Te Papa has a strong collection of Colin McCahon’s early religious works, including three paintings from 1947 that depict events from story of the Passion: Christ taken from the cross, Entombment (after Titian), and King of the Jews.
One of the enduring myths surrounding McCahon’s early paintings is that were rejected by critics. This is summed up in ARD Fairburn’s memorably dismissive line ‘They might pass as graffiti on the walls of some celestial lavatory’, which appeared in a review in Landfall in 1948. In fact Fairburn’s was something of an exception to the critical response that initially greeted these works.
Another poet, James K Baxter told readers of Canta, Canterbury University College’s student newspaper that ‘The art of Colin McCahon has a fire and originality which sets it apart from that of most New Zealand painters.’ Historian JC Beaglehole was similarly well disposed towards McCahon’s pictures. Writing in the New Zealand Listener in March 1948 he acknowledged that ‘McCahon is not a brilliant technician in the academic sense… Yet for us he is one of the important people. He is a serious artist.’
Like other reviews, Beaglehole’s sparked a flurry of letters to the editor, but for every writer attacking McCahon there seemed to be another willing to stand up in his defence. One such defender was Rita Angus, who described McCahon as ‘a courageous painter who renounces honestly what is not essential to him … a traditional painter in his way ’.
My favourite remains EC Simpson’s review of McCahon’s 1948 exhibition at the Wellington Public Library. McCahon’s paintings, he told readers of the Southern Cross, showed ‘an audacious and original vision in a tradition as old as religion itself.’
‘His raw crudity gives the same sledge-hammer force as the direct simplicity of the Biblical text,’ continued Simpson, adding that ‘McCahon is like a saltwater douche, disagreeable but good for health. His pictures in a living-room would be about as comfortable as a Bible class tea in the presence of the prophet Ezekiel.’ That was actually meant as a compliment.