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 Colin McCahon  (1930 - 1977)

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Lived/Active: New Zealand      Known for: painting and sculpture

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Ad Code: 2
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Let Be, Let Be, 1959
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
Biography from Deutscher and Hackett Sidney:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Reflecting McCahon’s increasingly dispirited state during the closing years of his vast and prodigious career,  a final series of four works, drawing upon texts from Ecclesiastes, poignantly illustrate the artist’s ultimate collapse of faith in faith itself. In stark contrast to the majority of his oeuvre which had hitherto optimistically asserted a ‘Victory over Death’, now – consumed by heavy drinking and bitterness at years of public misunderstanding and denigration, as well as an increasing paranoia and suspicion of even long-time supporters, and most fundamentally, his debilitating battle against dementia – McCahon emphasized the futility of human effort and indeed, profound uncertainty as to God’s true nature.

Painted in his distinctive cursive white script on black, almost featureless backgrounds, thus the compositions offer admonishments specifically chosen by the artist to elucidate the bleakness ‘raging inside his mind as he struggled with the frightening idea that all he had previously held to be true might now appear misguided and false.’1  Far from mere copying or transcription, the texts are those in which McCahon recognised himself – selected so that they might speak for him and be, in this sense, his speech. ‘Ecclesiastes becomes autobiography.’2

Continuing their analysis of this final quartet, Browne & Bloem suggest “…In the first two paintings, The emptiness of all endeavour and Is there anything of which one can say, Look this is new?, there is a sense of the ‘emptiness of all endeavour’, of the meaninglessness of an endless repetition of what has already been done, and of a despairing belatedness.  Life is no more than endless cycle of repetition, a kind of living death.  There is no real advantage to a righteous and wise life over that lived by a fool; as McCahon concludes, ‘The men of old are not remembered, and those who follow will not be remembered by those who follow them’.  Bleaker still is his work titled I applied my mind, where McCahon personalizes the negativity, bewailing that ‘I have seen it all, from a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, to a wicked man, growing old in his wickedness’, and advising against too great a strain for wisdom – ‘why make yourself a laughing stock?’

Reading this, it is hard not to think of the public mockery McCahon himself endured – the page after page of newspaper jibes from the citizenry, the cartoons and editorial pontificating, the public galleries that held ‘Paint Your Own McCahon’ days as public entertainment, even a New Zealand Prime Minister’s jeers – and of the pain he suffered from it, and of the ‘hate file’ he kept.  It is hard not to think of him identifying with Ecclesiastes, and wondering if his own prophetic quest had been worth it.  It seems an intolerable injustice that ‘one and the same fate befalls every one’, whether good or evil.  Furthermore, ‘the hearts of men are full of evil – madness fills their hearts all through their lives, and after that they go down to join the dead.’ Neither is there hope for life after death.  Death is an utter oblivion in which ‘the dead know nothing.’ …Not only is there no victory to be had over death. Even God’s care for humans while they live has become uncertain.  Given that God controls everything in this place where there is nothing but emptiness, evil and madness, God himself might be a being not only of infinite power, but also of infinite malice. ‘I applied my mind to all this and I understood that the righteous and the wise and all their doings are under GOD’s control, but is it love or hatred? no man knows.’

In I applied my mind things may be grim, but at least ‘for a man who is counted among the living there is still hope: Remember, a live dog is better than a dead lion.’ It is as though simply to be alive still has some value, however low the status granted one may be… But by the time of the last painting, I considered all the acts of oppression, the despair is absolute.  It seems better to be dead, and better still not to have been born at all… Strength is on the side of the oppressors, their power is absolute and there is no one to oppose them… With its unfinished text, ‘endless yet never’, and the dark black void on the right hand side of the painting, the issue of whether this work is completed must remain a subject of conjecture. 

What is clear nevertheless is that McCahon had taken the work as far as he was able.  The ravages of alcohol, illness, paranoia and – most critically – a loss of faith, combined to ensure that he would never paint again.   Although Is there anything of which one can say, Look this is new? and I applied my mind are dated March and May 1982 respectively, contemporary accounts confirm that each was substantially completed in 1980.  Both were exhibited at the Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington in April–May 1983 – what was to be McCahon’s last solo show with any of the dealer galleries – while I considered all the acts of oppression would not see the light of day until McCahon’s funeral in 1987.”3

1. Bloem, M., & Browne, M., Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, Craig Potton Publishing & Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2002, p. 230
2. Ibid., p. 57
3. Ibid., pp. 58, 60, 61 & 231–32.

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