Travel and Culture

Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction

Colin McCahon (1919-1987) was New Zealand’s greatest twentieth-century artist and 100 years after his birth comes the first in a remarkable two-volume work recording 45 years of painting by author Peter Simpson.

Simpson, a former associate professor of English at the University of Auckland, has curated three significant exhibitions of McCahon’s work and is the author of numerous critically acclaimed books including Colin McCahon: The Titirangi Years. Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction. Vol. 1 1919-1959 publishing this October and Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? Vol. II. 1960 – 1987 which is due to publish in May 2020, makes this pair of books the definitive works on McCahon.

Grandparents NZ spoke with author Peter Simpson to hear more about his new insights and the research that went in to the writing of Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction. Vol. 1 1919-1959.

Do you remember when you first saw McCahon’s artwork? What were your thoughts? I can’t recall the precise details but I became aware of McCahon’s work in the mid-1960s through annual shows of The Group  in Christchurch and through the exhibitions toured annually by Auckland Art Gallery called Contemporary New Zealand Painting. Through such exhibitions I saw such works as Fourteen Stations of the Cross (1966) and Still Life with Altar, I – IV (1967) I was immediately struck by their force and beauty and formed an attachment for his work which has only grown through the past half century.

I was immediately struck by their force and beauty and formed an attachment for his work which has only grown through the past half century.

While writing Colin McCahon There is Only One Direction you had access to McCahon’s correspondence and family however did you ever meet McCahon himself? No, I never met Colin in person, although I have met several of his children and many of his close friends. He lived in Auckland, and (while he was still alive) I lived either overseas or in Christchurch so the opportunity never arose. However, I feel I have come to know him well, especially though his extensive correspondence with family and friends. He was an indefatigable letter writer sometimes writing as many as six letters a day. His letters are very well written and often greatly informative about his practice as an artist.


Peter Simpson

Colin McCahon There is Only One Direction Vol. 1 covers the dates of 1919-1959 where McCahon was a young man, what sort of person was he? What strikes me most about Colin as a young man is his shining intelligence and his complete dedication to his vocation as artist. His exceptional ability was evident from when he was very young and recognised by family and friends. His circle of friends and supporters was very important to him because as a radical and courageous artist his work was often misunderstood and derided by the general public. This ‘bash’ as he called it upset him but made him only more determined to pursue his ‘one direction’ as an artist. Although not widely educated (he left high school at 16) he read widely and was extremely knowledgeable about literature, art and religion. His thinking about social and political issues was also very advanced. For example, he was very early for a Pākehā in his appreciation and understanding of Māori culture and history, insights that were reflected in his art such as The Parihaka Triptych (1972) and The Urewera Mural (1975). In later life partly because of alcoholism he became more withdrawn and reserved though always open to his friends.​

Most of the new information I discovered was from reading his letters to his parents and sister, and to close friends

What did you uncover that was new to you while writing Colin McCahon There is Only One Direction? Having studied his work for years and written several previous books about him, I already knew a lot when I started this book. Most of the new information I discovered was from reading his letters to his parents and sister, and to close friends like Ron O’Reilly, Charles Brasch, Peter McLeavey, John Caselberg and Patricia France. I also did a lot of new research into the way his work was received at the time in order to dispel the myth that he was ‘despised and rejected of men’. His work was always highly regarded by informed contemporaries though it was sometimes (often) derided by the general public unfamiliar with modern art who simply lacked the knowledge to understand what he was up to.

Do you have a favourite McCahon piece and why is it your favourite or why not? Colin McCahon made about 2000 works during his career and I would find it impossible to choose a single favourite – a favourite 50 would be an easier task. Some of my most favourite works are Harbour Cone from Peggy’s Hill (1939), Ruby Bay (1945), Otago Peninsula (1946-49), Crucifixion according to St Mark (1947), The Promised Land (1948), Hail Mary (1948),  Takaka Night and Day (1948), On Building Bridges (triptych) (1952), Kauri Trees (1954), French Bay (1956), Painting (1958), The Wake (1958), Northland Panels 91958), Let be let be (1959). Here I give thanks to Mondrian (1961), Gate: Waioneke (1961), Landscape theme and variations (1963), The Fourteen Stations of the Cross (1966), Visible Mysteries IV (1967), The Lark’s Song (1969), Practical Religion (1969-70), A Handerkerchief for St Veronica (1973), Jet Out to Te Reinga (1973), The Shining Cuckoo (1974), The Care of Small Birds, Muriwai (1976), On the Road(1976), Angels and Bed IV: Hi Fi (1977-78),  May his light shine (Tau Cross) (1978-79), A Painting for Uncle  Frank (1980), I considered all the acts of oppression (1981-83). What impresses me most about his work is the wide range of it and his continuous development through time. He made great paintings at every stage of his development. Images of all of these paintings can be seen on the McCahon website

Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction. Vol. 1 1919-1959 Peter Simpson Hardback Auckland University Press Distributed by Upstart Pubdate 3 October 2019 RRP $75

‘New Zealand’s foremost artist Colin McCahon is many things to many people: modernist, visionary, environmentalist, shaman, preacher, rustic provincialist, bicultural trailblazer, painter-poet, graffiti artist, teacher, maverick . . . Peter Simpson’s account interrogates as well as accommodates all of these possibilities. Guiding us year by year through the artist’s career, he offers a ground-breaking overview of the life’s work of a tenacious, brilliant and endlessly fascinating figure.’ – Gregory O’Brien

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