bring outside

Colin McCahon

Colin John McCahon (August 1, 1919, Timaru, New Zealand - May 27, 1987, Auckland) was a prominent New Zealand artist. During his life he also worked in art galleries and as a university lecturer. Some of McCahon's best-known works are wall-sized paintings with a dark background, overlaid with religious words in stark white, and wildly varying in size, for example, Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is, 1958/59. He was also an extensive landscape painter, inspired in part by the writings of New Zealand geologist Sir Charles A. Cotton. Along with Rita Angus and Toss Woollaston he is credited with introducing modern styles to New Zealand art in the early twentieth century.


Colin McCahon is known for applying a wide range of stylistic and conceptual influences to his work.


New Zealand regionalists were concerned with New Zealand identity. They were largely influenced by Christopher Perkins who was a visiting artist under the La Trobe Scheme, which sought to bring outside influence to art in New Zealand which was largely based on traditional British taste. McCahon's subject of landscape, and his rejection of accepted (British) painting style shows his works as Regionalist. He was also a part of "The Group" which included fellow regionalists, Rita Angus, Toss Woollaston, and Doris Lusk.


After working with Mary Cockburn-Mercer in Melbourne, his knowledge on Cubism was expanded, and he began experimenting with Cubism in his works. In 1953 he lived in Titirangi in Auckland and was exposed to native New Zealand plants such as the kauri tree. This spawned a series of works like Kauri. The influence and experimentation of Cubism can be seen in works like this by overlapping facets of colour, (like Cézanne)and a flattened, broken picture plane. One must note, however, that McCahon does not use multiple viewpoints, and he chooses to retain his subject of the landscape, resulting in works that are not completely abstracted.

Abstract Expressionism

After a visit to the United States of America in 1958, McCahon viewed paintings by Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian and Willem de Kooning. Upon reflection, McCahon said that Pollock's works, due mainly to their large scale, were "pictures to walk past". These were abstract expressionist artists, and their influences can be seen in McCahon's work The Northland Panels. This work consists of eight panels, monocoat on canvas. The influence of these artists can be seen in:

  • Use of unframed canvas: "I think it gives them more freedom to act" - Colin McCahon
  • Large scale
  • The scale and loose nature of the panels create a new sense of time and space
  • Use of text e.g. “A landscape with too few lovers” from poetry, the Bible, and a note from J.M.W. Turner. Use of text creates a sonic quality.
  • Colourfields show influence of Rothko, Newman and Mondrian.


McCahon shows religious undertones to his work by giving the landscape an essentially spiritual element. One method by which he does this is by stripping the landscape bare, showing influence of Cotton's book Geomorphology of New Zealand, especially in works such as Takaka: Night and Day. This work also shows religious undertones by the use of symbolism through light (light and dark; good and bad). Another method is by placing a scene from a religious narrative in a New Zealand setting (for example Crucifixion according to Saint Mark), and bringing the Bible into the contemporary world.

Works stolen

In June 1997 the Urewera Mural (a triptych) was stolen from the Department of Conservation Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre and 15 months later was returned. Following its return, the painting was conserved by staff of the Auckland City Art Gallery, who had worked on its conservation prior to the theft.

During the Christmas holiday period of 2006 a set of Colin McCahon manuscripts were stolen from The University of Auckland Library.

References in music

Australian songwriter Tobias Cummings references several of McCahon's works in 'Canoe Song', the final song on Tobias Cummings & The Long Way Home's debut album 'Join the Dots'.

External links

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