Figure, Word and other experiments 1953-56

Not all the works McCahon made during the early years in Auckland were landscape studies. He also executed quite a variety of other works, some of which were experiments which did not lead anywhere important, while others pointed towards significant future developments


Homage to Ingres 

Homage to Ingres

Date: 1954
Medium:  brush and ink wash and gouache
Dimensions: 490 x 620 mm (s)
Collection:  Private collection 

Included among these miscellaneous works were a number of figure studies, sometimes in imitation of other artists such as Madame Cézanne at Titirangi (charcoal, 1953), mentioned above, The Rape of Dejinara (after Michelangelo) (watercolour, 1953—there was a second version of this work in oil, 1956) and Homage to Ingres (charcoal, 1954). McCahon also attempted occasional nudes, such as the Cézannesque, Nude (1955), a return to the theme of Bathers which had occupied him a decade earlier. Singing woman on pink ground (1955) was one of the most highly developed and successful of these figure studies. There were also occasional portraits of friends and family members such as Portrait of Peter Webb (1956) and Head (1956), a portrait of his wife, Anne.

In retrospect, more significant than the figure studies so far as McCahon’s future development was concerned, were a number of paintings consisting entirely of words, namely I Am (1954), I and Thou (1954-55), Let us possess one world (1955) and Sacred to the Memory of Death (1955). Previously words had been prominent as enlarged titles, as in A candle in dark room (1947) or There is only one direction (1952), or as speech bubbles issuing from the mouths of figures in his biblical narratives, as in The Valley of Dry Bones (1947), or Jesus, King of the Jews (1947), but in these particular works words became the whole subject, thus anticipating one of the most defining characteristics of McCahon’s subsequent career. I Am, for instance, anticipates two of McCahon’s most monumental paintings of the 1970s that also incorporate this pregnant Biblical phrase, Victory Over Death 2 (acrylic, 1970), now in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and Gate III (acrylic, 1970) in the collection of Victoria University of Wellington.

In the first examples of 1954 though the paintings were small in size the lettering was monumental and in block capitals, influenced by Cubism in the denial of conventional perspective, but also drawing on display lettering from advertising and movie credits. In the 1955 examples cursive script (handwriting) was employed, as in Let us possess one world (enamel, 1955)—a quotation from a poem by the seventeenth century English poet John Donne—or a mixture of cursive script and block capitals, as in Sacred to the memory of death (oil, 1955-56), the text being an inscription taken from a tombstone in a picture by the great English painter J.M.W. Turner in the Auckland City Art Gallery.

It has been argued that the move to cursive script was possibly influenced by newly available commercial enamel paints (eg  Dulux Enamel, Giant Monocoat, Taubman’s Butex and Solpah) which allowed for a more flowing and spontaneous kind of writing in paint. (See Sarah Hillary and Kendrah Morgan, Beneath the Surface, McCahon’s materials and techniques 1954- 66, Auckland Art Gallery, 2000). These radically original works are an indication that there was always more happening in McCahon’s art than depiction of his immediate environment. These word paintings point in the direction of existential and religious concerns which had taken a back seat for the time being while he came to terms with an exciting and challenging new environment but which would re-emerge strongly in the coming years.

Another miscellaneous group of works developed from landscape or figure studies in more abstract, symbolic or even surrealistic directions. Among these were a small group entitled Pastoral (brush & ink wash, 1954),  such as two that were shown at the Group Show in Christchurch in 1955. The circular or globular shapes in these paintings recur frequently in works of this period, sometimes associated with kauri (cones or branch patterns?), or with clouds, but also with the human form, sometimes with strongly sexual associations as in Untitled [Kauri nude] (1954), Monochrome face with curvilinear forms (1954) or Composition (oil, 1956). The painting called Moss (oil, 1956), is another related oddity within McCahon’s rich oeuvre.

Two other out-of-the-ordinary-works which can be mentioned in this context were painted by McCahon for decoration of the French Bay house. One was a small abstract composition with a circular motif painted for a cupboard door, while the other was a large and dynamic mural of people (presumably a unique representation of Colin and Anne McCahon and their four children William, Victoria, Catherine and Matthew) within a bush and birds environment. The latter joyous work, reminiscent in some respects of Picasso or Matisse, shows faces turned upwards towards sun and moon and fluttering birds (tui) amid the towering canopy of the kauri trees.

Other miscellaneous works from the period derived from McCahon’s strong interest in theatre as in his provision of drawings for sets involved with productions of plays and ballets such as Swan Lake or Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.


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