Colin McCahon

Colin McCahon (1919-1987) is widely regarded as the most influential New Zealand artist of the twentieth century. In a career spanning almost fifty years, until his death in Auckland in 1987, McCahon developed a profoundly personal visual language that traversed vast thematic and stylistic terrain – including landscape, figuration, abstraction and the overlay of painted text. Driven by an deep desire to communicate messages, McCahon sought to reveal the cultural and spiritual forces that bind people to each other and to particular places.

To coincide with the centenary of McCahon’s birth, ‘Colin McCahon: Letters and Numbers’ draws from the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Collection and private loans to explore the artist’s singular vision, characteristic use of painted text, unique adoption of aspects of international modernism, and his relentless exploration of faith and doubt. Although McCahon was not affiliated with any particular religious order, he made extensive use of Christian symbolism –as well as Māori spirituality – in his work, exploring the incessant duality of faith and doubt. Another key element of his practice spotlighted in the exhibition is McCahon’s belief in the expressive potential of numbers and words.

Artist Profile caught up with Curator Jane Devery to chat about the significance of McCahon’s contribution to the fabric of twentieth century art in New Zealand and abroad.

The exhibition includes all works by McCahon in the NGV Collection. How have you approached the curation of this presentation?
2019 is the centenary of the birth of Colin McCahon, so we were keen to do something to mark the occasion. The NGV has small but significant holdings of the artist’s work: 6 works in total that range in date from 1965 until 1982, including one of the very last paintings McCahon made. We also had access to an important private collection in Melbourne who generously lent several other works to the exhibition.  The exhibition represents the first time these works have been shown together. It’s a small exhibition but it contains key works from an important period in the artist’s career and provides an opportunity to consider some of the ideas that preoccupied him throughout his life such as his interrogation of the concepts of faith and doubt and his distinctive use of painted text.

The show provides insights into the artist’s early connection with the NGV Collection. In what ways does this speak to the importance of museum collections and the role they play for artists?
McCahon’s first trip outside New Zealand was to Melbourne in 1951 to study paintings in the NGV collection. It proved to be a pivotal moment in his career. We have included in the exhibition a facsimile of an artist book that McCahon made as a gift for his friend the poet Charles Brasch who funded McCahon’s trip. Brasch was an ardent supporter of McCahon and believed he should travel to Melbourne to experience first-hand old master paintings in the NGV collection. We have also included in the exhibition the only existing audio interview with McCahon where he talks about his ideas and mentions his time in Melbourne. The NGV’s extensive collection has always been – and continues to be – an important resource and source of inspiration for artists. We know that McCahon responded to certain works in the collection by Titian, Turner, Pissaro and Cezanne, but it was his interaction with the artist Mary Cockburn-Mercer, an Australian Cubist who had lived in Paris in the early 20th century, that was perhaps more influential. McCahon took painting classes with Cockburn-Mercer in her Bourke St studio and together they visited the NGV, looking closely at the works in the collection. One gets a sense that they were kindred spirits who enjoyed debating the merits of various works in the collection.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the exhibition?
We hope that audiences enjoy the opportunity to reflect on Colin McCahon’s unique vision and important contribution to twentieth century painting. McCahon famously once described his paintings as ‘signs and symbols for people to live by’. This exhibition considers his distinctive use of words and numbers in particular, and highlights the artist’s relentless exploration of some of the big questions in life including spirituality and the concepts of faith and doubt.

Colin McCahon: Letters and Numbers
14 November – April 2020
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

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