Oh yes it can be dark here

Colin McCahon, Northland panels, 1958

Colin McCahon, Northland panels, 1958© Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust

In 1958 Colin McCahon spent four months on a study tour of the United States. Although the main point of the trip was to look at how museums were run — McCahon was then working as a curator at Auckland Art Gallery — he saw an awful lot of art: everything from Old Masters to recent American painting and installation, with modern European painting and classical Asian art in between.

Coming home to New Zealand was difficult. ‘I had seen deserts and tumbleweed in fences and the Salt Lake Flats, and the Faulkner country with magnolias in bloom, cities — taller by far than kauri trees,’ McCahon later wrote. ‘I fled north in memory and painted the Northland panels.’ They were painted, he wrote, ‘on the sun deck at Titirangi all on one Sunday afternoon and corrected for weeks afterwards’.

The Northland panels are one of the stars of Toi Te Papa. Later this year they will come off display so that our conservators can work on them. The treatment will include stabilising areas of the paint and upgrading how the panels are stored. Painted on loose, unprimed canvas with typically experimental materials, the Northland panels have always presented certain challenges.  Not that they’re falling to bits — far from it. It’s just that at half a century old, the Northland panels need a little bit of extra care and attention.

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