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)


Colin McCahon, Titirangi, c.1958 Courtesy of McCahon family archive Colin McCahon, Titirangi, c.1958 Courtesy of McCahon family archive

As part of its 25th-anniversary year, the National Gallery of Australia is proud to be touring a focus exhibition that celebrates the work of one of the most widely acclaimed Aotearoa New Zealand artists, Colin McCahon.

The exhibition brings together paintings and works on paper that reflect key concerns in McCahon’s art from 1950 through to the early 1980s. While drawn predominantly from the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, it features one of McCahon’s last paintings, I applied my mind 1980–82, which has been generously lent to the exhibition.

It has been thirty years since McCahon’s monumental Victory over death 2 1970 was gifted by the New Zealand Government to Australia. This work is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection. It was also in 1978 that the National Gallery first acquired a magnificent group of works on paper by McCahon that are being shown together in this focus show for the first time. These works are being shown in the context of a number of key paintings that include Crucifixion: the apple branch 1950, a painting that was important to the artist and remained in his studio until his death in 1987. The work was acquired in 2004 with the generous assistance the Sir Otto and Lady Margaret Frankel Bequest.

McCahon (1919–1987) is considered one of the most influential modernists in the Australasian region, producing his most strikingly original works from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. His early figurative work of the 1940s and 1950s was dominated by images drawn from religious paintings, often set in the New Zealand landscape. By 1959 he had produced his first body of ‘written paintings’ the Elias series. From this time on, text was to be the central motif in McCahon’s  work. In the final decade of his career most of his works consisted solely of numbers and texts drawn from the Bible or from Maori and English poetry. In these works he explored his growing interest in Maori culture, personal responses to Christianity, the symbolism of numbers, environmental concerns, and the challenges of faith.

Two decades after Colin McCahon’s death, the National Gallery of Australia aims in this focus exhibition to provide access to and further study of the intriguing work of one of the great artists of our region.


8 March–15 June 2008
Christchurch City Gallery

Christchurch New Zealand

5 July–19 October 2008
Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Dunedin New Zealand