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Colin McCahon

Colin J. McCahon
A pencil drawing of Colin McCahon by Allan Mollison (2009)
A pencil drawing of Colin McCahon by Allan Mollison (2009)
Born (1919-08-01)1 August 1919
Timaru, Timaru District, New Zealand
Died 27 May 1987(1987-05-27) (aged 67)
Auckland, Auckland Region, New Zealand
Resting place Ashes scattered at Muriwai, Auckland Region, New Zealand
Nationality New Zealander
Alma mater Otago Boys' High School
Known for Painter
Movement Modernism
Spouse(s) Anne Hamblett (1915-1993)

Colin John McCahon (1 August 1919 – 27 May 1987)[1] was a prominent artist in New Zealand. Along with Toss Woollaston and Rita Angus, McCahon is credited for introducing modernism to New Zealand in the early twentieth century. He is regarded as New Zealand's most important modern artist, particularly in his landscape work.[2][3]


  • Early life and development 1
  • War years 2
  • Married life 3
  • Career 4
  • Teaching and exhibiting 5
  • Later years 6
  • Style and themes 7
    • Influences 7.1
  • Landscape 8
    • Muriwai paintings 8.1
    • Word paintings 8.2
  • Legacy 9
    • Family house museum and artists' residency 9.1
    • Retrospectives 9.2
    • Works stolen 9.3
    • In popular culture 9.4
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12

Early life and development

McCahon was born in Timaru on 1 August 1919.[4] He spent most of his childhood in Dunedin, although his family lived in Oamaru for one year.[1] He showed an early interest in art, influenced by regular visits to exhibitions and the work of his maternal grandfather, the photographer and painter William Ferrier. He attended the Maori Hill Primary School and Otago Boys' High School. At the age of 14, McCahon took Russell Clark’s Saturday morning art classes[4] where Robert Nettleton Field proved to be an inspirational teacher. McCahon later attended the Dunedin School of Art (now known as Otago Polytechnic) from 1937–1939. He first exhibited his works at the Otago Art Society in 1939. His painting Harbour Cone from Peggy’s Hill was considered too abstract and was excluded from the Otago Art Society's exhibition, despite their rules entitling each member to submit one work.[5]

War years

At the beginning of World War II, McCahon worked in prescribed industries in support of the war effort. Later, leaving his family at home, he traveled around the South Island for seasonal work which subsequently led to his artwork reflecting the places he traveled to, particularly the Nelson region.

McCahon’s first mature works, religious paintings and symbolic landscapes such as "The Angel of the Annunciation," "Takaka: Night and Day" and "The Promised Land" emerged in the years immediately after the war; during this time a portrait of McCahon was painted by Doris Lusk.[6]

Married life

McCahon married fellow artist Anne Hamblett (1915–1993) in 1942 at St. Matthew's Church, Dunedin.[1] As a wedding present, McCahon and Hamblett received a book by C. A. Cotton, The Geomorphology of New Zealand. This book would prove to have an influence on his art.[4]

In 1944, the couple painted a collaboration of children's illustrations in watercolour called 'Pictures for Children.'[7]

The couple had four children.


By 1948, McCahon and Hamblett had relocated to Christchurch.[1] Thanks to the generosity of the poet and editor Charles Brasch, McCahon was able to visit Melbourne from July to August 1951 to study paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria.

In May 1953, McCahon moved his family to Titirangi, Auckland, where they bought a house. Partly as a result of his exposure to the area, McCahon painted many landscapes featuring beaches, the sea, the sky, land, boats and kauri trees. He started working at the Auckland City Art Gallery first as a cleaner, then as a custodian of the paintings and finally, in April 1956 as the Deputy Director.[4] McCahon assisted in the professionalisation of the gallery and helped it to mount the first exhibitions and publications to record New Zealand art history.

From April to July 1958, McCahon and his wife visited the United States on Gallery business but also used this as an opportunity to view art that interested them. Paintings such as The Wake and the Northland panels reflect McCahon’s immediate response to this visit and his stylistic development accelerated over the following decade.

In 1964, McCahon started working as a lecturer at the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland.[4]

Teaching and exhibiting

In 1960, the family moved to a house in central Auckland, and in August 1964, McCahon resigned from the Auckland City Art Gallery to take up a position at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, lecturing on painting. He taught there for six years, influencing a generation of artists, including Richard Killeen, Robin White and Ian Scott.

During the 1960s, McCahon was increasingly successful in having his work shown and recognised in New Zealand and internationally. In January 1971, he left Elam School of Fine Arts to paint full-time.

The 1970s were richly productive years for McCahon with numerous exhibitions. A second retrospective of his work was presented at Auckland City Art Gallery in 1972 whereas the first one was held in 1963 as a joint exhibition with Toss Woollaston.

Later years

By the late 1970s, McCahon’s health was deteriorating because of his long-term alcoholism, and by the mid-1980s he was suffering from dementia. In 1984, the exhibition "I Will Need Words" was presented as part of the Biennale of Sydney but McCahon was barely able to appreciate his growing international reputation due to his ill health. He died in Auckland City Hospital on 27 May 1987. On 6 June 1988, his ashes were scattered throughout the Muriwai headland.[7]

Auckland City Art Gallery presented another retrospective the following year, "Colin McCahon: Gates and Journeys." Further major exhibitions both in New Zealand and overseas have followed. [8]

Style and themes

McCahon is best known for his large paintings with dark backgrounds overlaid with religious texts in white. He was also an extensive landscape painter and was inspired in part by the writings of New Zealand geologist Sir Charles A Cotton.

Thematically, his art was at times concerned with developing a painterly nationalism. McCahon himself explored issues of Christianity and pacifism both within and outside of this national identity.

McCahon's graphic design work in theatre, posters and jewellery is lesser known, although said to be influential in his art practice.[9]


McCahon developed his own take on expressionism, influenced by both Robert Nettleton Field (1899-1987) and German Expressionism. At the Dunedin School of Art, McCahon met Rodney Eric Kennedy (1909–1989), Doris Lusk, Anne Hamblett and Patrick Hayman. McCahon, Lusk and Hamblett and to a lesser extent Hayman were later hailed by J. D. Charlton Edgar (1903–1976) as "the first cell of modern art[ists] in New Zealand". This was the first true art school in New Zealand.

During a visit to the United States in 1958,[1] McCahon saw paintings by Barnett Newman, Kazimir Malevich, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian and Willem de Kooning. Before this trip he had only seen these works reproduced in books. He was struck by the physicality of Pollock's works and he described them as "pictures for people to walk past."[1] He was also influenced by the installations of Allan Kaprow and the sensation of walking through an artwork rather than walking past it.[10][11] After this trip, McCahon's use of scale and space shifted, most notably in The Northland Panels, his work consisted of eight panels, monocoat on canvas.


A constant theme throughout McCahon's art is his exploration of the religious. His landscapes, in particular, are imbued with a sense of the spiritual. Even more overtly, McCahon often sets Biblical scenes in the contemporary New Zealand landscape. His Otago Peninsula (1949, currently in the collection of the Dunedin Public Library) was the realization of a schoolboy vision inspired by Otago.

A Te Papa profile of McCahon has described his landscapes as "often stark and empty (rather than picturesque), raising questions about the human histories of these seemingly unpopulated landscapes."[4]

Muriwai paintings

In the series "Necessary Protection," McCahon represents the Muriwai coastline as a site of spiritual nourishment.[12]

Word paintings

McCahon's large-format 'word paintings' combine his religious and abstraction tendencies.[13] His Early Religious Paintings created a very literal connection between the events and locations of the Bible and his native soil.[14] He started incorporating words into his paintings in the 1940s, a move which was often criticised by the public, but which he felt was necessary to directly communicate with the viewers of his art.[4] The Early Religious Paintings are testament to McCahon's 1939 aim to connect God and land for the sake of peace.[15]


Family house museum and artists' residency

The McCahon family house in French Bay, Titirangi, Auckland, now serves as a small museum about Colin McCahon and his family. The house is surrounded by large kauri trees, at least for semi-urban standards.[16]

There is a more contemporary house and studio in the same section which serves as the base for the McCahon artists' residency. The contemporary house hosts three artists for three months every year.[17]


A major retrospective of his work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam introduced McCahon as "the first modern New Zealand painter of major international importance."[18]

Works stolen

Urewera Mural by McCahon, completed May 1976. It was famously stolen in 1997

In June 1997, the Urewera Mural (a triptych) was stolen from the reception of the Department of Conservation Āniwaniwa Visitor Centre at Lake Waikaremoana.[19]

It was eventually determined that the painting had been stolen by Tuhoe activist Te Kaha and an associate Laura Davis. After missing for 15 months, it was returned in August 1998 after negotiations involving arts patron Jenny Gibbs, Te Kaha and Tuhoe member Tame Iti. It required more than $5,000 worth of repairs once it had been returned. It was finally returned to the visitors' centre in September 1999.[19] When it was stolen, the mural was thought to be worth $1.2 million but that figure was later updated to $2 million.[19]

In late 2006, manuscripts including seven Colin McCahon poems along with a Charles Goldie painting and an unbound copy of the Oxford Lectern Bible were stolen from the University of Auckland Library during the Christmas break.[20] It was believed that the thieves broke into a secure room at the Library by prying open a locked window. Art experts and police said at the time that it would be difficult to sell the paintings in New Zealand or overseas as anyone who knew about the artists would be very suspicious.[21] By October 2007, all the stolen items, valued at over $200,000, were returned. Negotiations between police and a man who knew the thieves concluded the case. Following this incident, security was increased at the Library.[22]

In popular culture

Cover image of McCahon documentary

Tobias Cummings & The Long Way Home's "Canoe Song" refers to several of McCahon's works in its debut album, Join the Dots.

McCahon is the subject of a 2004 biographical documentary titled Colin McCahon: I Am, produced by Television New Zealand and directed by Paul Swadel.[23]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Brown, Gordon H. (13 November 2013). "McCahon, Colin John".  
  2. ^ "Famous New Zealanders – Colin McCahon". Christchurch City Libraries. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  3. ^ Craven, Peter (1999). The Best Australian Essays 1999. Bookman Press. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Topic: Biography of Colin McCahon". Te Papa. Retrieved 11 November 2014. 
  5. ^ Alderton, Zoe (2015). The Spirit of Colin McCahon. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 64.  
  6. ^ Lusk, Doris. "Portrait of Colin McCahon". Otago University Research Heritage. University of Otago. Retrieved 19 May 2015. 
  7. ^ a b "Story: McCahon, Colin John". Terra - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved April 7, 2015. 
  8. ^ url= title=Colin McCahon Online Catalogue
  9. ^ Campbell, Jo. "Another side of McCahon". Otago Daily Times, Online Edition. Otago Daily Times. Retrieved 19 May 2015. 
  10. ^ Simpson, Peter (2007). Colin McCahon: The Titirangi Years. Auckland: Auckland University Press. p. 45.  
  11. ^ Brown, Gordon H. (1984). Colin McCahon: Artist. Wellington: Reed. p. 90. 
  12. ^ Alderton, Zoe (2012). "Cliffs as Crosses: The Problematic Symbology of Colin McCahon". Relegere 2 (1): 5–35.  
  13. ^ Alderton, Zoe (2013). "Out With The Tide: Colin McCahon and Imaginative Pilgrimage". In Norman, Alex. Journeys and Destinations: Studies in Travel, Identity, and Meaning. United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publisher. pp. 265–286.  
  14. ^ Zoe, Alderton (Feb 27, 2015). The Spirit of Colin McCahon. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 91. 
  15. ^ Gordon, Brown (2003). Elements of Modernism in Colin McCahon's Early Work. Art History School of Art History Classics. p. 34.  
  16. ^ "McCahon house museum". Retrieved 5 November 2014. 
  17. ^ "Artists' Residency". Retrieved 5 November 2014. 
  18. ^ Bloem, Marja; Browne, Martin (2002). Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith. Amsterdam: Craig Potton Publishing and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.  
  19. ^ a b c Cleave, Louisa (17 March 1999). "Stolen mural will return to Urewera". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 5 November 2014. 
  20. ^ University of Auckland. "Art theft at Auckland University". Retrieved 9 November 2014. 
  21. ^ "Valuable art stolen from university". TVNZ. 5 January 2007. Retrieved 9 November 2014. 
  22. ^ "Stolen art returned to Auckland Uni". 23 October 2007. Retrieved 9 November 2014. 
  23. ^ "Colin McCahon: I Am". NZ On Screen. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 

Further reading

  • Ivan Bootham, "The Message As Art: An Exploratory Catechism of McCahon Word Painting" in Art Words Ho! 1989, pp. 22–34.
  • Gordon H. Brown,Colin McCahon: Artist. Reed Books, rev. ed. 1993.
  • Gordon H. Brown, Towards A Promised Land: On the Life and Art of Colin McCahon. Auckland University Press, 2010.
  • Agnes Wood, Colin McCahon: The Man and the Artist. David Ling Publishing Ltd, 1997.
  • Butler, Rex (25 July 2012). "Victory over death: The gospel according to Colin McCahon".  
  • Alderton, Zoe (2015). The Spirit of Colin McCahon. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.  

External links

  • Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki: Works by Colin McCahon
  • The Colin McCahon database and Image Library
  • Museum of New Zealand Collections Online person page
  • University of Otago Digital Collections: Works by Colin McCahon
  • McCahon, Colin John, 1919-1987 McCahon, Anne Eleanor (née Hamblett) 1915-1993 McCahon, Colin and Anne: Papers, 1914-1989, ARC-0772 Hocken Library
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