Object: French Bay
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McCahon, Colin (artist), 1956, Auckland
|Medium summary||oil on canvas|
|Materials||oil paint, canvas|
x 965mm (Length)
Frame: 1288mm (Height) x 986mm (Length) x 47mm (Width/Depth)
|Credit line||Gift of the Friends of the National Art Gallery, 1983|
‘Some time, I don’t quite know when, out for a Sunday visit with the family, I discovered Cubism,’1 Colin McCahon wrote in 1966, describing a childhood encounter with modern art through the pages of the Illustrated London News. While the spatial fragmentation of cubism had played a role in his early development as a painter, it was not until the 1950s that McCahon began to fully explore this ‘bright new vision of reality.’2 A chance encounter in Melbourne in 1951 with the painter Mary Cockburn Mercer, who had moved in avant-garde circles in Paris in the early twentieth century, had reignited McCahon’s interest in the style, and in 1953 he moved from Christchurch to Auckland where cubism — or at least a kind of latter-day, provincial manifestation of it — was very much in the air.
Auckland’s light and its harbour landscape were quite different from what McCahon had known in the south. So too was the art scene in which he now found himself. The legacy of John Weeks’s interest in cubism was evident, and McCahon was particularly struck by the freshness and vitality of the abstract work of Milan Mrkusich and Louise Henderson. Reviewing an exhibition of Henderson’s paintings for Home and Building magazine, McCahon described it as ‘a plan for a new order’ and ‘a vision of sanity and individual freedom’. He added that ‘space is no longer tied to the brief Renaissance heresy of lines running back from the picture frame, but is freed from these ties to reach out in all directions from the painted surface of the picture.’3
This was certainly McCahon’s ambition in his own work in the 1950s. His environs at Titirangi, on Auckland’s Manukau Harbour, provided him with the ideal stimulus, as in this painting of French Bay. One of his largest paintings of the period, it shows the landforms, sea and sky of the bay fragmented in kaleidoscopic fashion. Tied to a grid that shifts between vertical, horizontal and diagonal axes, the fragments expand in all directions. The muted colours of the work, a unified palette of blue, umber, black and white, bring the fragments back together into a crystalline form.
this essay appears in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009)
1. Colin McCahon, ‘Beginnings’, Landfall 80, vol. 20, no. 4, December 1966, p. 361.
3. Colin McCahon, ‘Louise Henderson’, Home and Building, vol. 16, no. 10, February 1954, pp. 40-41, p. 69.
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