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Nine of Colin McCahon’s most important works are now on display in our Toi Art galleries, coinciding with the centenary of the artist’s birth.
The works on display are a celebration of the extensive artwork he created from the 1940s to 1970s.
Always technically daring, and open to challenging the boundaries of what a painting could be, McCahon famously described art as ‘signs and symbols for people to live by’. Through his work he has engaged people with big questions about life, faith, and place.
Focusing on three major moments in McCahon’s life, these three groups of paintings present distinct phases in McCahon’s career. From early religious paintings, that experiment with landscape and figurative work, to the abstract paintings of the 1960s and huge word paintings of the 1970s. This group of works shows McCahon experimenting with different scale, materials and subjects.
Born in Timaru in 1919, McCahon studied art in Dunedin in the late 1930s. He first exhibited his work at the Otago Art Society in 1939, going on to show regularly with the Christchurch collective The Group. McCahon moved to Auckland with his family in 1953. He spent the rest of his life in Auckland, working for many years at a curator at the Auckland Art Gallery, and teaching at the Elam School of Art, alongside his practice as a painter.
Colin McCahon, A grain of wheat, 1970, acrylic on unstretched canvas. © Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust. Te Papa (1978-0009-2)
Colin McCahon, The Angel of the Annunciation, 1947, oil on cardboard. © Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust. Te Papa (1980-0008-3)
Colin McCahon, Upper corners off, the second large gate, 1961, enamel on hardboard. © Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust. Te Papa (1980-0008-6)
The first group of paintings which include The Angel of the Annunciation, Christ Taken from the Cross and The King of the Jews, represent his early work depicting biblical scenes within a New Zealand landscape. These works which were first exhibited at the Wellington Public Library in 1948, shocked viewers with his use of flat surfaces, bold black outlines, titles and speech bubbles.
The second group of works on display were mostly painted in the 1960s and includes the works Waioneke, Gate: Waioneke, Upper corners off, the second large gate and Mondrian’s Last Crysanthemum. Although these four paintings are abstract, they also respond to the landscape and places in which McCahon lived. These works reflect his response to the increasingly urgent nuclear threat and environmental risk which was prevalent in the late 60s.
The last work Walk, which depicts Muriwai Beach, is a large, multi-part canvas, dating from 1973. This painting engages with the viewer physically, encouraging its audience to walk along the length of the work and experience McCahon’s view of the beach.
McCahon’s well known painting Grain of Wheat will be displayed in the stairwell between Level 4 and 5 of the gallery. There is a powerful immediacy to this painting, the work striving to speak to a wide audience as clearly as possible with the use of bold and compelling text.