Academic journal article Antipodes

Antipodean Translations: Colin McCahon and His Topoi1 of Belief

Academic journal article Antipodes

Antipodean Translations: Colin McCahon and His Topoi1 of Belief

Article excerpt

"No-one seems to know what I'm on about, it amazes me, no-one seems to know that I'm painting Christ."

-McCahon, "Question of Faith"


MANY MAINSTREAM NEW ZEALANDERS AND Australians know that New Zealand painter Colin McCahon's (1919-1987) work includes religious imagery, but few recognize that this imagery is more than emblematic. McCahon's early aspirations to be an evangelist2 and a poet3 combine in his art as he uses poetic prayers of intercession and typological leitmotifs to promote the biblical truths to society. McCahon's faith shaped every aspect of his life and art, and his use of religious typology4 is intentional and all pervasive. Therefore, I argue that his work belongs within the continuing Western tradition of religious art, which relies on typological interpretation (Landow 3-7).

Our word religion is adapted from Latin compounds meaning to reread and to link back. Thus, religion seems inescapably tied to the past. From Aristotle, Poesis, Praxis, and Theoria (Hanley 57) have been necessary components for constructing art and literature; three elements that together with religious thought are important to McCahon also. Most commentators would agree that the majority of McCahon's early figurative works, and a few of his late series, are centered on religious subjects. But many of his mature compositions have not been characterized as religious and are often subsumed beneath the generic heading of "landscape" for lack of deeper analysis of his symbolism. There seems to be consensus that a proportion of his highly abstracted mature works, which do not carry religious motifs, text, or title, are therefore not religious. I propose that on closer analysis of typology these works also reveal McCahon's intention for an overarching religiosity. Some of these compositions that express religious ideas and practices include large and important series such as the Waterfall Series, Gates Series, and the numerous sets of canvases that feature Muriwai and Kaipara seascapes. There are other signifying types in a range of works which include animals, rocky cliffs, cloud forms, children's games, geometric forms, significant color, symbolic flowers like the rose and the chrysanthemum, text as image, and religious tracts with commentary. When typology and its functions are understood, each of these tropes can be seen to also carry freight with religious significance and can be connected to motifs in McCahon's formative period. As these numerous works remain undeciphered, there is to date a sizeable gap in the literature on McCahon's oeuvre.


Many consider the claim of "secularity" to be the "gospel truth" of postmodern reality. In the course of this research I began to see that our contemporary lives continue to be filled with religious significance, and to also see that the descendent^ of the European settler population in the New World know this well. Not only is the structure and purpose of literature and art they brought with them profoundly connected to typological tropes, but so, too, are our language and our culturally defined institutions and social practices. Our progressive desire for self-improvement, together with our internationally renowned humanistic values that extend into the natural environment, is underpinned by the historically defined roles of poets and artists as priests of the collective cultural soul. All of these societal norms reflect aspects of and are ordered by the defining premises and thinking habits formulated in our deeply religious past.

Although not a religious person, at the outset of this project I began to explore European cultural history and review the religious ideas and historical changes that relate to McCahon's development. This became a kind of spiritual quest in itself as I studied in some depth Catholic, Protestant, Quaker, Transcendentalist, Jewish, and other denominations, searching all the time for clues to McCahon's trajectory of ideas. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.