McCahon Country

McCahon Country
Justin Paton
Penguin Random House New Zealand

‘McCahon Country’ presents a fresh perspective on the works of Colin McCahon, widely viewed as a significant artist of modernity in his homeland of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his birth, writer Justin Paton follows the artist’s travels at home.

Divided into fifteen themed sections, Paton conceptualises place and in doing so takes us on a journey, starting with ‘Here’ and ending with ‘There’. Headings start with geographic formations such as Land, Valley and Bridge then move to more linguistic and enigmatic titles including Word, Light and Guide. Paton invested time visiting the places of McCahon’s past to engage with the works at their origins.

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Paintings in the first section of the book are seminal to McCahon’s early years living on the Otago Peninsula in the South Island. Travelling was essential to his art and Canterbury, Takaka in the south island and Muriwai, Taranaki and the subtropics in the North Island were critical to his practice. With the advent of the Second World War, McCahon moved frequently between cities such as Nelson, Wellington and Dunedin, maintaining contact with a small group of intellectuals and poets, who fed his keen sense of socialism and communism. He believed that art could be instrumental and efficacious amidst mid-century society.

McCahon continued to paint landscapes throughout his 50-year career that explored both the vision of his birth country and questions of faith and belief. Paton focuses on the artist’s development of painting as integral to the ‘artist as thinker’ who engaged with the Maori culture, as well as tying landscape to a spiritual presence. McCahon’s chosen pathway links back to his maternal grandfather – a lay preacher of the Wesleyan Methodist tradition, photographer and painter. His parents nurtured a sense of reverence for the world and a belief that God could be found in the commonplace.

The one single enduring element that would define McCahon was his use of words. He tended to use text not of his making but already in existence. Paton identifies some intense periods where McCahon’s canvases are invested with painted words that seem to float across skies filled with light and darkness.

McCahon has left an indelible mark on Aotearoa New Zealand ‘my painting [is] almost entirely biographical – it tells you where I am at any given time, where I am living and the direction I am pointing in.’