Colin McCahon

Colin McCahon, Armchair, circa 1939

b. 1919

d. 1987

Colin McCahon was a prominent New Zealand artist whose work over forty-five years consisted of various styles including landscape, figuration, abstraction and the overlay of painted text. Along with Toss Woollaston and Rita Angus, McCahon is credited with introducing modernism to New Zealand in the mid twentieth century. He is regarded as New Zealand's most important modern artist, particularly in his landscape work.

McCahon began the first of his early religious painting I Paul to you at Ngatimote in 1946 in Nelson. These works depicted events from Christ’s life in a New Zealand setting. McCahon was never a member of a church but acknowledged that religious questions were central to his work. In the 1940s words began to appear in his work often resulting in public criticism. McCahon felt the directness of words could help provide a ‘way in’ to his images, a long tradition within painted images, especially in religious art.

McCahon is best known for his large paintings with dark backgrounds overlaid with religious texts in white. He was also an extensive landscape painter and was inspired in part by the writings of New Zealand geologist Sir Charles A Cotton in The Geomorphology of New Zealand (3rd ed. 1942), a scientific text which examined landscape forms and processes, illustrated with sketches, diagrams and photographs. These diagrams ignored built features, trees, and objects irrelevant to his scientific themes as he attempted to strip the landscape to its geological basis. These precise drawings would inform McCahon in his efforts to find the landscape’s spiritual basis.