This intense, early landscape painting by New Zealand artist Colin McCahon compliments my previous post about McCahon’s later text paintings. McCahon divides the space in this painting according to at least three different conceptual models: spiritually, based on the Biblical six days of creation; phenomenologically, based on his snapshot visual observations of the New Zealand countryside as he traveled it by bicycle; and pictorially, puncturing the painting’s surface with the spaces of six different landscape views.
Below are several different commentaries that each shed light on this remarkable painting straddling the conceptual border lands between representation and abstraction, symbol and sensation, theology and phenomenology, memory and perception.
Monotonous Cumulative Grandeur, Like Bach
“This painting I never explain but am often asked to. To me it explains itself. It was, I suppose, reconciling gains and losses, stating differences, hills and horizons. Simple. A bit of blood shed in the middle.” Colin McCahon is an outstanding figure in New Zealand art of the twentieth century. He was a great painter and a profound thinker as well as a teacher, critic and curator for ten years at this Gallery. In the 1940s the hills of Nelson and Canterbury were a familiar environment for McCahon, travelling to and from fruit-picking work. The fragmentary landscapes suggest glimpses flashing past the window of a bus or train, essentially similar, yet with varying moods. In response to a comment that New Zealand’s hills were monotonous, McCahon replied, “Monotonous yes, but with a cumulative grandeur, like Bach.” The “six days” in the title echoes the Old Testament six days of creation, before the arrival of humanity. McCahon extracts an austere beauty from these low hills, and at the centre of the painting he places water and the “bit of blood” spilt – symbols of grace and redemption. A beautiful, contemplative work, and one of the outstanding achievements of his early career, this is an example of McCahon’s intense exploration of landscape as metaphor for the human condition, for the journey of life.
Sacrifice and Redemption
In the Christchurch years (1948-52) McCahon continued with the mixture of biblical narratives and landscape paintings he had practised in Nelson. Six days in Nelson and Canterbury (1950) is one of the best-known works of this period, nominally a landscape painting but with religious connotations deriving from the Genesis-reference of its title, while the streak of blood-red at the centre of the image alludes to sacrifice and redemption.
Source: McCahon 1953-60: Before Titirangi.
Painting Too is Work
That McCahon’s career has long eluded the regard of the international art world comes as no real surprise. Apart from a bare few months spent in trips to Australia and the United States, he lived out his entire life and career in New Zealand. Born in 1919, he both endured and exploited his country’s geographical isolation, which persisted over much of his life (he died in 1987). Not that McCahon did a great deal to aid his own cause–though one doubts that he would have recognized international self-promotion as a cause worthy of his commitment. When he traveled to the United States in 1958, an ideal moment to assess the great decade of New York School abstraction, he did so in his capacity as deputy director of the Auckland City Art Gallery, rarely revealing, in scores of visits to museums, galleries, and studios across the continent, that he was himself an artist. Indeed, despite a fierce sense of vocation and prodigious productivity as a painter, printmaker, and set designer, he had difficulty imagining his art as a professional proposition until late in his life. On resigning his last paid, full-time employment–at age fifty-one–in order to devote himself only to painting, he wrote, “I am only now, and slowly, becoming able to paint in the mornings. After a lifetime of working–farming, factories, gardening, teaching, the years at the Auckland City Art Gallery–I find it hard to paint in the world’s usual work-time. It can be difficult to accept that painting too is work.”
The life story encapsulated in that remark sums up a saga of genuine hardship and punishing resistance to his ideas. It’s a time-honored avant-garde script, but McCahon lived it: When he painted Six days in Nelson and Canterbury, 1950, he had just journeyed several hundred miles on a bicycle looking for seasonal work in the fields; his first job at the Auckland City Art Gallery was as a janitor. The irony of his experience lay in his resolute pursuit of an unprivate painter’s idiom that could communicate in society as widely and immediately as possible. Any aesthetic nicety that stood in the way of this goal he sacrificed as an impediment and distraction.
Source: Spreading the word: Colin McCahon.