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City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

Past exhibition

Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith

7 December 2002–9 March 2003

CURATOR Marja Bloem ORGANISER Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam OTHER VENUES Stedelijk Museum, 31 August–10 November 2002; Auckland Art Gallery, 29 March–29 June 2003; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 4 July–7 September 2003; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 November–26 January 2004 SPONSORS Creative New Zealand, Ernst and Young PUBLICATION essays Rudi Fuchs, Marja Bloem, William McCahon, Murray Bail, Francis Pound

A Question of Faith is the largest survey show yet devoted to New Zealand modernist painter Colin McCahon (1919–87). Opening at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, it’s the first time a New Zealand artist has had a show of this scale in the Northern Hemisphere. It introduces McCahon to its European audience as 'the Van Gogh of Australasia’.

Stedelijk Director Rudi Fuchs says, 'McCahon was the artist who gave New Zealand a powerful visual identity and for that, he is revered in his homeland. That he went further, to explore and communicate through the medium of painting the universal questions and concerns of humanity, is why we, in other parts of the world, must recognise him as a great modern master.'

A Question of Faith is billed as the most important show to leave New Zealand sinceTe Maori in 1984. It’s the first major McCahon survey since 1989’s Gates and Journeys and is accompanied by the first major publication on McCahon in fifteen years.

The Stedelijk is an apt venue as the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian was a key influence on McCahon, and the show includes two homages, Here I Give Thanks to Mondrian (1961) and Mondrian's Last Chrysanthemum (1976). McCahon used to quip, 'You can't hang a Mondrian upside down because all the water will run out of it.'

The show is the product of the working relationship between Fuchs and City Gallery Director Paula Savage. They already partnered on two shows:The World Over: Art in the Age of Globalisation (1996) and The Exhibition of the Century: Modern Masters from the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1998).The World Over, which took place simultaneously at the Stedelijk and City Gallery, includes fifteen McCahon paintings, exhibited in the Stedelijk’s Room of Honour, reserved for twentieth-century masters. A Question of Faith evolves out of this project.

Featuring seventy-seven paintings, A Question of Faith is organised chronologically. It emphasises McCahon's spiritual/religious quest, demonstrating how he explored questions of faith, doubt, hope, and despair. Stedelijk curator Marja Bloem says, 'McCahon sought to give visual representation to these existential issues of the human condition by using and modernising the Western Judeo-Christian artistic tradition.' Bloem titles the show after a 1970 McCahon text painting. 'When I saw that, I found it an extremely interesting painting. The dialogue with all the questions and doubt in it, all the different figures. Then I could more easily decide what works I was going to put in the show’, she tells the Dominion Post.

The show begins with McCahon's deliberately crude, early figurative works, from the late 1940s and early 1950s, which set familiar biblical stories in the New Zealand landscape in comicbook style, complete with speech bubbles. In his 1959 Elias series, text supplants the image. By the end of the 1950s, the human figure disappears from his work. The show works through McCahon’s oscillation between and integration of landscape, abstraction, and text. His Second Gate Series (1962), is his response to the Cold War threat of a nuclear holocaust. 

From the mid 1960s, McCahon becomes increasingly engaged in Maori themes and subjects, in such works as The Lark's Song (1969), based on a poem by Matire Kereama. Māori responses to Christianity, the symbolism of numbers, environmental concerns, and loss of faith are all addressed by McCahon in the final decade of his career.

McCahon’s last four paintings draw on Ecclesiastes. Collapse of faith is written in white letters on black, blackboard style. McCahon describes life’s futility. Savage says, 'You look at the end works and it's terrible, he's completely lost his faith in humanity—it's a man in breakdown, in despair.'

The show receives a lukewarm reception in Europe. 70,000 people see it, but Amsterdam's newspaper Het Parool runs Arjan Reinders’s review, ’A Dead Modernist Who Nobody Else Wants’. He calls the show a 'financial fiasco’, because there has been no take up from other European museums. 

Listener reviewer Garth Cartwright visits the Stedelijk and declares 'the big Mc doesn't travel well’. He continues, 'in Amsterdam, whose citizens have shared their city with Western art masters for centuries, McCahon appears very second division. Which explains why the Dutch have been less than awed by A Question of Faith. Why bother with his mediocre homage to Mondrian when your nation produced Mondrian?’ However, from his visit, Peter Calder in the Herald observes, 'the Stedelijk galleries were busy if not bustling like those in the Van Gogh Museum next door where busloads of bum-bag wearing tourists filed solemnly past unquestioned masterpieces. In the Stedelijk, the watchers moved slowly, sat for long periods.’

Bad news travels fast. When the show arrives in Wellington, local media seize on the criticisms of the show abroad. In the Dominion Post letters to the editor, W.M. King from Waikanae writes, 'The opinions expressed by art experts on the other side of the world confirm what a lot of New Zealanders have suspected for a long time—that Colin McCahon paintings are a load of baloney.' Savage bites back, publishing a letter in response in the Sunday Star-Times. 'Why in New Zealand must we continually suffer the opinions of self-professed amateur artists art-experts deriding McCahon? Worse still the media itself often seems to side with the uninformed. The worrisome possibility arises that, in New Zealand … ignorance about art is still considered a virtue. Perhaps New Zealand hasn't come as far since the 1950s as we would like to think.’ Savage sums up, 'if McCahon was a sporting hero, he'd be treated as an icon’,

However, not everyone is negative. Hamish Keith is magnanimous in Sunday Star-Times, calling McCahon 'a prophet in his own land’. He writes, ‘That after all is really why McCahon has finally arrived, fifteen years after his death, at this great shrine of modern European art—not for what he might mean to them, but for what he has already meant to us.’ Warren Feeney in the Press writes, 'I don't particularly care if European art critics and commentators did have their problems with this exhibition. It is their loss. It will be a very long time before another New Zealand artist equals the vision, emotion, and beauty of McCahon's paintings.'

The show has many stakeholders, including the McCahon family. In the Herald, Linda Herrick writes a profile piece on McCahon’s son William, titled 'Looking Back in Anger’, which concentrates on the family’s life of poverty. William McCahon says the family didn't expect to have a voice in the exhibition, 'I wrote to the Stedelijk Director [Rudi Fuchs] a very angry six-page letter, so angry it was almost incoherent … and that was a turning point.’ For William, the family has a pre-emptive claim in the presentation of McCahon's legacy as 'we were sacrificed to this work and are part authors of it’. William contributes to the publication, as does McCahon's Sydney dealer Martin Browne, who helps the Stedelijk organise loans.

In Wellington, the public programme is extensive. Sam Neill gives a talk, attended by over 300 people, in front of Victory Over Death 2. He takes a swipe at the recently opened Te Papa. 'The fact they refused this great McCahon show says it all really … the problem is it's a dud to put a museum in with an art gallery. The way they buried the national art collection in the basement is the biggest crime at all.' Choreographer Michael Parmenter gives a talk about McCahon's influence on his work, particularly his epic dance opera Jerusalem. Two lectures are held on the final weekend: Christina Barton's ‘After McCahon Again’ and Marja Bloem's ‘Colin McCahon and International Twentieth-Century Art’.