Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Rain in Northland: Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere and the Painted Word

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Rain in Northland: Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere and the Painted Word

Article excerpt

'The truth is always first discovered in open space', John Berger

'What shall we say about the structure we too narrowly call the Church?' James K. Baxter

How best to think of the words that dominate Colin McCahon's A Letter to Hebrews (Rain in Northland)? A voice over. The end credits of a movie the length of an artist's life. A data-feedfrom a soul in a state of terminal unrest. Or, if wefurther adjust the angle: an airy forest of sound, the kind of 'lyrical foliage' Bill Manhire wrote of. A concrete poem. Ghost writing. Winged words. Bird song. Air mail. Sky writing. Given the second part of the work's title, maybe the words are also drops of rain fallen on parched Northland soil'-a benison or anointing-or the aural environment of Hone Tuwhare's poetry, with its 'incantatory chant of surf breaking, and the Mass and the mountain talkingj.1

The first part of McCahon's title heralds the lengthy extract from St Paul's epistle to the Hebrews which dominates all six panels of the work. Beyond that linguistic point of reference the title then leads us towards the flat lands around Ninety Mile Beach / Kaitaia and the Kaipara Flats-two of the Northland sites which meant a great deal to McCahon.

Most often, the words incorporated into McCahon's late paintings are gleanings from a passionate but far from systematic study of the Bible. His approach was impulsive and idiosyncratic, at times out-of-kilter and often less than accurate. The texts he chose were those that invariably had a strong resonance with his own life experience and artistic vocation. Among the passages he returned to were the story of Elias, the Parable of Lazarus, various of the Letters and, not surprisingly, the Passion of Christ. An immense opening out and interpretation of these sources, McCahon's 'word paintings' reflect a highly selective reading of scripture-very much in the tradition of William Blake and Georges Rouault.

With its frequent smudges, crossings-out and impulsive capitalisations, McCahon's sky-writing is never an easy read. The paintings do not offer 'illuminations' in any literal sense of the word-they cast darkness and mystery rather than light or clarity. In N Letter, the text is etched into cloud, mist, beach-sand and waning light. Near-vertical lines-waterspouts, perhaps, or whirls of dust-bisect some panels. Elsewhere vapour trails or God Beams interrupt his aerial text; in the final image, a squall of annihilating rain advances from the east.

In the majority of McCahon's late word paintings, it is a nightsky the texts worm their way across, letters glimmering and fading like faulty neons. Just as the nocturnal text-paintings echo St John of the Cross's 'Dark Night of the Soul', McCahon's concurrent Muriwai beach works could be thought of as an Early Morning of the Soul, clad in sea-fog, haze or glare. With its mid-tones and greys, the painting under discussion feels like a drawn-out Overcast Afternoon of the Soul.

Working in his studio at Muriwai from the late 1960s onwards, the artist was particularly sensitive to cyclical and seasonal aspects of human life and parallel processes of growth and decay, birth and death in the world outside. Acknowledging the Māori tradition in which the spirits of the departed travel northwards up the West Coast before heading seawards at Spirits Bay, McCahon came to associate the North with death and the afterlife. He also associated the region with a sense of his own identity-this despite the fact he was born in Timaru and grew up in the South Island. A northward-inclined Muriwai Beach drawing from 1971 bears the inscription: 'The Far North, where my home really is'. And one of McCahon's last great works, A Painting for Uncle Frank (1979), includes, alongside a lengthy biblical excerpt, a short poem of his own, addressing the headland at the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach: 'Ahipara / here I come / back home where / I started / from'.

While McCahon was drawn to instructive, assertive biblical passages, his painterly vocabulary was that of doubt and apprehension: witness the roughly hewn lettering, deletions and irregularities. …

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