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Difficult signs our speciality

Courtney Johnston on the prophetic visions of Colin McCahon and Rita Angus


<P data-associrn="39499"></P> <P>‘Colin McCahon: Signwriter: Muriwai’, the painter wrote on a sign for the gate of his studio west of Auckland. ‘Difficult signs our speciality.’</P> <P>I want here to look at two paintings that occupy a central place in New Zealand’s 20th-century art history - both key works in <EM>Emblems of Identity</EM> - and understand where they came from. <EM>Rutu</EM> (1951) shows Rita Angus at the height of her powers, creating a symbolic portrait that communicates her most strongly held beliefs. McCahon’s <EM>The valley of dry bones</EM> (1947) is the work of a young artist seeking connection with his audience. Both works assert that the artist plays a crucial role in society; both rest on a message of hope.</P> <P><STRONG>‘To show to the present a peaceful way’: McCahon and Angus’ pacifism</STRONG></P> <P>Communication - transferring emotion through art - is at the heart of McCahon’s work. In a widely quoted text he wrote:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>My painting is almost entirely, autobiographical - it tells you where I am at any given time, where I am living and the direction I am pointing in. In this present time it is very difficult to paint for other people - to paint beyond your own ends and point directions as painters once did. Once the painter was making signs and symbols for people to live by: now he makes things to hang on walls at exhibitions.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>This kind of communication was also essential to Angus’ vision of herself as an artist. In 1947, she wrote of her ambition to</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>show to the present a peaceful way, and through devotion to visual art to sow some seeds for possible maturity in later generations… As a woman painter I work to represent love of humanity and faith in mankind in a world, which is to me, richly variable and infinitely beautiful.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>Angus’ ‘peaceful way’ has a special meaning when you consider that both <EM>Rutu</EM> and <EM>The valley of dry bones</EM> were painted in the years directly following World War II.</P> <P>In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Angus was actively involved in Christchurch’s left-wing pacifist and feminist circles. ‘Pacifism appealed to Rita’s idealistic and anti-authoritarian nature,’ writes her biographer, Jill Trevelyan, ‘but it engaged her even more profoundly because it struck a chord with her sense of vocation.’<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> For over 18 months, Angus ignored letters from the Manpower Committee instructing her to report for work at a local rubber factory. When she was summoned to appear before the committee, she wrote a formal statement that speaks clearly of her convictions. It begins: ‘I object to direction into essential industry on the grounds that I am a conscientious objector to war, and as an artist, it is my work to create life and not to destroy.’<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP></P> <P>At the Dunedin School of Art in the late 1930s, McCahon too came into contact with pacifist thinking. In 1940 he was rejected for military service on medical grounds; instead, he worked in state-prescribed heavy industry positions and as a horticultural labourer. (Along with artists such as Doris Lusk and Toss Woollaston, McCahon and Angus both travelled to Nelson for seasonal employment during the war years; for the pacifists among them, horticultural labour had a special appeal as ‘non essential’ to the war effort.) In 1943, McCahon spent an extended period in Wellington. While working in the botanical gardens, he saw an African American detainee shot dead by American military police. This incident brought the horror of the war home to him: ‘One person with real faith could stop the war’, he wrote to his friend Rodney Kennedy.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP> The external struggle of a world at war mirrored, in some ways, McCahon’s own struggle to find a way to express his ideas about faith. </P> <P><STRONG>‘A prophetic vision of the world as it ought to be’: The artist as prophet</STRONG></P> <P>In his introduction to <EM>A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-1950</EM>, Allen Curnow wrote that ‘the New Zealand poet is unlikely to escape wholly the character of prophet to his people.’<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> The notion of the artist as prophet was strong in mid 20th-century New Zealand, and clear in the way Angus and McCahon approached their work. As McCahon’s friend and frequent collaborator John Caselberg wrote in 1963, his paintings sprang from ‘a prophetic vision of the world as it ought to be and as it will by grace become’:</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>Despite public ridicule and private scorn his work has never faltered. … Portraying paradise and hell, and the light and dark of our lives set in a land of such bare beauty that few of us dare look upon it, for twenty-five years he has spoken as the conscience of New Zealand.<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>Like McCahon, Angus felt the artist’s role was to reveal important truths to the society. She wrote in a 1945 letter: ‘I am proceeding with the various stages of my large canvases, the major works of my lifetime… These canvases when painted will not count much, if anything to an older or my own generation. I paint for the next two generations, a peace progression a continuation of races.’<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP></P> <P data-associrn="766196"></P> <P><STRONG>A Madonna for the new world: Angus’ ‘goddess’ paintings</STRONG></P> <P>‘The major works of my lifetime’ are Angus’ ‘goddess’ paintings: <EM>A goddess of mercy</EM> (1945-47), <EM>Sun goddess</EM> (1949), and <EM>Rutu</EM> (1951). ‘The goddess figures stand for life,’ writes Trevelyan, ‘celebrating a mythical female world - creative, compassionate and peaceful - in opposition to what she perceived as the destructive and authoritarian male culture of wartime.’<SUP><FONT size=2>9</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Though <EM>Rutu</EM> was the last goddess painting Angus finished, it was the first she began work on. In June 1944, she wrote to the composer Douglas Lilburn that she had conceived of the work in a dream in which she saw a child that resembled her father. She had then begun to sketch</P> <BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr> <P>a child about 16 or 17 years of age, like my family, but not mine: she belongs to you. Of European birth, simple, monastic, Western schooling, you will find her in the paintings on the walls of the temple caves in India, where wandering Yogi priests sheltered, in the Bodhisattas of the Buddhist shrines, where the Chinese worshipped in the flower and tea ceremonies of the Samurai. The Geisha and the Priestesses of the Shinto shrines of Japan.<SUP><FONT size=2>10</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P>The phrase ‘she belongs to you’ is especially poignant in light of Angus and Lilburn’s relationship. They met in 1941 and were immediately attracted by each others’ intellect and commitment to their work; they became, for a brief time, lovers. Angus conceived a child, but miscarried. The two ceased their sexual relationship but remained close, Lilburn weathering Angus’ sometimes tempestuous ways.</P> <P>As Angus worked on the painting, <EM>Rutu</EM> deepened and matured. This is the strongest - the most visually arresting, the most intense - of these symbolic portraits. All three depict a serene young woman in a natural environment, surrounded by symbols important to Angus. The fish embroidered around <EM>Rutu</EM>’s collar recall both Angus’ astrological sign, Pisces, and early symbols for Christ; the water lily in her tapered fingers is a gesture towards ancient Egypt and its progressive attitude towards the social status of women. The painting’s background draws on Angus’ parents’ home in Waikanae.</P> <P>As with all the goddess portraits, <EM>Rutu</EM> depicts a figure whose facial features bear resemblance to Angus’ own, familiar to us through her many self-portraits. Her blue eyes and corn-yellow hair, combined with her dark skin, speak to Angus’ wartime vision of a future, more peaceful society, where Pacific and European cultures would be integrated. </P> <P data-associrn="44385"></P> <P><STRONG>‘Breathe upon the slain, that they may live’: McCahon’s biblical works</STRONG></P> <P>As Angus worked on the goddess paintings, McCahon was working on a pivotal series of his own. </P> <P>In the mid 1940s McCahon began populating his stripped-back landscapes with figures and events drawn from biblical stories. While the works are too fully resolved to describe as ‘experimental’, this was a period of significant change in McCahon’s work. He consciously moved away from the modernist formalism of Cézanne to a new interest in Renaissance artists: Giotto, Duccio, Cimabue, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, and Titian. In addition, there was Gauguin and his dictum to ‘paint like children’; the similarities between Gauguin’s consciously naive style and McCahon’s work at this time are clear.</P> <P data-associrn="40061"></P> <P>These were not McCahon’s only models. His influences and scavengings during this period have been exhaustively catalogued. There is his own origin story of watching a signwriter at work as a child: ‘I watched the work being done, and fell in love with signwriting. The grace of the lettering as it arched across the window in gleaming gold, suspended on its dull red field but leaping free from its own black shadow pointed to a new and magnificent world of painting.’<SUP><FONT size=2>11</FONT></SUP> There was witnessing a group of men erecting power poles on a Mapua hillside, silhouetted against the skyline - ‘the nearest thing I am likely to see to a crucifixion group’.<SUP><FONT size=2>12</FONT></SUP> There was the meshing of high and low art: McCahon wrote that the inspiration for <EM>King of the Jews</EM> (1947) was ‘the legend from a Rinso packet &amp; the yellow I suppose from Byzantium’.<SUP><FONT size=2>13</FONT></SUP> And there was Toss Woollaston’s uncle, the evangelical preacher Frank Tosswill, whose ‘amateurish paintings of rainbows and other simple Christian symbols’ were pinned to the walls of his nephew’s hut.<SUP><FONT size=2>14</FONT></SUP></P> <P data-associrn="44138"></P> <P>McCahon’s need to connect to his audience increased in urgency during these years, as he sought a way to make Christian art in an increasingly secular society. By taking familiar biblical stories and transplanting them into a recognisably New Zealand setting, McCahon was both following the example of the Renaissance painters and harnessing the power of the stories to form a bridge to his viewer. </P> <P><STRONG>‘Come from the four winds, O Breath’: <EM>The valley of dry bones</EM></STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="1363705"></P> <P>Many of these early religious works take the events of Christ’s life and death as their subject: the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the three Marys at the tomb. <EM>The valley of dry bones</EM> is somewhat different. The extract is from the book of Ezekiel, a prophetic Old Testament text. The priest Ezekiel was exiled to Babylon in the 6th century BC, when the Babylonians forced three thousand Jews from Judah. In exile, he experienced a series of visions of the forthcoming fall of Jerusalem. While the tone of the early parts of the text is despairing, the final third contains a message of hope. Like the Crucifixion, this is a story of resurrection: ‘Come from the four winds, O Breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live’, read the lines McCahon has quoted, floating over a simplified landscape of rolling hills (strongly reminiscent of those depicted in <EM>Takaka: night and day</EM> and other works from 1948) and a valley littered with sketchy skulls and bones.</P> <P data-associrn="42318"></P> <P>These early religious works are characterised by an awkward flatness and angularity: slabby areas of colour, heavy black outlines. Text plays an increasingly important role as the series develops, becoming part of the paintings’ formal structure. In <EM>The valley of dry bones</EM>, as in a number of the paintings (such as <EM>The angel of the Annunciation</EM> (1947), the title is incorporated into the work, etched onto a scroll that announces McCahon’s own act of creation - ‘Painted by Colin McCahon, November 1947’. </P> <P><STRONG>‘Disagreeable but good for health’: Critical responses to McCahon’s work</STRONG></P> <P>In 1948, McCahon’s religious works were shown at the Wellington Public Library. Their innovation aroused violent reaction: some critics found the works refreshing, others startling, and some infuriating. Some saw the ‘primitiveness’ as a deliberate tactic to reach the viewer; others as artistic incompetence, a promising painter overreaching himself. EC Simpson’s (positive) review was one of the most pungent: ‘His raw crudity gives the same sledge-hammer force as the direct simplicity of the Biblical text. McCahon is like a saltwater douche, disagreeable but good for health.’<SUP><FONT size=2>15</FONT></SUP></P> <P>McCahon himself was shaken by the vehemence of the response. Rather than blaming the critics for a lack of engagement or insight, he took the reaction as a failure on his own part to convey his message. ‘I may often be more worried about you than you are about me’, McCahon later wrote, ‘and if I wasn’t concerned I’d not be doing my work properly as a painter. Painting can be a potent way of talking’.<SUP><FONT size=2>16</FONT></SUP></P> <P><STRONG>To paint beyond your own ends</STRONG></P> <P>Love, war, faith, protest: difficult signs indeed. McCahon and Angus were two artists who painted for other people, who painted to point directions. Spending time with <EM>Rutu</EM> and <EM>The valley of dry bones</EM> serves to show us that art is both the product of its own time - carrying forth messages from the past to our present moment - and endlessly immutable, open to new interpretations from each generation, and each of us. <BR>&nbsp;<BR><FONT size=2>Endnotes</FONT></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2><EM>Colin McCahon / A survey exhibition</EM>, exhibition catalogue, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland, 1972, p. 26.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Rita Angus, artist’s statement, <EM>Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand</EM>, H.H. Tombs Ltd, Wellington, 1947, p. 67-68.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Jill Trevelyan, <EM>Rita Angus: An artist’s life</EM>, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2008, p. 189.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Statement for the Manpower Committee, enclosed with letter to Lincoln Efford, 20 October 1944, MS-Papers-044-035, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Colin McCahon, letter to Rodney Kennedy, 28 October 1942, cited in Gordon H Brown, <EM>Colin McCahon: Artist</EM>, Reed, Auckland, 1993, p. 30.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Allen Curnow, ‘Introduction’, <EM>A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-1950</EM>, 1951, Caxton Press, Christchurch, p. 22.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>John Caselberg, <EM>M.T. Woollaston, Colin McCahon: A retrospective exhibition</EM>, exhibition catalogue, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland, 1963, p. 4.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 7 July 1945, MS-Papers-7623-058, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Jill Trevelyan, <EM>Rita Angus: An artist’s life</EM>, p. 189.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 14 June 1944, MS-Papers-7623-064, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Colin McCahon, ‘Beginnings’, <EM>Landfall 80</EM>, vol. 20, no. 4, December 1966, pp. 360-64.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Colin McCahon, letter to Rodney Kennedy, 5 May 1945, transcribed by Hamish Keith, Hamish Keith papers, CA125/3/9, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Colin McCahon, letter to Rodney Kennedy, 25 January 1947, transcribed by Hamish Keith, Hamish Keith papers, CA125/3/9, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. </FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Gordon H Brown, <EM>Colin McCahon: Artist</EM>, pp. 28-29.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>EC Simpson, ‘McCahon’s raw paintings show audacious, original vision’, <EM>Southern Cross</EM>, Wellington, 10 February 1948, p. 3.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2><EM>Colin McCahon / A survey exhibition</EM>, p.38.<BR></FONT></LI></OL>
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Rita Angus, Rutu, 1951, oil on canvas,
Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Colin McCahon, The Valley of Dry Bones, 1947, oil on canvas,
Gift of the artist, 1983.
© Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Colin McCahon, The King of the Jews, 1947, oil on cardboard mounted onto hardboard,
Bequest of Ron O'Reilly, 1982.
© Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Colin McCahon, The Angel of the Annunciation, 1947, oil on cardboard,
Purchased 1980 with Special Projects in the Arts funds.
© Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Rita Angus, A Goddess of Mercy, 1945-47, oil on canvas,
on loan from the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Colin McCahon, Takaka: Night and Day, 1948, oil on canvas, Auckland Art Gallery 1959/9, courtesy Colin McCahon Research Trust.
Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

Colin McCahon, Takaka: Night and Day, 1948, oil on canvas, Auckland Art Gallery 1959/9, courtesy Colin McCahon Research Trust. Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image ,
© Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust

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Colin McCahon, Entombment (after Titian), 1947, oil on cardboard,
Purchased 1980 from the Molly Morpeth Canaday Fund.
© Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz