Colin McCahon is widely recognised as New Zealand’s foremost painter, and a distinctive figure in 20th-century art.
Who is Colin McCahon?
McCahon was born in Timaru on 1 August, 1919. He showed an early interest in art – stimulated by the work of his grandfather, photographer and painter William Ferrier. He studied at the Dunedin School of Art from 1937-39, and first exhibited his work at the Otago Art Society in 1939.
In 1942 McCahon married fellow artist Anne Hamblett. The couple went on to have four children – William, Catherine, Victoria and Matthew. He travelled the South Island getting seasonal work, leaving his family at home. His work from this time reflects the places he went to, notably 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 soon after World War II.
In May 1953, the family moved to Auckland – where McCahon began work at the Auckland City Art Gallery (now known as Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki). They bought a house in French Bay, Titirangi. In April 1956 he became keeper (curator) and deputy director of the gallery. Two years later McCahon and his wife visited the US, and he used the opportunity to see art that interested him and stimulated his own work.
In 1960 the family moved to central Auckland, and in 1964 McCahon resigned from the gallery to become a lecturer in painting at the Elam School of Fine Arts. He taught there for six years, influencing a generation of artists.
During the 1960s McCahon’s work was shown and recognised in New Zealand and around the world. In January 1971 he left Elam to paint full-time. The 1970s were productive years for McCahon, with numerous exhibitions, but by the end of the decade his health was deteriorating. In 1984, the I Will Need Words exhibition was presented in Sydney, but McCahon was barely able to appreciate his growing international reputation. He died in Auckland in 1987, and his ashes were scattered at Muriwai.
Auckland City Art Gallery presented a retrospective of his work in 1988. Further exhibitions, both in New Zealand and overseas, have followed. In 2014, the NZ Herald named McCahon as one of the top 20 New Zealanders of the 20th century.
The article says he “captured the essence of who we are as New Zealanders – one of the most innovative and important painters of religious art in modern times … influenced by Taha Māori”.