Almost immediately McCahon became fascinated by the kauri as a subject for drawings and paintings. ‘Kauri trees dominated my work for quite some years’, he said (ACAG Quarterly, p. 9). The tall and columnar trunks, the spreading heads of mature trees, the cone-like profiles of the ‘rickers’ (as young kauri are called), the distinctive clumping of the foliage along the trunks, the looping shapes of the branches, the thick shiny leaves—‘long, sessile, entire, glabrous, thick’ (in the words of one botanical description),—the cylindrical flowers and the green ovoid, globular cones, the deciduous, flaking, shiny grey-brown bark, the distinctive shapes of trees silhouetted against the sky, the glancing light penetrating the shady interior of the bush, the houses scattered among the trees—all of these features of the kauri and its environs were observed and rendered, not always literally, in McCahon’s numerous drawings and paintings.
There are almost 50 works with ‘kauri’ in their titles included on the Colin McCahon Database and Image Library. Nearly half of these were completed in a period of intense activity from November 1953 to June 1954.
Perhaps the climactic painting of the series was the superb Kauri trees (1954), purchased by Charles Brasch and now in the collection of the Hocken Library, Dunedin. In this work the influence of the Cubists is felt in the reduced palette, the enclosing oval (a device used by Braque), and in the shallow, non-perspectival space. It was included in an exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery in September 1954 called Object and Image, for which McCahon created a billboard. But, although the exhibition was devoted to non-representational painting, this painting also embodied the results of much close observation of actual kauri trees, and McCahon remarked to Brasch that the effect of Kauri trees on the gallery wall was that of a piece of realism.
After 1954 McCahon became less focussed on the kauri as such and more on other aspects of his local environment, but it was a subject that he kept returning to. Speaking of a later group of kauri studies made in 1957, rather more abstract in their effect than most of the earlier series, McCahon wrote, ‘I came to grips with the kauri and turned him in all his splendour into a symbol’ (a survey, p. 24). His most extensive treatment of the kauri motif was in The Wake (1958), to be discussed later.
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