Colin John McCahon was born in Timaru on 1 August 1919, the second of three children of Ethel Beatrice Ferrier and her husband, John Kernohan McCahon, a commercial traveller, and later a company manager. Ethel McCahon travelled from the family’s home in Dunedin to be with her mother for Colin’s birth. He attended Māori Hill School, but an informal education in art was to prove more important. In their Highgate home hung landscapes by McCahon’s late grandfather, William Ferrier, and the family regularly visited the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and art exhibitions.
The family lived in Ōamaru in 1930–31, and Colin’s interest in art was encouraged at Waitaki Junior High School. Back in Dunedin he attended Russell Clark’s Saturday morning art classes and found the lessons on controlling pictorial tone particularly instructive. From 1933 to 1936 he was at Otago Boys’ High School; his interests in art were unsatisfied. During July–August 1936 he made several visits to an exhibition by Toss Woollaston, whose landscapes, ‘clean, bright with New Zealand light, and full of air’, gave direction to his desire to become a painter. Despite disagreement with his father, McCahon left school, worked at Scoullar and Chisholm’s furniture store, then in 1937 enrolled at the Dunedin School of Art, where for two years he found in R. N. Field an ideal teacher. Early in 1938 he joined Fred Argyle’s variety company on an unsuccessful tour of small South Island towns. Late that year, with Rodney Kennedy, a lifelong friend, McCahon biked to Nelson for fruit-picking over the summer. They visited Woollaston at Māpua; so began his and McCahon’s uneasy friendship. The availability of seasonal work dictated McCahon’s movements between Dunedin and the Nelson–Motueka area over the next few years.
Rodney Kennedy’s love of theatre encouraged McCahon to get involved with stage scenery, as in the 1939 production of Friedrich Wolf’s play Professor Mamlock. That year he became an artist member of the Otago Art Society, but when the society refused to hang his first substantial painting, ‘Harbour Cone from Peggy’s Hill’ in its annual exhibition in November, other young painters withdrew their work in his support. (McCahon, nevertheless, remained a member until 1945.) In September 1940 he was guest exhibitor with The Group show in Christchurch, and again in November 1943. He became a member of The Group in 1947 and thereafter contributed work regularly until its demise in 1977. On 21 September 1942, at St Matthew’s Church, Dunedin, McCahon married Annie (Anne) Eleanor Hamblett, a talented artist and daughter of Archdeacon W. A. Hamblett, who officiated. For a while they lived in Pangatōtara, near Motueka, where they were visited by Doris Lusk. When Colin sought work at the Wellington Botanic Garden Anne returned to her parents to give birth to the first of two sons and two daughters. With Colin reliant on seasonal work, over the next five years they lived together only intermittently.
During 1944, with both Anne and Colin in Dunedin, they collaborated on a set of watercolour ‘Pictures for children’. Within two years of these being exhibited Anne ceased to paint. While she illustrated several children’s publications during the next few years, it had become obvious that McCahon would tolerate one painter only in the family. In June 1945 Colin had a small exhibition at the French Maid Coffee House, Wellington, and gained his first commission, from Mario and Hilda Fleischl, for his large ‘Otago Peninsula ’ landscape. In this and later landscapes, McCahon revealed his concern for the underlying structure of landforms, and their capability of being interpreted symbolically.
During the early 1940s, as McCahon struggled to find himself as an artist, he turned to the work of various artists for guidance. In coming to understand Gauguin’s approach to art, his ideas began to gel in works such as ‘Harriet Simeon’ (1945), and ‘Singing women’ (1945–46).
Late in 1946, when living in Nelson, McCahon began his early religious painting ‘I Paul to you at Ngatimote’, the first of a loose group of paintings which he continued until 1952. These works placed events from Christ’s life in a New Zealand setting; their raw primitivism was often tempered by the gentler simplicity of the Italian Quattrocento painters.
During 1947 the McCahons moved into Nelson, where Colin worked as a builder’s labourer. Early in 1948 he shifted to Christchurch, boarding with Doris Lusk and her husband, Dermot Holland, and worked as a gardener. With his friend R. N. O’Reilly as organiser, McCahon’s work was exhibited at the Wellington Public Library during February, then at the Lower Hutt Municipal Public Library. The primitivism in McCahon’s modernist approach caused lively debate. He had expected the traditional element in his religious subjects to carry his meaning, but the general lack of comprehension, and denigration by critics such as A. R. D. Fairburn, temporarily disheartened him. In September McCahon showed a different selection at the Dunedin Public Library.
Late in 1948 he rented a house in Christchurch, and again the family were together. In Wellington, in August 1949, Helen Hitchings’s gallery mounted a joint exhibition of works by McCahon and Woollaston; a selection was shown in Auckland later that month.
Owing to Charles Brasch’s generosity, McCahon travelled to Melbourne in July–August 1951 to study paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria. There he met Mary Cockburn-Mercer, who rekindled his interest in cubism. Her personal acquaintance with the cubists epitomised McCahon’s idea of artistic knowledge passed down from master to pupil; this remained a factor in his own later activities as teacher and lecturer.
In 1952 Tasman Empire Airways commissioned a painting from McCahon to celebrate the 1953 London-to-Christchurch Air Race. Early in 1953 he designed stage sets for a production of Peer Gynt. In May of that year McCahon went to Auckland mistakenly believing that a job waited for him at Auckland City Art Gallery. He was, however, given a temporary position. Late that year he purchased a house in Titirangi and the family joined him. He tried to be a conventional family man, but his demands not to be disturbed, outbursts of verbal abuse, and his increasing habit of remaining at the gallery after working hours to spend time painting disrupted domestic life.
In Auckland he found other painters more attuned to his modernist ideas than the mainly regionalist painters of the South Island. His idiomatic adaptations from cubism and his tendency to paint in series can be seen in his early Titirangi landscapes, such as the ‘Towards Auckland’ series (1953–54). Paintings in which written words dominate first appeared in 1954 with ‘I am’; they were to become a recurrent feature of his work. In September, some of these new works were included in the Object and Image exhibition he helped to organise at the Auckland City Art Gallery. In April 1956 he became keeper and deputy director of the gallery.
With Anne, Colin toured the United States from April to July 1958, primarily to look at how art museums were run, but taking every opportunity to seek out art he wanted to see. What he did see was packed into too short a period, mainly haphazard and reliant on what was on view at the time. From this jumble of impressions the influences immediately discernible in his paintings were generalised; but large canvases by Picasso and Jackson Pollock made him realise ‘the importance of pictures for people to walk past’ and gave him a new confidence to deal with representation as he saw fit.
Soon after returning home McCahon painted the ‘Northland panels’, a work already benefiting from his American experience. Although developing already established themes, the work became pivotal to his art’s future direction. A painting of considerable size, it consolidated McCahon’s habit of presenting a landscape in several facets, each reflecting a different aspect of the same scene, but often under differing atmospheric conditions. The panels are painted on unstretched canvas hung like wall hangings, thereby doing away with the formality of the traditional picture frame. McCahon wanted to imply that his landscapes carried on beyond the canvas’s painted edge.
While McCahon was still correcting his ‘Northland panels’ he produced a cluster of other works which also broke new ground, and tried out new techniques. These include the ‘Northland’ drawings, ‘The wake’ and the sobering ‘Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is’. Tentatively begun early in 1959, the ‘Elias’ series, whose theme of doubt is derived from the crucifixion story, had by August become a major series that pointed a way for McCahon’s use of inscribed texts in his future work.
During March 1960 the family moved from Titirangi to Grey Lynn, in central Auckland. In August, McCahon’s ‘Painting’ (1958) shared the Hay’s Art Competition prize, amid controversy, with two other artists. In 1961, after the success of Frank Sargeson’s play A time for sowing, Sargeson, McCahon and Christopher Cathcart (as director) formed the New Independent Theatre. Over the next couple of years they staged several plays and dramatic readings.
A series of paintings called ‘Gate’, together with several associated series, occupied McCahon for most of 1961 and well into 1962. All were shown in Christchurch in September. In the later paintings, ‘Gate’ came to represent a way through the nuclear weapons threat.
This was also the period when McCahon seriously considered becoming a Roman Catholic. It became clear, however, that his freewheeling approach to religion not only conflicted with church doctrine, but prevented him from submitting to the church. This aggravated what was becoming a worrying drinking problem.
Early in 1963 McCahon completed the ‘Landscape theme and variations’ paintings, landscapes intended ‘to throw people into an involvement with the raw land, and also with raw paint … like spitting on the clay to open the blind man’s eyes’. In May the Auckland City Art Gallery opened a retrospective exhibition of works by Woollaston and McCahon which later toured the country. McCahon began his large ‘Waterfall’ series early in 1964. In August he left the Auckland City Art Gallery and on 1 September began lecturing in painting at the Elam School of Fine Arts. Students generally found him stimulating and encouraging of their own artistic talents, but sometimes short with those out of tune with his teaching method.
Although McCahon had previously exhibited his works with short-lived dealer galleries, this changed when the Barry Lett Galleries, Auckland, opened in 1965. His first solo exhibition in August included ‘The second gate’ (1962), while among the new paintings was the carefully worked out ‘Numerals’ (1965), with its many connotations. Over the next five years the major portion of McCahon’s production was first shown at the Barry Lett Galleries; from 1969 to 1976 it was shared with the Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, and occasionally with other dealer galleries. With greater exposure in both dealer and public art galleries, and with better informed critical comment, appreciation of McCahon’s work both deepened and spread.
During 1965 McCahon was represented in two exhibitions shown overseas: in London, Contemporary Painting in New Zealand, and in Australia, Eight New Zealand Artists. Later that year he began painting the clerestory windows for a convent chapel in Upland Road, Auckland. In doing so, McCahon’s interest in religious subjects was again aroused. There were also small black landscapes and paintings with Māori or religious connections. These were interrupted by his more relaxed ‘North Otago’ landscapes in 1967.
In 1968 McCahon erected on his wife’s recently acquired property at Muriwai an industrial shed that became his studio. By this time McCahon’s imagery often functioned as symbols, his use of words changed inscriptions into texts, and more often than not paintings were white painted over black. Over the next three years several series of religious paintings were produced, culminating in 1970 with the large ‘Victory over death 2’ presented in 1978 by the New Zealand government to the government and people of Australia. Towards the end of 1970 McCahon began ‘Gate III’ for the Ten Big Paintings exhibition shown in the Auckland City Art Gallery in February 1971.
McCahon left the Elam school in January 1971 to become a full-time painter. He continued to teach at weekend and summer schools. Most of his painting was now done in his studio at Muriwai, where he began the multi-series ‘Necessary protection’. Initially, only the occasional painting threw out hints as to the series’s wider meaning of the protection needed to sustain life and the environment. Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition opened at the Auckland City Art Gallery in March 1972, then toured.
McCahon’s long but intermittent friendship with James K. Baxter, which had soured in the late 1960s, was celebrated after the poet’s death in ‘Walk’ (1973), an imaginary and symbolic lifetime walk along Muriwai Beach. This spiritual reconciliation was clinched when McCahon undertook, between March and June 1973, the set designs for a festival of four of Baxter’s plays at Wellington.
While ‘Necessary protection’ ceased with the ‘Jump’ series in 1973, its basic themes continued, if modified, in the series that followed, as in ‘Noughts and crosses’, ‘Teaching aids’ and ‘Angels and bed’. Over this same decade, in a number of works McCahon drew on Māori history and tradition, as in the ‘Parihaka triptych’, ‘The shining cuckoo’ and the ‘Urewera mural’.
In 1975 the Manawatū Art Gallery mounted the first exhibition to examine in detail a particular aspect of McCahon’s past work with McCahon: ‘Religious’ Works 1946–1952. The implications of recent work were dealt with in the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery’s 1977 exhibition McCahon’s ‘Necessary Protection’; both exhibitions toured. Although McCahon’s work still attracted derision, by now the reaction was counterbalanced by those supportive of him.
By the late 1970s McCahon’s alcoholism was adversely affecting his health. In 1978 he erected a new, smaller studio at his Auckland home. Within a year, because he had to rely on other people to drive him around, the studio at Muriwai was abandoned.
In McCahon’s final paintings of 1979–82 he turned to Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews and to Ecclesiastes for his lettered texts. These works contain a mixture of nostalgia and apprehension as one senses that McCahon was both reviewing aspects of his life and unwillingly accepting what seemed inevitable. In his final years, dementia caused a slow mental deterioration. When, in 1984, an exhibition I Will Need Words was shown within the international setting of the Fifth Biennale of Sydney, McCahon was barely able to comprehend its significance in establishing for him the beginnings of a reputation in international art.
Colin McCahon died in Auckland Hospital on 27 May 1987. He was survived by his wife and children. His ashes were scattered on the Muriwai headland on 6 June 1988.