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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 38, No. 6 April 10, 1975

McCahon — Colin McCahon "Religious" Works, 1946-1952, Manawatu Art Gallery. — Tom Esplin paintings, V.U.W. Library

page 13


Colin McCahon "Religious" Works, 1946-1952, Manawatu Art Gallery.

Tom Esplin paintings, V.U.W. Library.

It is difficult to resist the observation that simultaneous with the exhibition of Colin McCahon's religious paintings in the Manawatu Art Gallery, there is a show in the University Library of the work of one of McCahon's earliest and most vociferous detractors. A comparison between Tom Esplin's effete and pusillanimous chocolate box paintings, actually entitled 'Montmartre','Corsican Mountain Village', 'Memories of Portugal', and the raw power of McCahon's early works, would he ludicrous, let alone grossly insulting to Colin McCahon.

Not that Esplin lacks technique - his technique assures him of a perennial place in the National Academy. The pity is underneath the technique there is nothing. It may be that over 25 years, confronted with McCahon's single-minded pursuit of his vision, his constant preoccupation with the same themes, evidence, surely, of the painter's integrity, that Esplin, like other early knockers, has changed his tune. Not to have done so would betray an ossification readily apparent in his painting.

Admittedly, McCahon is a difficult painter to come to terms with. His preoccupation with and pursuance of, unfashionable and religious subjects in an irreligious age, is undoubtedly a contributing factor to his inaccessibility. More so, however, is his highly personal interpretation of orthodox religious themes, which frequently affronts believers and non-believers alike. He is derided as much by non-Christians for his iconography as he is by the churchgoers for what is considered iconoclasm and blasphemy. He also is still highly controversial, (for example, the furore created a couple of years ago by the purchase of the monumental 'I Am' by this university, shortly to hang in the new Cotton building.)

'The Blessed Virgin Compared to a Pure Jug of Water'

'The Blessed Virgin Compared to a Pure Jug of Water'

McCahon claims not to be a Christian. He says he has 'too many doubts', (although it is perfectly reasonable for a Christian to have doubts). It is these doubts that are expressed so powerfully in the paintings exhibited. Such paintings as 'The King of the Jews', 'The Maries at the Tomb' and 'The Virgin Compared' and 'the lesser known 'Valley of Dry Bones, 'The Promised Land' and 'Drawings for Charles Brasch'. Portrayals of recognisable figures, (his family and friends), in a recognisable landscape, (the Nelson hills), just after the war - doing what for God's sake - crucifying Christ? With speech bubbles coming out of the Virgin Mary's mouth like in a Buck Rogers comic! It is no wonder that McCahon was contentious.

It is useful to learn from the very good catalogue put out for this exhibition that the original impulse for the crucifixion paintings came from watching the erection of a power pole against a brilliant white sky in 1945. This visual experience had such an impact on McCahon that he is still painting it. The idea of the cross, and its implications of death and rebirth, is the central motif in McCahon's ouvre. Another motif that McCahon was to develop much later is the aeroplane which appears, I believe, for the first time in the c1946 painting 'I Paul to you at Ngatimote' and re-emerges in the 1973-74 'Ahipara' and 'Jet Over Muriwai' paintings - parts of a large group of work in memoriam to the painter's, friend Jim Baxter - where the aeroplane symbolises the departing spirit.

'The King of the Jews'

'The King of the Jews'

'Virgin and Child'

'Virgin and Child'

That McCahon is not a Christian is not important. He has breathed new life and relevance into Christian symbolism from his own wavering faith and doubt, and from a deep religious experience of the New Zealand landscape. McCahon's god is present in the landscape, the hills, the trees, seas and sky, he worships and gives thanks constantly in his work. In his later painting there is a blinding white light transcending the darkness - hope and faith in the face of man's monumental s Stupidity and ignorance.

McCahon is a true visionary in our midst, and if the simplicity and directness of his work appals and disturbs the majority of us, I believe it is as Luit Bieringa says in his introduction to the catalogue for this show, that McCahon 'has made and continues to make us see what we have been afraid or unable to see'.

To conclude I would like to quote what Colin McCahon wrote in 1966 of the vision he had as a child when driving with his family in Otago. 'Big hills stood in front of little hills, which rose up distantly from the flat land; there was a landscape of splendour order and peace .... I saw something logical, orderly and beautiful belonging to the land and yet to its people. Not yet understood or communicated, not yet really invented. My work has largely been to communicate this vision and invent a way to see it.'

This exhibition will tour the major galleries this year and, although scheduled for the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts for August/ September, I understand it will not be seen in Wellington until December.