Hon Grant Robertson on Colin McCahon’s landscapes: ‘They blew my mind’

Hon Grant Robertson on Colin McCahon’s landscapes: ‘They blew my mind’

The Associate Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage Hon Grant Robertson has long been a huge admirer of Colin McCahon. Here, he reveals what the artist’s Otago Peninsula in particular means to him.

Colin McCahon is widely recognised as New Zealand’s most important modern artist. For me he is important too because as a seventh-former studying art history for the first time, he was the artist I instantly connected to.

The depiction of our landscape blew my mind. Both in its starkness, and in how he broke it down to its essence. I had not contemplated our natural beauty in anything like that way before.

Colin McCahon, Otago Peninsula, 1946, Dunedin, oil on hardboard. Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. © Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust. Te Papa (1992-0012-1)

Fast forward a few years, and in my final year at university, I found myself living in the home of the then recently deceased Rodney Kennedy.

Kennedy was a huge figure in our cultural history (and someone I would like to see better recognised). Rodney was a patron, friend, and staunch advocate of artists.

Kennedy and partner Charles Brasch collected the artworks of McCahon, Toss Woollaston, Anne Hamblett, Doris Lusk, and other New Zealand modernists. When the new director of the Auckland City Art Gallery, Eric Westbrook, saw their collection he proclaimed that this was the art that New Zealand should be collecting.

Grant Robertson in our paintings storeroom, 2019. Te Papa

When I moved into Kennedy’s former High St house, my bedroom was previously the living room, and outlined on the hessian wall was where one of the Otago Peninsula paintings had hung.

The view from the bay window mirrored the image – not lost on Rodney I am sure. As I sat in the window seat of that room working on my dissertation my thoughts were often drawn to McCahon’s beautiful depiction of the curves and folds of the peninsula’s hills. The specific hues of greens and blues in the work evoke an autumn day that I grew up with.

McCahon’s influence also extends beyond our shores. His massive painting Victory over death 2 (1970) caused controversy when it was gifted by our government to Australia in 1978. It was radical and widely derided on both sides of the Tasman. It is now considered one of the cultural taonga of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, and is equated by some to be Australasia’s version of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.

McCahon’s work continues to inspire, confuse, perplex, and change the way we look at ourselves and our country. Long may it be so!


Colin McCahon at Te Papa

To mark the occasion of his 100th year, we’re hanging a group of Colin McCahon’s paintings in Toi Art. We’re also planning some public programmes over the course of the year 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.

More information about Colin McCahon at Te Papa

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