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Why Colin McCahon’s final text paintings were his best

Colin McCahon understood very well the power of art as a language, a way to communicate deeply felt concerns and when standing in front of his paintings it is obvious that the painting and not the subject matter deliver this power. When you look at McCahon’s text paintings throughout his life one feels the power of the work before reading the text. This may just be a split second but the strength of the painting gives the text a stage of authority to be seen and heard.


In McCahon’s paintings there are two things happening. Firstly his personal despair and secondly his development as a painter. As McCahon’s life seemed to darken around him with illness, a sensitivity to the notion of spiritual purity of the land and what was happening to this beloved land in NZ as well as a widespread misunderstanding of his work, his paintings were developing displaying a mastery and clarity of voice, like stars in a clear night sky.


Art isn’t about painting ones emotional state. Its about harnessing the quality of the energy associated with that emotion and using it to transcend the personal, locked in subject matter, and express a sense of universal truth or knowing.


If we consider ‘Let us possess one world’ painted in 1955 and one of McCahon’s early text paintings one sees the deliberation and care employed in the painting of the text. One gets the sense that McCahon feeds his text with aspects of paint for them to come alive and thrive. In this early text work this sense of deliberation gives the work a very static quality.

Twenty years later McCahon paints ‘Scared’. The text is fluid and expressive with an immediate sense that seems almost dismissive and yet we see this superb compositional containment by McCahon of this expressive energy with the employment of white bordering and subtle division. This use of paint acts to phrase the written text and gives it a real gravity, authority and presence, which is both visual and felt.


After almost 30 years of employing text as part of his paint vocabulary, McCahon’s final works trigger the thought that these works were born out of pure intention. Not that they came easily but there is this sense of an unhindered flow in the execution of the final image. ‘I applied my mind” and “I considered all acts of oppression’, both painted in 1980-82 are white text on a black ground.


McCahon had said;


“I only need black and white to say what I have to say”


These final large unstretched canvases do not communicate any sense of despair as the subject matter suggests. These works, at the end of McCahon’s life, manifest as a titration point of personal honesty. They represent a voice so clear and audible that one is silenced by the interaction. It is almost as if the text has magically appeared on the black canvas, as if a message from another realm, which is why I personally consider them McCahon’s best works.

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