Recent Paintings 1959

The year after McCahon returned from the United States was one of the most productive in his career. Much of this work was brought together in an extraordinary exhibition entitled Recent Paintings November 1958-September 1959, held at a newly opened gallery in Christchurch called Gallery 91.


Northern Triptych 

Northland triptych 

Date: 1959
Medium: enamel paint
        1: 1218mm x 607mm
        2: 1215mm x 608mm
        3: 1217mm x 607mm

Collection: Hocken Library, University of Otago, Dunedin

There were more than 90 works in this exhibition, including the eight Northland panels, 35 Northland drawings (rapidly executed brush and ink drawings using Chinese inks), the Northland triptych (closely related to the Northland panels in the combination of words and landscape imagery but painted on hardboard rather than canvas), a set of 10 Numerals (One to Ten) and another set of five Numerals (One to Five), both sets (like the Northland drawings) using Chinese ink, and anticipating many later works involving numbers in  the 1960s and 1970s; there were also eleven landscapes in enamel, many with the words Black & White in their titles painted between December 1958 and January 1959,  such as Black & White French Bay, but also including A landscape, fragments of a cross  (1959) and the well known Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is (1958-59); these paintings were transitional between the later French Bay series and the black and white abstractions of the Gate series of 1961.

Then there were more than a dozen works in the remarkable Elias series, including the Elias triptych, mostly painted in July-August 1959, a series which saw the return of explicit religious imagery to his work after a break of several years. Finally, the exhibition included a number of stand alone paintings including I One, Cross, Toss in Greymouth and John in Canterbury (all 1959), the last two being painted in honour of close friends and fellow artists.

The Elias series, probably the most significant works in this altogether remarkable exhibition,  focussed on the events of Christ’s crucifixion, but instead of treating these biblical events in a narrative and representational style as he had in the 1940s, McCahon now honed in on the words of the account of the crucifixion as given in the gospels. In particular he focussed on the moment of Christ’s death on the cross when he cried out to God (‘Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani’, that is ‘My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?’), and on the reaction of the bystanders who mistakenly thought Jesus to be calling on the prophet Elijah (Elias), ‘Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him’, an event recorded variously in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark.

The Elias paintings are an exploration of faith, doubt and human tragedy through the medium of the Christian story; they are among McCahon’s most original paintings. The message of the painting is carried by both the meaning of the words and by the way they are written and placed on the canvas (including differential size, script type—cursive or capitals—colouring, emphasis and repetition), together with more abstract features of the design. McCahon said of the series in 1972:

The 1959 Elias series were all painted at Titirangi and all come out of the story of the Crucifixion (which should now be read in the New Oxford translation) and I became interested in men's doubts. (This theme appears here and appears later—I  could never call myself a Christian, therefore these same doubts constantly assail me too).(a survey, p. 27)

Significantly, while containing occasional landscape elements, the Elias paintings owe nothing to local or regional imagery (unlike the biblical paintings of 1946-52). This is the beginning of McCahon’s movement away from the localism which had dominated his work up to this point (a development anticipated by the word paintings of 1954-56).

One of the most insightful comments on the Elias series (and indeed the whole exhibition in which they appear) was written by McCahon’s friend and fellow-painter Toss Woollaston:

The subject of these paintings is, most of all, the predicament of man in his own world, culminating in the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion is implicit in every picture here, whether by words, by light piercing the darkness, by the visible strain of suffering, or by something as hard to describe as an atmosphere.

So they are necessarily tragic paintings, and, as such, rightly make no overtures to the public, no effort to be charming or appealing…the written word, too, most often quoted from the Bible, is frankly and without apology used as a subject for painting. No one seeing this exhibition can dismiss those pictures in which lettering is painted, without missing the very unity and power of the artist’s whole work.

This matter of the painted word is perhaps the most argued aspect of the show—the one people most want to lay down rules about. But how do we know the rules for this sort of painting?

It is obvious that part of the painter’s work here is to discover rules and try them, test them as he goes along, to see whether they will work for him and so for us. When a whole sky cries “Elias” as in No. 25 [Elias, 1959] who shall say lettering should not be big in a picture…
(M.T. Woollaston, Christchurch Star 14 October 1959).

McCahon was under few illusions about how this great exhibition would be received, commenting to Charles Brasch that it was not what anyone would expect and not saleable, or at least he didn’t think so.

As it happens half a dozen works did sell, including some of the Northland drawings, and some of the landscapes, though none of the Elias series sold. A group of friends and supporters later banded together to purchase Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is for the Robert McDougall Gallery in Christchurch. The Gallery rejected the gift but after much controversy it eventually became the first work by McCahon in the Gallery’s collection.


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