Colin McCahon’s works became some of the most recognisable and celebrated paintings ever to be produced in New Zealand.
Born in Dunedin in 1919, McCahon regularly visited the Dunedin Public Art Gallery with his family during his childhood. In July and August 1936 he made several visits to an exhibition by Toss Woollaston, whose landscapes gave direction to his desire to become a painter.
In 1945 McCahon received his first commission, a large landscape titled ‘Otago Peninsula,’ in which he revealed his concern for the underlying structure of landforms, and their capability of being interpreted symbolically.
A trip to Melbourne McCahon took in 1951 kindled his interest in cubism. His idiomatic adaptations from the cubist art movement, his tendency to paint in series, deeply religious motifs and the domination of written text in his paintings became recurrent features of his work. However, it was only after moving his wife and four children to Auckland in 1953 that he found other painters more attuned to his modernist ideas.
In Auckland McCahon worked first as a keeper and deputy director at the Auckland City Art Gallery, and then as a lecturer at the Elam School of Fine Arts. With greater exposure in both dealer and public art galleries, and with better informed critical comment, appreciation of McCahon’s work both deepened and spread during the 1960s and 1970s.
Exhibitions of his work throughout New Zealand, in London and Australia established McCahon’s standing as an artist of international repute in the Modernist tradition, as well as someone who could depict the essence of a strong New Zealand identity.
Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by Gordon H. Brown