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)

Writing and imaging a journey


Colin McCahon ‘Victory over death 2’ 1970 synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas Gift of the New Zealand Government 1978 Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trust Colin McCahon Victory over death 2 1970 synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas Gift of the New Zealand Government 1978 Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trust more detail

I look back with joy on taking a brush of white paint and curving through the darkness with a line of white. Colin McCahon1

I rediscovered good old Lazarus. Now this is one of the most beautiful and puzzling stories in the New Testament … It hit me, BANG! At where I was: questions and answers, faith so simple and beautiful and doubts still pushing to somewhere else. It really got me down with joy and pain.
McCahon on his painting Practical Religion:  the resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha (Victory over death 1) 1969–702

Colin McCahon’s great, monumental Victory over death 2 1970 is one of the treasures of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection. For some it is this region’s equivalent of Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles 1952. Both paintings are regarded as iconic works. Both have increased dramatically in value since entering the collection in the 1970s. Both caused something of a furore in the press. When New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon gifted Victory over death 2 to the Australian people in 1978 some in the media saw it as a joke; a way of making front-page news. There were cartoons in the press and objections from some politicians. By this time McCahon had endured decades of slurs and misunderstandings in his local context. It didn’t make it any easier but it was predictable. Muldoon acknowledged that the New Zealand Government hadn’t wanted to buy the painting but that the National Gallery of Australia seemed keen to have it. The truth behind the scenes of this gift was that advisors in New Zealand (including the arts consultant Hamish Keith and the art dealer Peter McLeavey) recognised the importance of McCahon’s art and recommended the painting to the Arts Council of New Zealand and to James Mollison, the National Gallery’s first director, who had already shown considerable interest in the artist’s work.3

There was a small group of people who supported McCahon along the way – who ‘got’ what he was on about from the early stages of his artistic journey and recognised his integrity, his daring leaps of faith into what painting itself might be. In purely visual terms Victory over death 2 is extraordinarily daring in the way that the artist limited his palette, paring back his colour to stark black and white and tonalities of grey; and in the way that he gave himself the freedom to embrace the text itself – from the cursive handwriting to the architectural capital letters, stretching over two metres high from the top to the bottom of the composition. On the left in the velvety black ground are the very indistinct letters ‘AM’ posing a question against the ‘I’. This faces the luminous ‘I AM’ that refers to the voice of God (from the New English Bible, John 11:25). If we are guided by the palette and structure of the work, by the subtle shifts in emphasis, by the meaning and intonations of the words, we move from the dark chasm of human doubt and struggle to the affirmation of the presence of the Divine. Yet even in the towering presence of these letters we are reminded that revelation is temporary, that it needs to be affirmed before its pure power seeps away from human consciousness. The luminous towering ‘I’ and ‘A’ give way to grey in the ‘M’. The surrounding text reinforces the idea: ‘The light is among us still but not for long … While you have the light, trust the light, that you may become men of light.’
(John 12:36)

Victory over death 2 didn’t suddenly appear. It emerged after a long journey. The use of written text may look very current but for McCahon it was part of an ongoing struggle: the search for faith and meaning in his art and life. In the face of the issues of his time, including the Cold War and threats to the environment, he often felt he needed words. Early on, when he started his schooling at the Maori Hill Primary School in Dunedin, the act of writing, of forming letters and words, was a frustrating challenge. As a left-hander he was harshly punished for not writing as the teacher wanted him to write. It was among his first creative acts perceived as a perverse refusal to conform. He recalled how other teachers were more encouraging. One of them introduced him to the world of poetry; a lifelong passion, later shared with the poets James K Baxter and John Caselberg who became his close friends and, on occasion, collaborators. Early on too, writing presented the magic of practical revelation. One day in Dunedin the young McCahon came across a signwriter slowly plying his trade on a shop window – HAIRDRESSER AND TOBACCONIST – and was entranced.

Colin McCahon ‘Crucifixion: the apple branch’ 1950 oil on canvas Purchased with funds from the Sir Otto and Lady Margaret Frankel Bequest 2004 Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trust Colin McCahon Crucifixion: the apple branch 1950  oil on canvas  Purchased with funds from the Sir Otto and Lady Margaret Frankel Bequest 2004 Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trust more detail

I watched the work being done and fell in love with signwriting. The grace of the lettering as it arched across the window in gleaming gold, suspended on its dull red field but leaping free from its own black shadow, pointed to a new and magnificent world of painting. I watched from outside as the artist working from the inside slowly separated himself from me (and light from dark) to make his new creation.4

In the early 1930s text allied with religion manifested itself tellingly through eccentric Uncle Frank, the uncle of McCahon’s close artist-friend Toss Woollaston. On his visits to his nephew’s house Uncle Frank brought along blackboard signs lettered with religious texts and Christian symbols as well as a large version of a diagrammatic aid to meditation that he had painted himself. These teaching aids provided a basis for lively debates with McCahon and Woollaston.5 Although the younger men eventually tired of Uncle Frank, images and ideas persisted. In 1969 McCahon painted a series called Practical religion and in the mid 1970s he undertook his black and white Teaching aids. He wanted to communicate ‘practical religion’ – not simply faith as it was professed in a weekly Sunday ritual but faith tested through a real, raw, direct engagement with ideas in his art.

Finding ways of incorporating faith into the New Zealand context was important. For Australian artists in the 1930s and 1940s, with the notable exception of Arthur Boyd, religion did not enter into the artistic debates or their work to anywhere near the same extent as their New Zealand counterparts. Between 1946 and the early 1950s McCahon undertook a series of paintings based on religious subjects from the New Testament following a concerted period painting the landscape. He brought the two aspects together in a number of the religious works including Crucifixion: the apple branch 1950, one of the most important works of the period and one of his most overtly personal paintings. Exhibited only once during McCahon’s lifetime in The Group exhibition of 1950, this work remained with the artist in his studio until his death in 1987.

On the left of the painting McCahon painted a self-portrait looking in towards the crucifixion set against a Canterbury landscape. On the right, his wife Anne Hamblett stands under the apple tree alongside her son William, set against the hills in Nelson. The division of the painting into two main aspects represents different frames in time and place when McCahon was separated from his wife and children due to difficulties he experienced earning a living as an artist and providing for his young family. Although he had worked in apple orchards and tobacco fields on and off for years, his income was not enough for them to live on. The situation was exacerbated by a severe housing shortage in the postwar years. Reflecting on the painting William McCahon recalled:

Colin McCahon ‘North Otago landscape no. 14’ 1967 synthetic polymer paint on composition board Purchased 1997 Colin McCahon North Otago landscape no. 14 1967 synthetic polymer paint on composition board Purchased 1997 Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trust more detail

Dense with narrative meaning, the painting shows two landscapes. One, containing a portrait of McCahon, is a Canterbury landscape; the other is in a remembered place in Nelson next to a raupo (bulrush) swamp, where he and Anne, his wife, had been happy and the family lived together. Across time, Anne looks to McCahon and Christ with anguish while the child looks out at the world, unconcerned and trusting … Unable to provide or commit to a place in the ordinary workforce by giving up his spiritual quest, McCahon placed his hopes in his spiritual beliefs that all would work out for his family.6

The painting also relates to two biblical timeframes, the Old and New Testaments: the laden apple tree, one of the most lyrical images in McCahon’s art, and the crucifixion and the thirteen skulls at its base representing Christ and his disciples. While McCahon had been looking at other sources, including European religious paintings by artists such as Giotto and later work by Gauguin, what is important here is the way that he engages with the subject in terms of his inner life, personal circumstances and experience of the landscape. When the religious paintings were first exhibited, many objected to their apparent rawness and awkwardness. Others, such as the artist Rita Angus and the poet James K Baxter, came to McCahon’s defence. Baxter wrote:

The raw quality of his crucifixions might well offend the church-goer who wished to forget Christ on weekdays … Instead of revolting from his environment he learns to accept it. His Christs and angels are reconciled with the fertile hills behind them.7

The background landscape in Crucifixion: the apple branch points to important developments later on, including landscapes such as North Otago landscape no. 14 1967, in the National Gallery’s collection, with its simplified, elemental forms. It also provided a springboard for subsequent abstract investigations, often using text, which culminated in works such as Victory over death 2.8 The year before McCahon painted Victory over death 2, he completed a large series of about seventy five ‘writing paintings and drawings’ (his own words), applying fragments of text onto vertical scrolls of off-white wallpaper supplied by his brother-in-law. The quotations come from several sources including Matire Kereama’s The tail of the fish, poems by Peter Hooper, and passages drawn from the New English Bible which his wife, Anne, had given him. In these watercolour works McCahon embraces the shape of the long scrolls, cut into lengths of around 170 centimetres in height.
He accentuates certain letters and phrases, allowing the watery washes to create irregular haloes around them.

Colin McCahon ‘I applied my mind…’ 1982 synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas On loan from a private collection, New Zealand Colin McCahon I applied my mind…’ 1982 synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas On loan from a private collection, New Zealand Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publications Trust

Around the same time as he began painting Victory over death 2, McCahon was finishing another resurrection painting, Practical religion: the resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha (Victory over death 1) 1969–70 (signed Dec 69 Feb 70 Victory over death).9 Writing extensively over an expansive backdrop of the New Zealand landscape, the characters in the Lazarus painting felt real to him: ‘I grew to love the characters in the story and could see them as very real people; I felt as they felt.’ The risks that McCahon took made him feel that this was ‘in one way a dismal failure and in another one of my best paintings yet’. He noted, ‘I spent weeks painting my way over this story, more and more involved realising the great need for a new kind of painting to happen.’10 Victory over death 2 is more pared back and elemental than the previous painting.  It was a moment of revelation. As the text reveals it was the answer to Christ in his greatest moment of need. It is the possibility of the sacred emerging out of the darkness of intense struggle and questioning. It was an affirmation of McCahon’s confidence and daring as a painter.

A decade later he was not so sure. The dark shadows had again descended. In I applied my mind 1982 the feelings of hope and optimism that he had felt when he undertook the Lazarus painting and when he painted the vast letters ‘I AM’ had waned. He was at a low ebb in his personal life. Alcohol had taken a heavy toll, as had the years of struggle to be understood in society beyond a small band of supporters. In the wider world, history kept on repeating itself (as biblical quotations said it inevitably would); wars kept happening; people seemed mainly concerned with ‘self and money’, ignoring the importance of preserving the natural environment. He couldn’t make sense of the world around him and, in I applied my mind, chose the text from Ecclesiastes accordingly. Also reflecting his state of mind is the way in which he structured the composition into a horizontal band and two vertical columns of text, and the careful, obsessive journey of words written over the dark ground. Good and bad have merged. There is no space left:

God has set the one alongside the other in such a way that no one can find out what is to happen next: in my empty existence I have seen it all from a righteous man perishing in his righteousness to a wicked man growing old in his wickedness. Do not be over-righteous and do not be over-wise. Why make yourself a laughing stock?’ (Text inscribed in the painting from the New English Bible)

I applied my mind was among a group of four quite remarkable works that were the last paintings McCahon ever did. His last painting, I considered all the acts of oppression 1980–82, was found face down in his studio after his death five years later in 1987. In the intervening five years his loss of faith, along with his deteriorating health, meant he could not work. It was a sad ending for such an intense journey and commitment. Yet the results of that journey remain in a large and extraordinary body of work as testimony to that dogged spirit of enquiry into faith and art. For McCahon this enquiry was expressed in the continuing oscillation between doubts and moments of epiphany; in the pitfalls and joys in the making of his art in words, images and abstractions; ‘in taking a brush of white paint and curving through the darkness with a line of white’.


Deborah Hart
Senior Curator
Australian Painting and Sculpture (after 1920)


1 Colin McCahon quoted in Marja Bloem and Martin Browne (eds), Colin McCahon: A question of faith, Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum and Nelson, New Zealand, Craig Potton Publishing, 2003, p. 202.

2 Colin McCahon quoted in Colin McCahon: A question of faith, p. 24.

3 National Gallery of Australia artist’s file, 1978.

4 Colin McCahon: A question of faith, p. 160.

5 Colin McCahon: A question of faith, p. 167.

6 William McCahon, ‘Colin McCahon – a simple view’, Three paintings by Colin McCahon, Sydney: Martin Browne Fine Art, 1998, pp. 5–7.

7 James K Baxter, ‘Salvation Army aesthete’, Canta, 21 July 1948, reprinted in Peter Simpson, Candle in a dark room: James K Baxter and Colin McCahon, Auckland: Auckland City Gallery, 1995, p. 13.

8 Correspondence from Gordon Brown to Deborah Hart, 17 September 2001. Gordon Brown is the author of the first major monograph, Colin McCahon: Artist, Wellington: Reed Publishing, second revised edition, 1993.

9 This work is in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand, purchased in 1985.

10 Colin McCahon quoted in Colin McCahon: A question of faith, p. 212.