Colin McCahon

A National Gallery of Australia Focus Exhibition

Introduction | Writing and imaging a journey | Printmaking and paper projects | Works in the NGA collection | Learning resource (pdf)

Printmaking and paper projects


Colin McCahon ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ 1969 ink and brush on paper Purchased 1978 Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trus Colin McCahon Ecce Agnus Dei 1969 water-based crayon and wash on paper Purchased 1978 Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trust more detail

There can be no debate that Colin McCahon is the most significant New Zealand artist of the twentieth century. The raw, graphic nature of his figurative works and the great power found in his word and number constructions remain unmatched. Whilst McCahon’s paintings on canvas and large painted works on paper have secured the artist’s international reputation, McCahon’s work as a printmaker remains relatively unknown. This is due to the fact that McCahon’s work with print media was sporadic; his career being marked with gaps of several years between print projects. Despite this inconsistency, McCahon’s brief periods of experimentation with printmaking led to significant aesthetic extensions of his work and, on occasion, can be traced as a root in the growth of entirely new stylistic developments in his overall work. The National Gallery of Australia’s focus exhibition Colin McCahon includes a significant number of McCahon’s works on paper and showcases five of the artist’s prints and two rare paper printing plates. This is the first national touring exhibition to provide significant material through which the viewer can explore the position, function and importance of printmaking within McCahon’s oeuvre.

The National Gallery of Australia commenced its focused collection of McCahon’s works on paper in 1978 when the Gallery’s Council requested that inaugural Director, James Mollison, visit New Zealand with the express intention of meeting with McCahon and purchasing a selection of the artist’s works on paper. The visit was highly successful and Mollison was able to purchase seven large works on paper for the growing national collection. Included among the acquisitions were three works using water-based crayon and wash on wallpaper: Let us then stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity, Shall we gather at the river, and Ecce Agnus Dei, each created in 1969. These three works endure as superb examples of McCahon’s Scrolls series which explore the artist’s fundamental concern with the questioning of organised religious belief through text. In these works, McCahon’s words have become the image as the artist combines the two unique art forms of writing and drawing. McCahon allows the viewer to both visually interpret and literally read the works and, in this way, is experimenting with the communicative aspects of his work. Passages drawn from multiple sources including Matire Kereama’s The tail of the fish, poems by Peter Hooper and the New Testament are presented in a scrawling cursive handwriting – a stylistic device that creates the look of a personal message or intimate confession. McCahon’s delicate bleeding of water-based crayon gives his words a tentative, unresolved look that further generates an atmosphere of doubt. Despite their introspective appearance, the works actually function as an exploration of the universal, existential human condition. The artist has deliberately chosen sections of text that lead the viewer to contemplate issues of hope and anguish, apprehension and conviction.

On his visit to New Zealand, James Mollison also purchased four of McCahon’s recent synthetic polymer paint on paper works titled Clouds I, Clouds II, Noughts and crosses 4 and Angels and bed Hi Fi No. 7: Watch, created between 1975 and 1977. Clouds I and Clouds II are striking examples of the artist’s obsessive arrangements based upon numbers. In Clouds I the numbers one to fourteen are set within eight white cloud-like shapes and against a dense black background. The numerical sequence begins at the top left of the image and progresses down the left-hand side to the bottom of the composition and then back up again along the right-hand side, concluding with the number fourteen encased within a white box at the top of the image. The numerals and the path that they follow around the sheet of paper are symbolic of the fourteen Stations of the Cross – Christ’s journey from condemnation through to his crucifixion and burial. However, whilst the numerals relate to the divine, the clouds exist in the secular world and were inspired by the view from the Muriwai cliff edge above Maori Bay in New Zealand. From this vantage point, McCahon intends the viewer to watch the ominous clouds pass over them as if they are enduring the turbulent and significant events in one’s life.1 With this combination of the divine and the secular, Clouds I can be understood as a complex depiction of the awesome spiritual power of the New Zealand landscape and, more universally, as a sombre representation of the cycle of life and death.

With the National Gallery of Australia now celebrating its twenty-fifth year, we can look back upon the collection of these large works on paper as an act of curatorial foresight. Since the initial major acquisition the National Gallery of Australia has focused upon strengthening its holdings and is now the custodian of a significant collection of McCahon’s works on paper. Despite the obvious magnetism of the artist’s large works on paper, it is a single linocut of a young woman, two lithographic paper plates and a series of four lithographic prints titled Puketutu Manukau that are perhaps the most curious of the McCahon compositions on paper. These works are the only examples within the national collection that represent McCahon’s printmaking pursuits. Considered in sequence, these works piece together the story of an artist whose printmaking was perhaps more often driven by a need to supplement his financial situation than by the need to express himself through the aesthetic possibilities offered by print media. Despite the haphazard nature of McCahon’s print projects, the printed works on display in Colin McCahon shed great insight into the working methods and aesthetic concerns of the artist during his most prolific period as a printmaker – the 1950s.

Colin McCahon ‘I applied my mind…’ 1982 synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas On loan from a private collection, New Zealand Colin McCahon 7 poems 1982 linocut and letterpress text on paper Purchased 2005 Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trust more detail

In 1952 McCahon embarked upon a collaboration with his poet-friends, John Caselberg and Bill Trussel. The group of three had reached a frustration point due to the difficulties in having poetry published in Christchurch.2 After much discussion, it became clear that the best way to alleviate their problem was to become self-publishers. McCahon, Caselberg and Trussel subsequently produced a single-page broadsheet, which they called Issue. Issue I was produced as an edition of 200 and sold for one shilling.3 McCahon and Caselberg continued with the collaboration and produced Issue II and Issue III. Despite its premature demise before a fourth issue, the broadsheet was fruitful in the fact that Issue I was devoted to the poetry of Caselberg and featured a striking two-colour linocut by McCahon as its front cover design.

McCahon’s linocut displays all of the raw vigour of the artist’s religious works in a simple, yet sophisticated depiction of the bust of a young woman. The woman is represented in a blockish linear fashion typical of McCahon’s figurative style at the time. The young woman featured on the cover of Issue I is positioned towards the viewer, her breasts bare and with a slight tilt of her head. Her eyes are closed, prompting the viewer to wonder what she might be thinking and feeling. Despite her simple graphic form, she radiates a calmness or piety as if she is in a deep mediative state. Above the woman’s head, and serving as the title lettering for the issue, is the number 7 and the word Poems. McCahon has depicted both the number and word in a roughly carved manner, in capital letters, and has printed both in thick black ink. The title frames the figure within the composition and forms an interesting early example of the artist’s masterly combination of text and image.

McCahon’s linocut of the young woman is a striking combination of figuration, text and numerals, that anticipates, in its basic essential components, McCahon’s word and number paintings which he began two years later in 1954. An interesting point of discussion is the absolutely central importance of print/poetry projects, such as Issue I, II and III (and subsequently the artist’s 1954 Van Gogh print/poetry project, again in collaboration with Caselberg) as a vital steering mechanism for McCahon’s work as a whole. It is precisely these print/poetry projects as very early experiments in the combination of text and image that gave McCahon the courage to so audaciously and magnificently combine text, numerals and religious scripts within his renowned paintings of the mid 1950s and beyond.

Colin McCahon arrived at an artistic crossroad in 1953. In order to take up an offer of employment at the Auckland City Art Gallery, McCahon moved from Christchurch to Auckland with his wife and children. It was, in hindsight, a move that forced a marked change in McCahon’s work. Not only is Auckland very different to Christchurch from a ecological perspective, which was to provide McCahon with new stimulus, but Auckland, and in particular, McCahon’s new job, were to provide opportunities in printmaking that had been previously unavailable to him. The Director of the Auckland City Art Gallery, Eric Westbrook, encouraged McCahon to try the newly available printmaking technique of off-set lithography:

It was Eric Westbrook who first mooted the idea of doing these prints. He thought that they would be a really good money spinner. Off-set 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.4

McCahon’s earliest experiment with off-set lithography was a 1954 print titled Kauri. His selection of imagery for the print was directly related to the series of Kauri tree paintings that he was working on at the time. The print run was an edition of fifty-five but the project did not bear the financial benefits that both McCahon and Westbrook had hoped for5. It was not until 1957 that McCahon decided to return to off-set lithography, this time creating a group of four prints that presented, in a visual blending of text and image, the Van Gogh poems of John Caselberg. Unfortunately, McCahon and Caselberg failed to secure the copyright permission to republish the poems (initially published by Pegasus Press in 1954) and the project was never publicly released.

Colin McCahon [Paper lithographic plate for Titirangi bush landscape and Old woman by the sea] 1957  Colin McCahon [Paper lithographic plate for 'Titirangi bush landscape' and 'Old woman by the sea'] 1957 lithographic crayon on paper Purchased 2005 Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trust

Following these initial attempts at off-set lithography it was only after the gallery owner Peter Webb approached McCahon with the proposal of publishing a series of prints that McCahon decided to experiment with printmaking once again. By this stage McCahon was living in Titirangi and, inspired by his surrounds, had been working on a series of paintings know as the Titirangi landscape paintings. In a similar vein McCahon began his new print project by concentrating on the landscape surrounding him. Drawing spontaneously with lithographic crayon, McCahon produced two paper printing plates on two pieces of inexpensive, thin paper.

On the first paper plate, McCahon created two separate designs on the same sheet. Titirangi bush landscape appears on the left side of the plate and Old woman by the sea appears on the right. Both sketches feature rapidly drawn lines of varying density; marks that display a freedom of hand, uninhibited by any preciousness for the imagery being created. McCahon also inscribed both designs with the information: ‘McCahon ’57 ed. 100. Published by Peter Webb, High Street Auckland’, indicating that he had initially intended for the plates to be printed. However, along with a second paper plate featuring an abstracted landscape very similar to Titirangi bush landscape, the paper plates were never editioned.6 Without ever having been printed, the works are original drawings and thus stand as rare and interesting insights into the artist’s working methods and initial experiments with his print project.

After this apparent false start to the project, McCahon started afresh by drawing onto four separate paper plates. This time he produced a title page and three differing views of the island of Puketutu in the Manukau Harbour, New Zealand. The first image depicts the island from the vantage point of the beach; the second view is a perspective from the artist’s boat; whilst the third image depicts the island within a circular frame, much like a view through a ship’s porthole. With minimal lines and shading McCahon has portrayed three consecutive moments in the New Zealand weather, brilliantly capturing a rapidly approaching storm. Sheets of black lines drawn diagonally across the page, very lightly in the first image, become darker and are drawn with more vigour in the second image and culminate in the full-blown storm hitting the harbour in the final image. McCahon’s changing vantage point for each of the three images suggests the artist’s physical retreat from the beach to his boat (the second image is inscribed with the words ‘Puketutu from my boat’), and then undercover (and looking through the ship’s porthole) as the storm breaks over the harbour. The three Puketutu Manukau lithographs are expressions of one of McCahon’s central preoccupations – his immense respect for the powerful natural spirit inherent within the landscape of New Zealand.

Colin McCahon ‘Puketutu Manakau 3 from Puketutu Manukau’ 1957 lithographic crayon on paper Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trust Colin McCahon Puketutu Manakau 3 from Puketutu Manukau 1957 lithographic crayon on paper Purchased 1978 Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trust more detail

Stylistically, it is interesting to note the influence of cubism in the Puketutu Manukau series of lithographs, perhaps most visible in McCahon’s use of repeated linear strokes to splinter the surface of his compositions. (For a short time in 1951, Colin McCahon had been a student of the Australian cubist artist Mary Cockburn Mercer.) Whilst many of the cubists used this technique to depict multiple moments in time within a single composition, McCahon’s handling of the device is somewhat different. Although McCahon has chosen to depict only one moment in time per image, by working with a series of images he is able to show consecutive moments in time across the three lithographs. In this way, McCahon has harnessed the medium for a sequencing effect. The splintering lines drawn in each image are used as timing elements; as representations of the growing tension in the weather, which when viewed across a series of images, gradually build into the depiction of a storm.

McCahon’s decision to work in series is also of significance. Printmaking is the medium of the multiple and is characteristically a process of sequencing. Thus, McCahon’s application of a progressive sequence to this print project is fundamentally suited to his choice of medium. As a series of consecutive moments in time, the lithographs can be ‘read’ and, in combination with the use of certain stylistic devices, the resulting narrative is one that is infused with a sense of urgency. In the Puketutu Manukau lithographs, it is as if the viewer can sense the artist’s haste in sketching his impressions of the weather from various vantage points and rushing undercover before the storm breaks upon him. The use of a ‘layered narrative’ is a compositional device found in many of McCahon’s most recognised works (once again, we can refer to Crucifixion: the apple branch).7 However, here, in three apparently crude black and white linear compositions, is a progressive narrative that makes a transition through both locale and time, taking the viewer on a journey through a sequence of events, rather than asking them to decipher the ‘layered narrative’ via a single static image.

The Puketutu Manukau print project was printed in an edition of 100, on cheap paper, and in black ink with the second image having traces of an additional blue ink. The fourth page displays both the printing information and title of the series using cursive writing, a stylistic element that features heavily in many of the artist’s text based works. The lithographs were printed before Christmas 1957 and were advertised by Peter Webb as ‘excellent additions to print collections, and very suitable Christmas gifts’.8 Once again, however, McCahon’s printmaking efforts were not as financially successful as first predicted.

Perhaps the financial disappointment of the print projects of the 1950s was the reason that McCahon seldom returned to printmaking during the last decades of his career. Despite
McCahon’s brief experimentation with printmaking, the few prints that the artist did produce
hold a unique place within his oeuvre and shed light on the sources and influences of many of his more recognised works.


Jaklyn Babington
International prints and drawings


1 Marja Bloem and Martin Browne (eds), Colin McCahon: A question of faith, Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum and Nelson, New Zealand, Craig Potton Publishing, 2003, p. 225.

2 Gordon Brown, Colin McCahon: Artist, Wellington: Reed Publishing, first edition, 1984, p. 63.

3 Colin McCahon: Artist, p. 63.

4 Colin McCahon, ‘All the paintings, drawings and prints by Colin McCahon in the Gallery’s collection’, Auckland City Art Gallery Quarterly, Number 44, 1969, p. 14.

5 Colin McCahon: Artist, p. 65.

6 ASG Green, ‘More about Peter Webb’s Gallery and some unpublished McCahon lithographs’, Bulletin of New Zealand Art History, Volume 2, 1974, p. 47.

7 Deborah Hart, ‘Colin McCahon: Crucifixion the apple branch’, artonview, National Gallery of Australia, Issue No. 40, Summer, 2004, pp. 26–27.

8 Bulletin of New Zealand Art History, p. 4.