In the late 1940s, and immediately after WWII, New Zealand was in for a time of reconstruction in the wake of vast national sacrifice. New Zealand, then a country of only 1.6 million, had lost almost 12,000 people – more fatalities per head of population than any other country in the Commonwealth, including Britain.
In this period of Colin McCahon’s life he painted his ‘Religious Series’, from the late 1940s to early 1950s. For McCahon these works touch on the losses that those at ‘home’ felt so affected by in every aspect of their lives. In response to this emotional ‘national outpouring’, he painted the events of Christ’s life as if they had taken place in Aotearoa. Although McCahon was never a member of a church, he acknowledged that religious questions were also central to his work. He felt strongly that the directness of text in his compositions, provided a ‘way in’ to his images.
At the time the art critics and viewing public were sceptical, finding them confronting and difficult to engage with. The landscapes of the upper South Island, particularly the Nelson region, are so familiar to us, but by adding the religious content, I feel they remain still today quite startling, with ancient religious biblical and historic events ‘coming to land’ on our own soil.
For my ‘Small Things’ contribution to Railway Street Gallery’s Christmas exhibition, I have extracted the ‘light’ – the candles and oil lamps - from these really prominent and important paintings, as a way of developing my new understanding of McCahon’s intentions at the time of painting, and for their importance in developing my own practice and ‘homage’ to works I haven’t allowed myself to fully engage with, until now.
Works are available to view in the gallery from 2 - 22 December 2021 or click here to view online