Of his arrival back in New Zealand in 1958 McCahon wrote:
We went home to the bush of Titirangi. It was cold and dripping and shut in—and I had seen deserts and tumbleweed in fences and the Salt Lake Flats, and the Faulkner country with magnolias in bloom, cities—taller by far than kauri trees. My lovely kauris became too much for me. I fled north in memory and painted the Northland panels. (a survey, p. 25)
The famous Northland panels, now in Te Papa The Museum of New Zealand, were among the first works completed on his return. According to his own account, McCahon painted these on the sun deck at Titirangi. They were large, each panel being nearly two metres tall, but varied in width, and painted on strips of unframed canvas employing a brushy, rapid, gestural kind of painting—quite different from the careful precision of his earlier Titirangi series, and surely owing a good deal to the gestural freedom of the so called ‘action painters’ of the New York school.
Medium: commercial oil based paint
1: 1779mm x 817mm
2: 1778mm x 835mm
3: 1761mm x 595mm
4: 1764mm x 554mm
5: 1778mm x 825mm
6: 1770mm x 610mm
7: 1779mm x 802mm
8: 1746mm x 600mm
Collection: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
When they were first exhibited McCahon gave each of the panels a separate name: Black and White
; Red Clay Landscape
; Manuka and Red Clay Landscape
; A landscape with too few lovers
; Landscape with White Road
; It can be dark here
. Several of these titles refer to texts written on the panels, sometimes a single word (‘rain’), sometimes a poem-like text, such as the last panel which includes the haiku-like statement (it has 17 syllables as does a haiku): oh yes it can be dark here and manuka in bloom may breed despair.
Normally words in McCahon’s paintings are taken from existing sources, especially the Bible, or the words of some poet, but in the Northland
panels the words are McCahon’s own. His conviction that New Zealanders were unthinkingly desecrating the landscape, causing it to erode and become denuded, and that they were more likely to abuse the land than to love it, are among the feelings that the panels convey, marking the emergence in his work of a conservation-minded aesthetic that was to grow stronger as the years passed.
Simultaneously with working on the Northland panels in Titirangi, McCahon worked at the Gallery at night on The Wake
, a work which was even larger and in some respects more radical than the Northland
panels. The ostensible occasion of the painting was the death of his friend Caselberg’s great dane, Thor, in 1957. The grieving poet wrote a lengthy poetic sequence in memory of his beloved dog which McCahon, in an extraordinary act of friendship, turned into his largest painting. Most of the 16 panels are devoted to the text of Caselberg’s poem (in nine parts), but several non-textual panels are depictions of the trunks of tall young kauri such as those growing around the French Bay house. Thor had wandered freely around the Titirangi bush from Caselberg’s nearby home in Wood Bay, so it was natural to present his wake as occurring in the kauri forest at night.
Perhaps McCahon picked up the clue to the pictorial motif of the series from Caselberg’s poem. In the third poem, one of several sonnets in the sequence, Caselberg compares the majestic kauri trees to the dead animal. The rhetoric of the poem is pitched very high, but there is a sort of logic in comparing the majestic great dane—the largest of dogs—to the mighty kauri, the greatest of trees. By implication, the death of Thor is commensurate with the destruction of the kauri forest.
McCahon has distributed the non-textual panels throughout the work like a kind of visual punctuation. For instance, poem number seven—the emotional heart of the poem—is highlighted with kauri tree panels on either side of it (see panels 10-12). The work ends with the last two subdued kauri trunk panels—like the quiet chords at the end of a Mahler symphony, perhaps. In a sense, this was the work in which McCahon not only farewelled a beautiful animal but also paid farewell to his beloved kauri, a theme that had occupied him for six years.
The dramatic scale of The Wake—hung as McCahon wanted, as at The Gallery, Symonds Street in 1960, it fills a whole room—and its radical technique were affected by the work he had seen in the States. From now on McCahon generally painted on a much larger scale than before. As well as being an elegy for a friend’s dog, then, The Wake was McCahon’s attempt to work through and assimilate his American discoveries, Caselberg’s poem providing him with a large text he could use as the skeleton for a major work.
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