Undoubtedly one of the most important New Zealand artists of the 20th century, Colin McCahon’s centenary is being marked by a major new exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery. To celebrate, we look back at his life, works and legacy.
Suppose yours is a famous surname. Do you follow in your forebear’s footsteps, or do you forge your own path? For Finn McCahon-Jones, there was no question: “I was always going to go to art school,” says the Auckland painter, sculptor, curator and storyteller – and the grandson of Colin McCahon, broadly regarded as New Zealand’s most important artist.
Last year Finn completed his most demanding and fulfilling project: researching and writing a 10,000-word academic essay on his grandfather. “It was a way to look at my whakapapa [genealogy] and the family narrative. I knew Colin in one sense, but I felt I got to know him in a different way by doing this research.”
McCahon would have turned 100 on 1 August. His centenary is being marked by the Auckland Art Gallery – where he worked from 1953-64 – with a major exhibition entitled A Place to Paint: Colin McCahon in Auckland, opening on 10 August. Several books and a documentary are also currently in production.
Helping to interpret items from the artist’s archives, Finn’s research will run alongside three galleries of paintings and a set of precious painted windows that will be on public display for the first time.
Finn is the son of William McCahon – the first of Colin and Anne McCahon’s four children. Just a child when his grandfather died in 1987, he and his parents moved in with Anne, a painter and ceramic artists, at her Crummer Road, Ponsonby, home. Family life was turbulent. In a 2002 interview with the NZ Herald, William McCahon disclosed that his father never answered his critics in public, but rather laid it all on the family. “Colin brought anger home and vented his spleen for a fortnight – months, sometimes – about commentators, but never to their face,” William recalled.
“The anger was expressed in the house, not necessarily in violence but certainly in terms of anger, and later, he would just get quietly drunk,” he said. “Our interaction was intense in the sense of violence and language. I got the best and the worst.”
Eventually Anne sent William to stay with his grandparents. William said if it had not been for the strength of his mother, who died in 1993, the family would have disintegrated.
However, William also revealed that as he and his father grew older, their relationship became stronger. “Towards the end of Colin’s life he was very dependent on me – for the last 15 years or even earlier,” he said.
Despite the material poverty and physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, William said he did not believe he had a deprived childhood. “We had a richness that took in the breadth of the world … it was a gift.”
For Finn, art has always been central to his life. “As a kid, if I wasn’t in the art gallery, I’d be at the beach. But going to the beach was always an exercise – we’d go to look at things, we’d go to experience it.
“Dad says about Muriwai Beach [where Colin had a studio and based some of his most famous works], ‘You can’t just go there once and say you’ve seen it. You have to go there every day for a year and you still haven’t seen it.’ It is one of those constantly emerging things … Colin does that in his art. He chronicles one place in all its moods.”
Looking to the Future
In recent years Finn has succeeded his father and joined his aunt, Victoria Carr, on the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust, set up in 1991 to promote knowledge and research into McCahon’s art. It is supported by the Auckland Art Gallery and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
A separate organisation, the McCahon House Trust, maintains the artist’s onetime home at French Bay, Titirangi, as a museum and the site of an artist-in-residence programme.
For Finn, the centenary offers the chance to re-evaluate his grandfather’s career. “There are a lot of people who believe there are lessons to be learned from him – that he’s only been looked at from certain art-historical concepts. I think people are coming to his practice in a broader way, and looking at other narratives that might be in there.
“I feel that the next step for McCahon is to ‘head overseas’, and to be seen within the context of the other masters who were working at the time. The respect for him overseas is growing,” Finn says. International critics now rank him with artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
Finn has seen that interest grow through the trust’s website. “They were going to release McCahon’s catalogue as a CD-ROM … and then the internet came along and they put it online.
“We are always amazed at how long people dwell on the works – it’s in the minutes rather than the seconds – and we get people from all over the globe. It’s not just New Zealanders who are looking at McCahon, it’s the world.”
As for his own relationship with his grandfather, Finn says, “He’s been dead for a long time but I talk about him every day, and I see him in the broadest sense every day. For me it’s finding a healthy balance between me as a McCahon and me as an artist and me as an individual in the world.”