This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of New Zealand painter Colin McCahon (1919–1987). Modern Art Curator Lizzie Bisley shares what’s happening at Te Papa to celebrate, and introduces us to one of her favourite McCahon paintings now on display The Angel of the Annunciation.
About Colin McCahon
Colin McCahon is a remarkable figure in New Zealand art. As a painter, writer, teacher and curator, he produced a huge and incredibly influential body of work between the mid-1930s and the early 1980s.
McCahon’s paintings reference many different bodies of knowledge, including religious texts, Māori beliefs and history, poetry, geology and art history. He produced work that moved between landscape and figurative paintings, abstraction, and word and number paintings. Always technically daring, and open to challenging the boundaries of what a painting could be, McCahon famously described art as ‘signs and symbols for people to live by’. Through his work he wanted to engage people with big questions about life, faith, and place.
What’s happening at Te Papa
To mark the occasion of his 100th year, we’re hanging a group of McCahon’s paintings in the Toi Art galleries on Level 5. We’re also planning some public programmes over the course of the year (watch this space!) and we’ll be publishing a McCahon blog a month over the course of the year – in which curators and conservators, as well as writers, artists and historians, write about a specific McCahon artwork from Te Papa’s collection.
The Angel of the Annunciation
I’m kicking things off, and I’ve chosen to write about one of McCahon’s best-known early works, The Angel of the Annunciation (1947).
For much of 1946 and 1947, Colin McCahon was living in and around Nelson. He was just beginning to sell his work during this period (his first commission was in 1945, for a large painting of Otago Peninsula (seen below) and he worked a series of jobs as a builder’s labourer, farmhand and carpenter.
At the same time, he also began work on a group of small religious paintings.
In these paintings, scenes from the Bible are relocated into the local landscape. In The Angel of the Annunciation (1947) an angel hovers above the dry, golden hills of Nelson, while the buildings of the Tahunanui Golf Club are visible in the middle distance, behind Mary. The painting depicts the same clean, clear, structured hills that can be seen in McCahon’s earlier landscapes. But in the religious series, figures are introduced to the land for the first time.
The Angel of the Annunciation was exhibited in the Wellington Public Library in February 1948, with a larger group of McCahon’s religious works. The organiser, R.N. O’Reilly, later described the exhibition as ‘like throwing a stone into a swarm of bees’. McCahon’s contemporaries were shocked by what they saw as the crude and naïve style of the work. They particularly hated the paintings’ very flat forms, the use of thick black lines of paint around the figures, and the introduction of text into the work. McCahon was dismayed by the reaction to the exhibition, he wrote to O’Reilly, in May of that year: ‘Am full of paintings to do but no room no home no settled feeling’.
Come see it in our Toi Art gallery
The Angel of the Annunciation can now be seen, alongside two of McCahon’s other religious works from 1947, hanging on Level 5 of Te Papa’s Toi Art galleries.
Even 70 years after they were painted, these works are joyful and direct. With its scrawled title, tawny hills and everyday apparition, The Angel of the Annunciation grabs the viewer and draws her in.