The busy year 1957 also saw the culmination of McCahon’s brief engagement with the newly available medium of offset lithography (not to be confused with stone lithography as practiced in New Zealand in recent times). McCahon’s first lithograph Kauri tree was made in 1954 and was closely related to the charcoal drawings of the Kauri series. McCahon commented:

It was Eric Westbrook who first mooted the idea of doing these prints. He thought they would be a really good money spinner. Offset lithography was a very new thing in Auckland in those days—I mean as a cheap way of printing things—so it was something that people started doing but no one gave much thought to the use of decent paper. (ACAG Quarterly, 1969, p. 14).


Puketutu Manukau

Puketutu Manukau 

Date: 1957
Medium: lithograph
Dimensions: each sheet 216mm x 267mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki 

McCahon returned to the medium for two more ambitious attempts in 1957. In the first instance he collaborated with his friend John Caselberg who by this time having moved from Christchurch was living in nearby Wood Bay and teaching at the School for the Deaf located at Lopdell House, now an art gallery.

Caselberg had published a collection of poems called The Sound of the Morning (Pegasus, 1954) which included a sequence entitled Van Gogh,  dramatising  the life and moods of the great Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). Building on an earlier collaboration with Caselberg on the broadsheet Issue in Christchurch in 1952, McCahon made a set of five lithographs of the poems, consisting of a title page, a frontispiece, and three prints incorporating five of the poems. Copyright problems meant that the set could not be sold commercially, but it was McCahon’s first serious attempt to work with poetry and gave impetus to further collaboration with Caselberg which resulted later in such important works as The Wake (1958) and Gate II (1962).

Van Gogh, the solitary, visionary artist tragically misunderstood, was a figure with whom both Caselberg and McCahon identified to some degree (Caselberg more than McCahon), partly because they both felt that the radical artist in New Zealand was similarly faced with misunderstanding, hostility or indifference. The poems express a range of moods from ecstasy to despair, and McCahon’s illustrations creatively extend the texts. The third poem, in particular, which reads in full: God, it is all dark./The heart beat but there is no answering hark/Of a hearer and no one to speak, became a favourite text for McCahon  and was utilised on several later occasions, including John in Canterbury (1959)

A second set of lithographs was done in association with Peter Webb as publisher; Webb, who had worked at the Auckland City Art Gallery with McCahon, had just opened the first dealer gallery in Auckland. Entitled Puketutu Manukau, the set consisted of a title page and three views of the island of Puketutu in the Manukau Harbour, one from the artist’s boat, one from the beach, and one enclosed within an oval outline. In style McCahon’s lithographs are closely related to his charcoal drawings. There was one further print made in this period, Night fishing: French Bay (1957), a relief print made by treating cardboard as in a woodcut.


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