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Object: Walk (Series C)

This image has All Rights Reserved. Image © Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust

Title Walk (Series C)
Production McCahon, Colin (artist), 1973, Auckland
Medium summary acrylic on hessian
Materials acrylic paint, burlap
Classification paintings
Dimensions Overall: 933mm (Height) x 12200mm (Length)
Credit line Purchased 2004
Registration number 2004-0017-1 A-K to K-K

The year 1973 was a difficult one for Colin McCahon. His friend, the poet James K Baxter had died the previous October, and the artist spent the early part of the year hard at work on set designs for a memorial season of Baxter’s plays in Wellington. In May the poet and editor Charles Brasch, one of McCahon’s earliest and most valued supporters, died in Dunedin. In July his mother Ethel passed away. That August McCahon wrote to his friend Gordon H Brown, ‘I’ve been painting and feel awful. It’s not what I wanted, but what my God allows me… I think I’ve got there. It’s been a terrible struggle perhaps I’ve made it.’(1)

Despite the struggle, McCahon produced four remarkable series during 1973 — the fourteen-part Series A (various collections), the two canvases of Series B, Series D (Ahipara) (all private collections), and this painting, Walk (Series C) — and laid the foundation for his work for the next few years. Together the four series constitute a remarkable phase in McCahon’s career, one in which he pushed his art to its limits.

All four series have jute canvas as their support, cut from a roll just under a metre in width. Rough and ready, jute appeared intermittently as a support for McCahon’s paintings from the 1940s onwards, figuring most prominently in Landscape theme and variations: Series A (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki) and Series B (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa), 1963. As he wrote of those works in 1972, ‘I hoped to throw people into an involvement with the raw land, and also with raw painting. No mounts, no frames, a bit curly at the edges, but with, I hoped, more than the usual New Zealand landscape meaning.’(2) McCahon’s description of Walk (Series C) reveals a similar intention: ‘People should know perhaps that I don’t regard these canvases as "paintings", they shouldn’t be enclosed in frames, they are just bits of a place I love’.(3)

That place is Muriwai Beach, which McCahon presents as a sequence of views showing the changing states of the tide, the horizon and sky. Using a minimal palette of black and white acrylic, McCahon painted these views in thin washes that allow the tan of the jute to show through, occasionally adding a luminescent violet. In other places the brush is thick with paint and dances across the surface, drawing out the suggestion of movement across the water or the detritus left by the tides. McCahon’s painting here perfectly captures his environment, evoking not just a sense of place — the stark and beautiful appearance of the beach in winter — but the passage of time as well.

McCahon adds further layers of meaning to this evocation of time and place. The eleven unstretched canvases that make up the painting are divided into fourteen numbered sections representing the Stations of the Cross. This ritual journey in which Christians re-enact Christ’s passage to Calvary and to his crucifixion provided McCahon with a means to meditate on life’s phases, its ups and downs, its stumbles and falls. In Walk (Series C) it forms the basis for another journey, an imagined walk along Muriwai Beach with Baxter.

McCahon and Baxter had first met in the 1940s, and although they had become estranged in the 1960s they continued to share a similar sense of the artist’s mission. Part of that shared sensibility was a concern with Maori spirituality. In Walk (Series C) McCahon journeys along Muriwai Beach in dialogue with his friend, perhaps recounting the shared events of their lives, perhaps seeking reconciliation. This walk runs parallel to another: in Maori belief, the spirits of the departed travel p the west coast towards Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga), from where they leap off the land to begin their final journey to the afterlife. As McCahon wrote to Peter McLeavey about the painting, ‘The Christian “walk” and the Maori “walk” have a lot in common.’(4) Drawing on personal and particular events in his own life, McCahon used them to address big themes in his art — themes of life and death, time and loss, Christian and Maori spirituality, history and place. Grand and momentous, Walk (Series C) is a painting that is vast enough to encompass them all.

William McAloon

This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).

1. Colin McCahon, letter to Gordon H Brown, quoted in Gordon H Brown, Colin McCahon: Artist, 2nd ed., Reed, Wellington, 1993, p. 174.
2. Colin McCahon/A survey exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland, 1972, p. 30.
3. Colin McCahon, to Peter McLeavey, 16 August 1973, quoted on the invitation to the exhibition Recent works by Colin McCahon, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, 11–28 September 1973.
4. Ibid.

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