'French Bay' and 'Titirangi' 1955-57

Although McCahon used the term French Bay for occasional paintings as early as 1954, e.g. French Bay (oil, 1954, Auckland Art Gallery) it was not until 1955-56 that he created an extensive series under this title.

 

French Bay 

French Bay

Date:  c. 1954
Medium: gouache
Dimensions: 732 x 872 mm
Collection: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

 

The new works were in several respects quite different from anything he had done previously. For one thing, whereas most of the early Auckland works emphasised diagonal, circular or curvilinear forms, the French Bay paintings were dominated by verticals and horizontals, often constituting a kind of informal grid, made up of patches of colour, with a predominance of blues, though there is a considerable variation in colour—blacks, greys, yellows, and ochres also being present. The surfaces of the paintings are broken up into small rectangular lozenges of colour which may represent people or boats or clouds or merely light on the surface of the water.

Initially most of these works were watercolours or gouaches, though by 1956 oils came to predominate, such as French Bay (1956), a work purchased by Rodney Kennedy, now in the Te Papa collection, which is one of the finest works of the series.

As the author of the commentary in the posthumous survey exhibition of 1988, Gates and Journeys, comments:

These works turn away from the close-up vertical trees to the open expanses of the Manukau, seen from the beach at French Bay. They seem to be made up of vertical and sometimes overlapping strips, each of which suggests a similar view with a different light, or from a different angle. They are much taken up with continuity and discontinuity across the lines of a vertical and horizontal grid. (Colin McCahon: Gates and Journeys, Auckland City Art Gallery, 1988, p. 85)

A possible influence on these works was the Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) whose abstractions emphasised a vertical and horizontal grid and blocks of primary colour, though Mondrian impacted more strongly on McCahon after exposure to his work in America in 1958. Milan Mrkusich, Louise Henderson, and Michael Nicholson, three Auckland painters who utilised a Modernist idiom and with whom McCahon exhibited in exhibitions at the Auckland Art Gallery such as Object and Image in 1954 and Unit 2 Group in 1955, were other possible influences.

Most of the French Bay series are full of brilliant colour and light; indeed they are among the most colourful of all McCahon's paintings. A few however depicted the bay at night such as the powerful work Flounder Fishing, Night, French Bay (enamel, 1957), where blacks, browns, yellows, greys and whites predominate, the darker colouration anticipating the progressive predomination of black in McCahon's later work.

In 1957 McCahon began a second series of French Bay paintings which are even more radically prismatic and brilliantly coloured than the first series.  The view in these works is from the cliff-top looking down towards the water, rather than the scene as viewed from the beach.  The paintings are densely faceted, full of tiny diamond shapes of colour and glow with a jewel-like intensity.

About the same time as the two French Bay series McCahon began using the general title Titirangi for a large open series of bush scenes (some of which also had the title Domestic Landscape); these paintings tend to continue the diagonal emphasis of earlier works but mostly involve more generalised landscape scenes rather than the more detailed studies of particular trees such as had occupied him earlier.

Of an early work in this series Titirangi (1956), a watercolour and gouache now in the Auckland Art Gallery, McCahon wrote:

This amazing view was what I saw when looking out of a large window we had in our house. At the time I was very much taken by the diagonals made by the trees in relation to the window frame…The painting is painted in what I call my impressionistic style. This later developed into the little squares technique used in the Titirangi and French Bay series (ACAG Quarterly, 1969, p. 9).

Instead of oblong lozenges of colour as in the first French Bay series, the Titirangi paintings tend to consist of tiny square or diamond-shaped fragments as well as utilising diagonals and verticals in the broader structure of the picture. In some cases single trunks of kauri trees are portrayed against a wider backdrop of bush-covered hills; in others as in the large Titirangi (oil, 1956-57), now in the Auckland Art Gallery, the more general scene of bush, hills and sky prevails.

An interesting perspective on McCahon’s Titirangi works emerges from a story told by the McCahon scholar Gordon Brown, about how McCahon, wishing to rid his visual perceptions of preconceptions:

adopted the habit of rising from his bed as soon as he had woken at dawn and, dashing outside, tried not to fix his gaze on anything until he was clear of the house and could look at the surrounding bush. Only then would he allow his eyes to concentrate on what he saw. He would then contemplate the bush with all the intensity he could muster so that the forms of trees would dematerialise while his sense of spatial depth diminished. At its most intense, McCahon likened this visionary effect to that of the blind man mentioned in St Mark’s Gospel who, on first receiving his sight, saw “men as trees, walking”. (Gordon H. Brown, Colin McCahon: Artist, Wellington, Reed, 2nd ed. 1993, p. 59)

This story confirms a sense given by much of McCahon’s work in the 1953-57 period that his concerns are primarily aesthetic and perceptual rather than existential and philosophical as they were both earlier and later. It is perhaps for this reason that the Titirangi period has attracted less critical attention than other parts of McCahon’s oeuvre in which he more explicitly engages with the human condition through biblical narrative or other symbolic means.

In December 1957 McCahon held an exhibition entitled Recent Oils at Peter Webb’s newly opened gallery in Argus House, High Street, Auckland. It was his first solo show since 1948. Unfortunately no catalogue of the show survives and its contents is known largely from a review of the exhibition by the Auckland Star, which mentions that the two dozen paintings were all painted since ‘last July’ —presumably July 1957—(quoted in Marja Bloem and Martin Browne, Colin McCahon A Question of Faith, Nelson, Potton, 2002, p. 254) and an article by John Caselberg entitled ‘Titirangi as Art’ in Home and Building; Caselberg mentions no paintings by name but offers the following general comment:

Titirangi is bush, the earth out of which that kauri bush is bursting, sky, sea and light. The invasion of space between spectator and picture; conflict, contrast, thrust and counterthrust of plane against plane against plane: on all scales, from the warring spaces of the Manukau Harbour, to the minute workings of the life of a plant; from the earth itself lying against the sky, to the myriad particularities of colour and shape where the bush absorbs, glows, sparkles and reflects the dancing light back into the sky—these  are all developed in the “Recent Oils”. . .(reprinted in John Caselberg, Chart to My Country: Selected Prose 1947-71, Dunedin, McIndoe, 1973, p. 50)

The following April a further exhibition of Titirangi works entitled Recent Paintings was shown at the Dunedin Public Library. It included 39 paintings encompassing the whole Auckland period, though with an emphasis on more recent work (10 works were dated 1956, 18 were dated 1957). All the works were landscapes (miscellaneous works such as the word paintings and portraits being excluded), and all of the important Auckland series were represented—Towards Auckland, Manukau, Kauri, French Bay, Titirangi. The exhibition was opened by Charles Brasch who had become one of McCahon’s most important friends, collectors and supporters. Part of what Brasch said was as follows:

The work shown in this exhibition has all been painted since he settled in Auckland about five years ago… The Auckland paintings seem an entirely new departure. The colour and light of Auckland are different from those of the rest of N. Z.; they are more atmospheric, they seem to have an independent, airy existence of their own, and they break up the uniform mass of solid bodies, hills or forests or water, into a kind of brilliant prismatic dance. Some of the paintings are explorations, evocations, of the kauri forest of the Waitakeres. In some you seem to be inside the forest, discovering the structure of individual trees, with their great shaft trunks, their balloon-like cones, and the shafts of light that play among them. In others, you look at the forest from outside, as it rises like a wall before you, built up of cubes and cylinders of lighter and darker colour, with its wild jagged outlines against the sky. Then there are these strange bird’s-eye-view pictures of the bays of the Manukau Harbour, with the broken lights that play over land and water there and the wonderful towering cloud formations over head.

All of them tell us something new about the look of N.Z. They couldn’t have been painted anywhere in the world except Auckland; but they could only have been painted by someone who had absorbed what painters in other countries are doing today. They are of our time; they are painted for us and for our descendants—they were not painted for our grandparents. But they are not altogether easy paintings; no new vision of things is easy; they force us to look hard, and to think hard, as the painter himself has done. But they will influence the way we see things, and in fifty years’ time some of them will seem natural and inevitable, showing the country as it really is.(Charles Brasch papers, Hocken Library)

The 50 years Brasch refers to has already almost passed, and the truth of his remarks—very much a minority opinion at the time—has proven prophetic. This exhibition may in retrospect be seen to have marked the end of an era. It was shown about the time that McCahon and his wife Anne left for four months in America, an experience that would affect his future development profoundly.

 

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