Colin McCahon once said he wanted to change people. He told his students “All great art has death as its subject”. It is evident on our tour of the McCahon artworks at Toi Art at Te Papa that death has been this artist’s overriding subject.

Lizzie Bisley, Curator Modern Art, shared insights from McCahon paintings ranging from early works in the 1940s to the 1970s and provided almost 40 Friends with an engaging review of the artist’s key works throughout this period.

Photo by: Susanne Lang

McCahon breathes a very distinctly New Zealand atmosphere into his painted biblical scenes from 1947 – The Angel of the Annunciation, Christ taken from the Cross, and The King of the Jews. The paintings are illustrative with heavy lines and clear colour. At that time, viewers and critics were shocked by the unconventional artistic approach – flat surfaces, bold black outlines, and use of speech bubbles and text. They demonstrate McCahon grappling with his religious beliefs and doubts which recur throughout his practice.

His large-scale work ‘Walk (Series C)’ of 1973 depicting Muriwai Beach spans an entire wall of the gallery.  Most of us know Aotearoa New Zealand as the land of the long white cloud, here we see almost a reference to a land of a long, dark shadow. A series of paintings on 13 differently-sized, unstretched hemp canvases, this monochromatic, broody seascape was made at a time of grief in his life. This sense of emptiness and bleakness emanates from the rough canvas.

I found the unconventional use of the hemp cloth drew out the texture of the beach landscape and gave a feeling of serenity but also uneasiness. Like a spiritual pilgrimage alluding to the stations of the cross, when I walked along the length of the work I could imagine McCahon’s view of the beach. The tonal contrasts of shifting light and atmosphere give a sense of experiencing different moments in a landscape. This depiction of light and dark also convey a spiritual element which was something McCahon sought to capture in his painting.

I enjoy the way McCahon’s paintings are in a way performative, engaging the viewer and opening up a conversation. I came away with a new appreciation of McCahon’s influence and place in the history of New Zealand art.

Susanne Lang