The Art of Colin McCahon: 'Vision of God and the Land'
Crothall, Peter Douglas
The recent sale of Colin McCahon’s Canoe Tainui for a record price has brought his work to the attention of the public once again. He would not approve of the focus on dollars and financial value. The art of McCahon is prophetic and spiritual, and is widely recognized as such. The debate begins when asking what his paintings are about. How are they spiritual? How do his landscapes function? What is the underlying purpose and vision of these pioneering works of New Zealand modernism? In what sense are they ‘signs and symbols to live by’? I am arguing in this thesis that the death and resurrection of Jesus is central in Colin McCahon’s paintings. This theme is directly depicted in his early biblical narrative series. Symbolism and the use of historical types continue this focus in his later more abstract work. McCahon himself said in 1980 that ‘people just don’t seem to get it, my art is all about Christ.’ Indeed the series of revelations he received in Dunedin as a teenager, established this commitment he had to communicate a vision of God and the land. McCahon was an evangelist as much as an artist. The land itself was the most enduring symbol he used. The mountains, lakes and bays of Aotearoa became themselves, potent signs of the Passion of Christ. McCahon bathed the land in dramatic tonal contrasts, which heightened the symbolic and visual power of the land in his art. The struggle in restoring the entire created world, is referenced through light and dark in the art of McCahon. Painting the Passion of Christ in the context of New Zealand locations and landforms leads us back to the biblical book of Genesis. I will explore the classic doctrines of Creation and care of Creation in the theological chapter of this thesis. As we present these doctrines, we can see how they are implied in McCahon’s work, and in turn reinforce the argument for a religious interpretation of all his work. These themes from the first book of the Bible confirm the close relationship between Creation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and the call to tend and restore the land as well as its people. McCahon said at Muriwai in 1971‘I am painting about what is there and what I can see before the sea turns black with soot and the sea becomes a slowly heaving rubbish tip.’ Through his symbols, he called for both restoring the land and for personal salvation through Jesus Christ. The two were never separated in his iconography, most neatly summed up by the shape of a Tau Cross emerging through Muriwai cliffs and ocean. There are many precedents in earlier western art history for McCahon’s type of religious symbolism. The Romantic tradition in landscapes developed the idea that the land is a vehicle for expressing the divine, especially when the location is wild, windswept and isolated. The art of William Hodges and Petrus van der Velden, provided a direct link for McCahon between these European traditions and the adoption of Romanticism in Aotearoa. Romanticism met modernism in the work of Vincent van Gogh who intensified his expressive landscapes in an unprecedented way with light and colour. In his use of spiritual symbolism, McCahon was also drawing from the well of early modernism. The art movement known as Symbolism formed a bridge into the early abstract works of Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich. Abstraction in the early twentieth century was deeply embedded with spiritual allusions. Even during the 1960’s there were parallels between McCahon and a leading Abstract Expressionist Barnet Newman, through the theme of the Stations of the Cross. McCahon’s life long commitment to communicate the message of salvation through Jesus Christ was clear, as was his call to care for the land. He painted words from the Bible to underline the point. His last series, texts from the biblical books of Ecclesiastes and Hebrews, confirmed his call to faith. Many critics seem to be caught up in Muriwai ‘whiteouts’. McCahon commented on this in his Blinds series. This thesis seeks to lift the blinds.
Advisor: Rae, Murray
Degree Name: Master of Theology
Degree Discipline: Theology and Religious Studies
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Vincent van Gogh; Resurrection; Crucifixion; Creation; landcare; ecology; theology; Takaka Night and Day; Muriwai; gannets; William Hodges; Petrus van der Velden; New Zealand; Tau Cross; religious symbolism; Colin McCahon; Barnett Newman; Kandinsky; Stations of the Cross; theology and art; art and faith; Takaka Night and Day; Mane Wheoki; Annette Edwards; Zoe Alderton; Wystan Curnow; Tony Green; Marja Bloem; Francis Pound; Passion Christ; Green crosses; McCahon van Gogh; Sublime art NewZealand; McCahon and Modernism; contextualisation; theology in context; visual theology; religion and modernism; evangelist artist; Baxter McCahon; Genesis; McCahonland; Garden of Eden; Creator; environment art theology; Jesus art; Land with too few lovers; McCahon vision; visionary art New Zealand; William Dyrness; New heaven new earth; year of Jubilee; partnership earth; Stewards earth; lovers of the earth; Gerard Manley Hopkins; cross and creation; Promised Land; Necessary Protection; Parihaka; stations of the Cross; Victory over Death; Easter landscape
Research Type: Thesis