Much of his early work was landscape-centred, the hills of Otago peninsula near where he grew up being a particularly important early subject. Harbour Cone from Peggy’s Hill
(1939), painted when he was 20, was his first fully mature painting. It was also prophetic in another respect; the Otago Society of Arts refused to hang it in their annual exhibition, whereupon a group of McCahon’s friends (including his future wife, Anne Hamblett) withdrew their works in sympathy. Both the rejection of his work by conventional taste and the sympathetic solidarity of close friends and supporters were often to be repeated in the years to come.
Summer trips to Nelson to visit an early mentor—the painter Toss Woollaston—and for seasonal work in orchards and tobacco fields led eventually to permanent residence there after his marriage to fellow-painter Anne Hamblett (1915-93) in 1942. Eventually Nelson landscapes, as in Pangatotora landscape no. 1 (1943) or Maitai Valley (1947), came to dominate his output. In this period McCahon stripped away surface details from the landscape to expose the underlying structure of the land, a habit of seeing influenced by the drawings in Charles Cotton's Geomorphology (3rd ed. 1942), a wedding gift from the painter Patrick Hayman. Occasional portraits were also produced in these years, such as Harriet Simeon (1945), a Gauguin-like portrait of a Maori woman which anticipates by nearly two decades his later interest in Maori culture. Still life was another genre he occasionally practised as in The lamp in my studio (1945) or A candle in a dark room (1947), a Picasso-like image which doubled as a symbolic portrait (according to McCahon's own testimony) of the poet James K. Baxter.
Long interested in questions of religion, McCahon, while living in Tahunanui near Nelson in 1946-48, began painting biblical narratives in a boldly primitive manner, such as The Angel of the Annunciation (1947), Entombment (after Titian) (1947), and Crucifixion according to St Mark (1947), in which Nelson landscapes form the backdrop for the Christian narrative. The last named painting is a particularly telling example of McCahon’s religious art, because it was this same passage from the Bible (presented within speech bubbles in a daring and controversial borrowing from the popular arts of advertising and comics)—Christ crying out in despair, the onlookers mocking him for his divine pretensions—that formed the basis of his great Elias series in 1959. These biblical narrative paintings first brought McCahon to the attention of a national audience, especially through their publication in Landfall (edited by Charles Brasch) in December 1947, and through his first major solo exhibition at the Wellington Public Library in February 1948. The paintings were met by a mixture of derision, incomprehension and (from an enlightened few) admiration such as was to mark the reception of McCahon’s work throughout his career.
The Promised Land (1948), first painted in Nelson but completed after his move to Christchurch in 1948 is one of McCahon’s major synthesising paintings. It sums up many of the ideas he had been exploring in the mid 1940s—the Nelson landscape (the inset is a depiction of Farewell Spit), the multiple images (the two landscapes), a narrative dimension (the angel in the sky), an element of portraiture (the man in the black singlet is a self-portrait), still life and symbolism (the candle and jug—household objects—are also symbols of religion and art). The prominent title, The Promised Land, signifies McCahon’s growing interest in words as part of his paintings.
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. The traditional themes of religious art—the annunciation, the mother and child, the crucifixion, the deposition, the empty tomb—continued to occupy him, There is only one direction (1952) being one of the last completed before he finished the series prior to his departure for Auckland.
On building bridges: triptych (Auckland Art Gallery 1952) is McCahon’s last and greatest interpretation of the landscape of Canterbury, introducing an element of human culture in the steel superstructure of the bridge through which the landscape is viewed and with which it coalesces. This painting is also important for another reason; in 1951, McCahon spent some weeks in Melbourne, studying the Old Masters in the National Gallery of Victoria and taking private lessons from an elderly Australian painter, Mary Cockburn-Mercer who had studied with the Cubists in Paris before World War I and was able to teach him the principles and techniques of the movement established by Picasso and Braque. On Building Bridges was one of his first attempts to apply these principles in his painting, a process which continued after his move to Auckland.