Travel and Culture

Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land?

In 2019 author and former associate professor of English at the University of Auckland Peter Simpson released Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction with the plan to release a second volume of McCahon’s later works in 2020.

The time has finally arrived (with a minor release setback due to Covid-19) with Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? Vol 2 1967-1987 available on the 11th June.

Peter Simpson is a passionate McCahon fan having followed his work personally since the 1960’s. Simpson’s interest in McCahon and experience as an associate professor translates to the pages of this wonderful book. A fantastic read for any McCahon fan and a packed anthology for anyone who is unfamiliar with McCahon’s work.

We spoke with Simpson to hear more about Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? Vol 2.

When we last spoke with you, you said you remember becoming aware of McCahon’s work in the mid 1960’s which is where version 2 begins, what affect did this have on you when creating volume 2?
Having begun following McCahon’s work in the 1960s I was already familiar with his post-1960 work when I wrote the book having seen much of it  when it was first exhibited. However, I went overseas in 1968 and stayed away for almost a decade (returning in 1976). It was of course impossible to see McCahon’s work while overseas but I kept up with his progress as an artist through publications I had sent to me.

Especially important in this regard was the catalogue for McCahon’s Colin McCahon: A Survey in 1972. This exhibition toured the country and though I could not see the exhibition itself I poured over the catalogue and especially over the autobiographical notes in included in which the artist commented on almost every work included. I quote extensively from these notes in both volumes of my book.

Soon after I came back to New Zealand in 1976 I was able to catch up with what McCahon had been doing in the interim in an important exhibition called “Necessary Protection”  covering his work from 1971 to 1976 which toured the country. Another important exhibition I saw was Gates and Journeys, an exhibition planned before McCahon’s death in 1987 but not shown until 1988-89.

What can readers expect to see in Volume 2 that is different or progresses from Volume 1? How was McCahon different from his younger self? 
A feature of McCahon’s career is that he developed continuously from year to year, seldom repeating himself but constantly seeking out new themes and ways of making paintings. This continuous development continued right up to the early 1980s when he ceased painting because of illness. He was unable to paint during the last five or so years of his life.

McCahon began the 1960s with a series he called Gates which were highly abstract and simplified in form and colour. Most New Zealanders were unfamiliar with abstract painting at that stage and found these radically different works hard to come to terms with. This troubled McCahon initially as he regarded communication as especially important to the artist and if he decided that if he was not communicating he needed to re-assess his direction. This he did in a series of works in the mid-1960s in which he returned to landscape painting with which he had first made his mark in the 1940s.

Most New Zealanders were unfamiliar with abstract painting at that stage and found these radically different works hard to come to terms with.

The Waterfall series of 1964 successfully re-established his connection with his audience and sold unusually well, much to the artist’s surprise. From the mid-1960s onwards McCahon never lacked an audience and was increasingly recognised as the country’s leading painter. A commission to paint windows for a Catholic chapel led him to study Roman Catholic symbolism which greatly influenced his later painting. Especially important was The Fourteen Stations of the Cross (1966), a series of 14 paintings and the first of many series to draw on this particular narrative tradition in Catholicism (and some other denominations) of the events leading up to the Crucifixion.

Another major theme in McCahon’s later work was his interest in Maori design, history and mythology, as in such works as The Parihaka Triptych (1972) and The Urewera Mural (1975).

Another major theme in McCahon’s later work was his interest in Maori design, history and mythology, as in such works as The Parihaka Triptych (1972) and The Urewera Mural (1975). From 1969 biblical texts played an increasing role in his work. This came from his discovery of a new translation of the Bible (The New English Bible) which he especially enjoyed and used for all of his textual paintings such as Practical Religion (1969-70) and Victory over Death 2 (1970). An important influence on his later work was the landscape near Muriwai Beach on the west coast near Auckland; its cliffs, off-shore island, black-sand beaches and bird-life figure in much of his later work, most of it painted in a new studio he built at Muriwai in 1969.


Peter Simpson

You’ve mentioned he was advanced in his appreciation and understanding of Maori culture, did this develop further in his later years? Is this investigated further in volume 2? 
McCahon’s interest in Maori culture influenced his work profoundly in the 1960s and 1970s.At first he became interested in Maori design and made use of the koru shape ubiquitous in rafter paintings and facial moko. Later he became interested in Maori language and proverbs and painted many works drawing on texts from The Tail of the Fish by Matire Kereama.

One of the best of these is The Lark’s Song (1969) which uses the text of a song sung by Maori children to accompany the song of the skylark disappearing int the sky. The words of the song are written out in white paint in te reo against a black background. He also made many paintings of the myth of their passage of the spirit after death up the west coast beaches to Cape Reinga.

Later again. McCahon became interested in the historical figures of Te Whiti, Te Kooti and Rua Kenana, visionary thinkers who tried to find a synthesis of Mari and Christian belief as in the works mentioned in my previous answer. These Maori inspired works are a key element in McCahon’s later practice.

How did McCahon develop or progress in his art as time went on?
McCahon’s practice is so variable and constantly changing that it is difficult to summarise his stylistic development simply. You will have to read the book. But one principle I discovered while studying his later work was that  he constantly sought ever greater directness and simplicity of means on the one hand, and on the other ever greater complexity and multiplicity of meaning.

This sounds paradoxical, I know, but I believe it is a key to understanding his development through the 1960s and 1970s. Part of that simplifying process was his increasing reliance on black and white in much of his later work. He was also a superb colourist when he chose to be, as is evident in many of the  more than 3000 colour reproductions in Volume Two.

Colin McCahon Is This the Promised Land Vol.2 1960-1987 by Peter Simpson. Auckland University Press. 11th June 2020. RRP. $79.99



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