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Colin McCahon

The testimony of scripture no. 1, 1979, Synthetic polymer paint on paper, 730 x 1100 mm, Private Collection, © Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust

Colin McCahon

A Letter to Hebrews, 1979, Synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas, 187 x 240 cm, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington; Gift of anonymous donors with assistance from the Willi Fels Memorial Trust, 1981, 1984-0004-1, © Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust; Photo: Museum of Te Papa Tongarewa (1981-0004-1)

Colin McCahon

A Letter to Hebrews (Rain in Northland), 1979, Synthetic polymer paint on 6 sheets of paper, each sheet: 730 x 1102 mm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria in memory of the Reverend Stan Brown by the Reverend Ian Brown, Fellow, 1984, P6.a-f-1984, © Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust

The Direction I’m Pointing In

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Richard Ayoade

Colin McCahon stated that his ‘painting … tells you where I am at any given time, where I am living and the direction I am pointing in’ (McCahon 1972: 26). He also painted the words of New Zealand poet Peter Hooper (1919–91): ‘Poetry isn’t in my words, it’s in the direction I’m pointing’ (1969). Paintings and poems are compasses for a journey of ultimate significance. Hebrews 11 ‘recounts the travels and travails of Christ’s Hebrew forebears’ on a journey towards a promised land that has not yet been reached (Smythe 2019). The text suggests that to travel in this way is a definition of faith. Those commended for their faith react to things not yet seen and live as those looking ‘forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Hebrews 11:10).

McCahon’s personal journey was bound up in the perception that, in the past, painters had made ‘signs and symbols for people to live by’ but now they make ‘things to hang on walls at exhibitions’ (McCahon 1972: 26). McCahon’s career was a journey of discovering what it meant to be a symbolic signwriter in the twentieth century.

That journey was inspired by youthful sights in Dunedin of a signwriter working on a shop window and a cross-shaped memorial to a parachutist on the North Otago hills (Bloem and Browne 2002: 160, 162). Then there was an encounter with Frank Tosswill, uncle of his friend the artist Toss Woollaston, whose blackboard signs lettered with religious texts and Christian symbols had an impact on McCahon’s thinking about art and faith.

McCahon introduced text into his religious paintings from 1947—his first sustained series in which religious imagery was translated into a contemporary style and put into New Zealand settings. In 1954, he produced the first paintings in which he used words to form the dominant motif—to become the image—often forming landscapes. In these ways McCahon became a symbolic signwriter and, as in his 1959 Elias works (not shown here), used this mature style to explore the deeply human concept of doubt.

He first used passages from Hebrews in Scrolls from 1969 but, in 1970, was specifically asked by a Wellington collector to consider the possibilities this book might hold for a painting. It was not until 1979 that he felt sufficiently confident in his understanding of Hebrews to explore its possibilities in the works included in this exhibition. 

Walking past these works from 1979 onwards, we pass ‘landscapes’ of splendour, order, and peace; visible beauty belonging to the land and not yet to its people; logic and order revealing their invisible fashioning by their creator. These works, as we journey through them, register experiences of ‘directional travel’, both personal and corporate—McCahon’s own experiences, as well as those of the ancient Hebrews, as well as the Church’s over many centuries. These are journeys on which challenges, struggles, and doubts have been encountered, even as a ‘homeland’ (v.14) is glimpsed. Connecting these works is the Tau Cross, an image that Christian tradition sees as spanning both Testaments—Old and New—signalling events in the horizontal timeline of human history (Passover and Good Friday) that also make a vertical connection between heaven and earth. The Tau Cross becomes a pillar of light for guidance and direction. 

The experience of those documented in Hebrews 11 was of the promised land always out of reach. McCahon suggests this lack of resolution within Rain in Northland. Luke Smythe, a particularly sensitive interpreter because he attends to the repetition of imagery within the different series, notes that the ‘hovering black rectangles that appear here and there amid the text are harder to interpret’:

They suggest editorial redactions, but since no words have been cut from the inscriptions, they are more likely to be gates, of the kind that McCahon had introduced to his painting in the 1960s. He intended these cryptic quadrilaterals to read as obstacles, blocking access to a state of salvation. For him, it was a question of faith as to whether they could ever be negotiated and the promised land attained. (Smythe 2019)

McCahon’s personal journey, involving both faith and doubt, mirrored the ‘travels and travails’ documented in Hebrews 11. Hebrews in turn enabled his understanding that to journey in this way is an expression of faith and to travel towards a promised land is an act of faith.   

 

References

Bloem, Marja, and Martin Browne. 2002. Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith (Craig Potton Publishing and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)

Hopper, Peter. 1969. ‘Poetry is for Peasants’, in Journey Towards an Elegy and Other Poems (Nag’s Head Press: Christchurch)

McCahon, Colin. 1972. Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition (Auckland City Art Gallery)

Smythe, Luke. 2019. ‘Review of Colin McCahon: Letter and Numbers at National Gallery of Victoria, 31 December 2019’, www.memoreview.net [accessed 14 April 2021]

Next exhibition: James 1:12–27