Earlier this year over 60 visual art and art history students from Wellington region colleges attended a study day at Te Papa to learn about Colin McCahon.
To open the day, Te Papa curator Rebecca Rice gave students an overview of McCahon’s life and outlined main themes in his work. Students then took part in workshops led by curators Chelsea Nichols, Megan Tamati-Quennell and Sarah Farrar to analyse and discuss selected works, learning more about his artistic influences and various approaches to painting.
In feedback after the event, many students said that a highlight of the day was the final talk by artist Robin White who shared memories of being taught by McCahon at art school. She discussed ways in which McCahon inspired her as a student and shared examples of her work from different periods in her career, giving students insights into her working practices.
Here Robert Burrowes, a year 12 student at Wellington College who participated in the study day, shares his personal response to one of Colin McCahon’s works and reflects on the experience of studying the painting Walk (Series C) 1973:
Colin McCahon’s “Walk (Series C) 1973” is one of my favourite on display at Te Papa; a long piece of un-stretched canvas. I believe the painting is McCahon’s depiction of sea from a cliff above Muriwai beach, where he lived in his retirement during 1970s. There is a constant horizon throughout the entire painting, which shows how it’s a panoramic view of the beach. The darker shades below the horizon show the texture of the water in the ocean and the swirling earthy textures above the horizon are show the wind which could probably be felt at the time he painted this. The “Walk” painting was made soon after McCahon’s friend James K. Baxter had died.
I think the different panels of the painting show the different days on which he was painting, the variations between the panels could be showing the different weather conditions and emotions that McCahon was feeling on those particular days, whilst coping with the death of a close friend. The muted colours in this piece shows how McCahon was experiencing something beyond sadness, a point of depression. Blue stereotypically has connotations of sadness, but what colour has connotations of depression? Unlike sadness which is an emotion, depression is more of a state of being, an involuntary task, something which is not felt but experienced. McCahon’s use of muted, earthy tones is what I believe is a masterful way of showing the experience of depression. By elongating the canvas it conveys the long expanse of unknown which is what depression is, he does not know where his depression begun and doesn’t know what it will end, he just has to be a motionless victim to the experience.
He paints the different conditions of the days, some calm, still water on the horizon, some choppy water, some you can barely make out through what seems like fog; which also runs parallel with the idea the different days show how well he’s coping with his depression, the days with finer weather being the ones he felt better, days with worse weather representing worse days. Its shows how McCahon is just a victim to the elements, helpless, inescapable. Just like he is helpless to depression, its inevitable for him to avoid it. The only way he can find solace is by painting his experience.
I enjoy how this art work is experiential, or how Kandinsky would say “strikes a chord of the soul”. It left me vibrating well after I left the museum, although I struggled to understand why or what this experience was; it made me respect the art. Even though I didn’t understand the experience I had, it was the first experience I’ve had with a painting. It makes any viewer who’s looking at it fall victim to the experience just like how McCahon was victim to depression following James K. Baxter’s death. Isn’t this a hallmark of a great painting? If a painting induces any sort of experience within a viewer doesn’t that make the painting have more than a physical existence, does that not take the art work into the realm of metaphysics? In my opinion, an art work with metaphysical substance means its an artwork of value.
Above is my 5 minute drawn personal response to this painting, my first reaction after seeing it. It depicts the good and the bad days. The ups and downs of depression can be shown through the clarity of the horizon in daily life.
This excerpt from Robert Burrowes’s art history essay shows that he was moved by the time he spent studying McCahon’s paintings. If you could spend one day immersed in studying one artist who would you chose?