significant journey; and that those two ‘history paintings’ are ‘owned’ in every sense by the communities to and about whom they speak17 is a testament to the degree to which McCahon achieved the insight for which he strove.

Lionel and Ray Skipper with Colin McCahon's A Poster for the Urewera No. 2, 1975 at Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, December 1975. Photograph Don Roy. Fairfax Media NZ/Dominion Post

The Days and Nights in the Wilderness Showing the Constant Flow of Light Passing into a Dark Landscape, 1971. Acrylic on unstretched canvas, 2360 x 1840mm. Collection Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth. Images courtesy Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust

Urewera Triptych, 1975. Also known as A Painted Drawing for the Mural. Acrylic on three unstretched canvases, 2520 x 5370mm. Courtesy Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland;

The Song of the Shining Cuckoo, 1974. Acrylic on five unstretched canvases, 1770 x 4511mm. Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago, Dunedin;


1. A Question of Faith subsequently toured to City Gallery Wellington, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
2. Wystan Curnow and Robert Leonard, Colin McCahon: On Going Out with the Tide, City Gallery Wellington, 2017, unpaginated.
3. The koru represents the unfurling fern frond and is extensively used in traditional Māori art including carving, kowhaiwhai or rafter painting, and tā moko or facial tattooing. The Air New Zealand logo is based on the koru, which has also been widely used by other organisations as well as by contemporary Māori and non- Māori artists.
4. Rangihiroa Panoho, ‘Māori: At the centre, on the margins’, Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art, Mary Barr (ed), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1992, pp.123-134 [127]. Panoho offered a similar view of Theo Schoon’s use of Māori imagery. Perhaps it was the precise, inexpressive, even mechanical appearance of Walters’s koru paintings that contributed to the view that he was unsympathetic to Māori values.
5. ‘Ngahuia te Awekotuku in conversation with Elizabeth Eastmond and Priscilla Pitts’, Antic 1, June 1986, pp.44-55 [49]. It seems no transcript of her paper for the National Criticism Symposium exists. The symposium was organised by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand in association with the National Art Gallery of New Zealand.
6. Colin McCahon, letter to Peter McLeavey, July 1969.
7. Matire Kereama, The Tail of the Fish: Maori Memories of the Far North, Oswald-Sealy (N.Z.) Ltd, 1968. City Gallery Wellington in association with Ilam Press has published a facsimile edition to accompany the exhibition. In Māori legend the North Island of New Zealand is the fish hauled up by the great ancestor Maui (the South Island is his canoe). The far north forms the tail of the fish.
8. Matire Kereama, ibid, p.74.
9. Cited in John Caselberg (ed), Maori is my Name: Historical Maori Writings in Translation, John McIndoe Limited, 1975, p.130. James Mack, who organised Taranaki Saw it All, sent McCahon a copy of the text before the book was published.
10. Jonathan Mané-Wheoki, ‘An Ornament for the Pākehā: Colin McCahon’s Parihaka Triptych’, Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance, Te Miringa Hohaia, Gregory O’Brien and Lara Strongman (eds), City Gallery Wellington, Victoria University Press, Parihaka Pā Trustees, 2001, pp.129-137 [134].
11. Colin McCahon to Ron O’Reilly, 18 July 1977. Cited in Mané-Wheoki, ibid, p.136.
12. ‘Te Whiti has always said that he did not care to fight … He has no arms at all, no powder. His tongue and his voice are the only weapons he uses …’. Hemare Tomoana speaking in Parliament, 16 July 1880, cited in John Caselberg, (ed), op. cit., p.132.
13. Tūhoe lost large areas of their land to the Crown in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As part of their Treaty of Waitangi settlement, Te Urewera’s National Park status was disestablished and it is now jointly managed by Tūhoe and the New Zealand Government.
14. Colin McCahon, cited in Curnow and Leonard, ibid.
15. Geoff Park, ‘After the Scene, After the Fever’, Theatre Country: Essays on Landscape and Whenua, Victoria University Press, 2006, pp.96-112 [111].
16. Curnow and Leonard, ibid.
17. McCahon gifted the Parihaka Triptych to the people of Parihaka; but, he insisted, only if they wanted it. It is housed at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth.

Colin McCahon: On Going Out with the Tide was shown at City Gallery Wellington, 8 April to 30 July 2017.

Priscilla Pitts is a Wellington-based writer and curator. She was formerly director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.