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Rain in Northland: Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere and the Painted Word.

How best to think of the words that dominate Colin McCahon's A Letter to Hebrews (Rain in Northland)? A voice over. The end credits of a movie the length of an artist's life. A data-feed-from a soul in a state of terminal unrest. Or, if we further adjust the angle: an airy forest of sound, the kind of 'lyrical foliage' Bill Man hire wrote of. A concrete poem. Ghost writing. Winged words. Bird song. Air mail. Sky writing. Given the second part of the work's title, maybe the words are also drops of rain fallen on parched Northland soil--a benison or anointing--or the aural environment of Hone Tuwhare's poetry, with its 'incantatory chant of surf breaking and the Mass and the mountain talking'. (1)


'The truth is always first discovered in open space', John Berger

'What shall we say about the structure we too narrowly call the Church?' James K. Baxter

The first part of McCahon's title heralds the lengthy extract from St Paul's epistle to the Hebrews which dominates all six panels of the work. Beyond that linguistic point of reference the title then leads us towards the flat lands around Ninety Mile Beach / Kaitaia and the Kaipara Flats--two of the Northland sites which meant a great deal to McCahon.

Most often, the words incorporated into McCahon's late paintings are gleanings from a passionate but far from systematic study of the Bible. His approach was impulsive and idiosyncratic, at times out-of-kilter and often less than accurate. The texts he chose were those that invariably had a strong resonance with his own life experience and artistic vocation. Among the passages he returned to were the story of Elias, the Parable of Lazarus, various of the Letters and, not surprisingly, the Passion of Christ. An immense opening out and interpretation of these sources, McCahon's 'word paintings' reflect a highly selective reading of scripture--very much in the tradition of William Blake and Georges Rouault.

With its frequent smudges, crossings-out and impulsive capitalisations, McCahon's sky-writing is never an easy read. The paintings do not offer 'illuminations' in any literal sense of the word--they cast darkness and mystery rather than light or clarity. In Letter, the text is etched into cloud, mist, beach-sand and waning light. Near-vertical lines--waterspouts, perhaps, or whirls of dust--bisect some panels. Elsewhere vapour trails or God Beams interrupt his aerial text; in the final image, a squall of annihilating rain advances from the east.

In the majority of McCahon's late word paintings, it is a night-sky the texts worm their way across, letters glimmering and fading like faulty neons. Just as the nocturnal text-paintings echo St John of the Cross's 'Dark Night of the Soul', McCahon's concurrent Muriwai beach works could be thought of as an Early Morning of the Soul, clad in sea-fog, haze or glare. With its mid-tones and greys, the painting under discussion feels like a drawn-out Overcast Afternoon of the Soul.

Working in his studio at Muriwai from the late 1960s onwards, the artist was particularly sensitive to cyclical and seasonal aspects of human life and parallel processes of growth and decay, birth and death in the world outside. Acknowledging the Maori tradition in which the spirits of the departed travel northwards up the West Coast before heading seawards at Spirits Bay, McCahon came to associate the North with death and the afterlife. He also associated the region with a sense of his own identity--this despite the fact he was born in Timaru and grew up in the South Island. A northward-inclined Muriwai Beach drawing from 1971 bears the inscription: 'The Far North, where my home really is'. And one of McCahon's last great works, A Painting for Uncle Frank (1979), includes, alongside a lengthy biblical excerpt, a short poem of his own, addressing the headland at the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach: 'Ahipara / here I come / back home where / I started / from'.

While McCahon was drawn to instructive, assertive biblical passages, his painterly vocabulary was that of doubt and apprehension: witness the roughly hewn lettering, deletions and irregularities. Uncertainty and doubt were granted an elevated status in the artist's schema and considered a precondition for the spiritual life, adding meaning and human depth to the mystery of religious faith. Commentators remain divided as to whether McCahon's art should be read as a statement on behalf of the Death of God or whether he is attesting to an ongoing rebirth. Whether he is getting on the bus, so to speak, or getting off it. Beyond such polarities, however, McCahon's shifting, ambiguous works suggest that these two states might not only coexist but be intrinsic to one another.

Much earlier in his career, McCahon had placed biblical characters and events in various New Zealand landscapes--the Angel of the Annunciation afloat above the Nelson region; Christ crucified on rolling South Island hill country; and the Promised Land fringed by Golden Bay. McCahon's approach was radical, even if the subject matter was not. Biblical scene-painting had long been a stock and trade of European art and remained, well into the twentieth century, an integral part of the Western art school syllabus. McCahon's early paintings rattled the cage of that tradition of religious picture-making--but they were mild compared to what was to follow.

Alongside biblical excerpts, McCahon's later works frequently incorporated phrases from poet friends such as Peter Hooper and John Caselberg. His life-long reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins was a defining and galvanising influence. For example, the title of his 1948 painting The Virgin and Child Compared was a variation on Hopkins' 'The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe', and his 'Comet' series of 1974 was an allusion to Hopkins' untitled poem which begins 'I AM like a slip of comet'. McCahon accorded Hopkins' poetry the same reverence he did Holy Scripture.

Voices beyond both the Bible and the corpus of Western poetry were also a part of McCahon's verbal catchment. There was Matire Kereama's retelling of Te Aupouri histories; numerous references to popular music (as in the 'Rosegarden' and 'Buttercup fields forever' works), things overheard--'Am I Scared Boy (Eh)'--as well as numerous place names, painterly notes and directions--from 'There is only one direction' to 'Keep New Zealand Green'. While McCahon desanctifies his chosen scriptural texts by his 'vernacular' rendering of them, he also raises up and exalts these other aural and written sources. McCahon stressed that 'conversations, influences of all sorts and books read ... these things are the food of painters'. Were it not for such a broadening of reference and accent, McCahon's work could have become cloying and narrow. Instead, works like A Hetter to Hebrews (Rain in Northland) are planar rather than linear. As suggested in the introductory note to this essay, the works are an effect as much as they are a message.

Against narrowness of any kind, McCahon's art is ultimately reflexive rather than prescriptive. Texts such us A Letter to Hebrews are subjected to stresses and strains; they are but one part of an ensemble of visual effects. Some words are accentuated while others fade into the underlying wash. It is hard to tell which black panels are there to cover up errors and which are a purely visual device.

On an earlier occasion, in relation to McCahon's paintings, I cited W.H. Gardner's observation that Gerard Manley Hopkins had 'succeeded in breaking up, by a kind of creative violence, an outworn convention'. McCahon's reworking of the Bible and his revitalisation of 'religious' art demonstrably involved such a degree of 'creative violence'. Gardner believed Hopkins 'led poetry forward by taking it back--to its primal linguistic origins: he showed how poetry could gain in resourcefulness and power by incorporating in its own artistic processes those natural principles of growth and adaptation which govern our everyday speech--which give to a living, developing language its peculiar tang, colour, range and expressiveness.' (2) McCahon also went well beyond the decorum of his times. With Hopkins as a touchstone, he returned art-making to a primal groundedness, at the same time enabling it to embrace abstract realities.

In its capacity to ask moral and spiritual questions and offer tentative answers, McCahon's art is well-positioned in terms of current theological thinking--a point Alexa Johnston made in the 1988 Gates and Journeys catalogue. Rather than being a statement of orthodoxy or conformity, theology in its true sense should be, she noted, 'both the expression of the beliefs of the Christian community, and the criticism of those beliefs in the light of new knowledge and developing experience. It is therefore never static; its task is never finished. There can be no final theology ...' Later, Johnston added, approvingly, that 'McCahon's thought and work seemed to reflect the changes and developments in religious thought which characterise the theology of our times. Narrowness and strictness are not its primary characteristics.'

While McCahon's background was Presbyterian, accompanied by a life-long grappling with Catholicism, Ralph Hotere (Te Aupouri, 1931-2013) emerged from a dense, resonant and remarkably coherent religious milieu, conditioned by both Maori and Roman Catholic influences. Hotere's father Tangirau was a respected catechist in the remote Northland settlement of Mitimiti. The artist was baptised Hone Papita (John the Baptist) Raukura Hotere. His first name was dealt him by the local priest who, as well as baptising all the children in the village, was given the honour of naming them. Hone Papita was named after the Catholic bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier who had been instrumental in bringing a European style of Catholicism to much of Northland in the 1840s.

At Mitimiti and in the surrounding villages, the priest's role was close to that of a tohunga. With neither land of his own nor offspring, he was taken to the heart of the hapu and deemed central to its identity and well-being. Ralph Hotere's father was the village's designated Catechist so, if the priest could not make it to Mitimiti to say Mass, he would conduct the Sunday service. Hotere recalled hearing a mix of Maori and Latin during his upbringing in the 1930s--both echoing with the rich, resonant vowel sounds which would later permeate his art. While being raised a devout Catholic and receiving his secondary education at Hato Petera College in Auckland, Hotere also took pains to acknowledge his father's other role: as transcriber and keeper of Te Aupouri waiata and tradition. The Maori language was upheld, and fundamental to them: to Tangirau and his wife Ana Maria, to their son Ralph / Raukura and some sixteen siblings. (3)

Hotere's integration of Catholicism and Maoritanga reminds us that Christianity was, in essence, based upon a New Covenant--it was a religion which, by its very nature, sought to graft itself onto the traditions of the people who encountered it. As Pope Pius XII stressed in a 1955 letter: 'The Catholic Church is not one with western culture; she never identifies herself with any one culture and she is ready to make a covenant with every culture'. Further to that, Thomas Merton noted that 'the early church certainly condemned the idolatry and vices of pagan Rome: but she also adapted all that was good in Greek and Roman philosophical thought, and modelled her law, her liturgy, her daily life on classical patterns'. While it would be wishful to think that such a seamless integration of Christianity and indigenous beliefs was ever achieved on a large scale anywhere in the colonial and post-colonial world, there would appear to have been moments of mutually enriching symbiosis, as was the case with various of the Northland missions.

It was Hotere who provided McCahon with the text for The Shining Cuckoo (1974), an important work which incorporated a traditional Te Aupouri waiata, as related by Tangirau Hotere.4 That painting represents a key meeting point in the creative lives of the two artists. Twelve years separated Ralph Hotere from Colin McCahon. Hotere remembered first meeting the older painter in the early 1950s and being inspired by both his work and his overarching belief in the vocation of the visual artist. Later they became friends and ideas and inspiration flowed in both directions between them.

It wasn't until late in his life that McCahon discovered Northland as a site of spiritual renewal. Hotere was born to it. Both had absorbed enough nineteenth-century history to understand how, over two centuries, the province had been profusely overwritten by the Bible, in tandem with the Catechism. In 1837 William Colenso produced 5,000 copies of the New Testament, the first in Te Reo Maori, from his printery in Paihia. Five years later, just across the water, the Catholic mission at Russell was producing religious publications in Te Reo Maori. The decades that followed were marked by the spiralling effects of numerous indigenous and imported strands of religious thinking.

During the 1990s, Shane Cotton (Nga Puhi) produced a noteworthy series of paintings which offered a salient meditation on the whirlpool of language and belief systems that was nineteenth-century Northland. Rather than absorbing entire texts, as Hotere and McCahon did, Cotton took the process of language-acquisition back to its basics, frequently using single letters arranged in the pre-grammatical formation of the language acquisition class--with, I suspect, a conscious allusion to McCahon's late series of blackboard paintings titled 'Teaching Aids'. You could say that Cotton's paintings offer a belated prehistory to the completed texts and phraseologies of Hotere and McCahon. At the same time, Cotton opens the language up to nineteenth-century historical events and developments--the signing of treaties, deeds and the far-reaching effects of literacy, as embraced by Maori.

In Maori tradition, words chanted or sung have the status of a natural element, like wind or rain. This was something Hotere knew from childhood and that McCahon intuited, I suspect, and enacted in works like A letter to Hebrews (Rain in Northland). Full of worldly life as well as inwardness, Hotere's series of banners entitled Rain (in the Hocken Libraries Collection) is characterised by a trickling down of light and water, footnoted by Tuwhare's great poem of cleansing and replenishment--a secular baptism. In its emulation of the fall of water, the work also offers a Hopkins-esque intimation of Redemption and Grace. It is a prayerful, solemn, and you could almost say 'religious' work and a perfect analogue for McCahon's six-part meditation.

Beyond his childhood experiences, Hotere also learnt something of the sacredness of art from the American painter Ad Reinhardt, who insisted of art that we 'mark it off, to keep it holy, not to be mistaken for ordinary ... Fewer beliefs, more belief...'. Importantly, in the work of both Hotere and McCahon, the notion of 'sacred' extends far wider than a spirituality defined or constrained by biblical or religious texts. Their art also hints at a further possibility: that, in the rephrasing of canonical texts in the context of modern / contemporary art, the age-old words might be released from their history.

The point at which Hotere's work comes closest to that of McCahon is on the rare occasion when he uses Old Testament texts--as in Aramoana Kopntai (1976). On one side of this painted screen, the inscription is from Ezekiel: 'And ye shall dwell in the land I gave to your fathers and ye shall be my people and I will be your God'. The words carry such a strong echo of McCahon that they could almost be read as a homage to the older artist (and also to Maori millenarial movements of the nineteenth century). More typical of Hotere's approach is He Pape est Mort (1978) in which the Christian / Catholic tradition is permeated not only with Maori and other cultural references, but is also doused in the rhythms and textures of the natural world. The artist sets the letters PX, denoting Christ, afloat on a Malevich-esque cross of squally blackness. Spatters and flecks of rain-like paint dominate the lower third of the unstretched canvas. Adjacent to three key-forms (emblems of the Papal city of Avignon) are lines from a Maori lament: E hinga atu ana he tetekura. E ara mai ana he tetekura. The painting is a pan-cultural elegy for Pope Paul VI, who is named on the work and the date of whose death--6 August 1978--is stencilled on the right. Hotere said the work was produced out of a sense of solidarity with the grieving people of Southern Europe, with whom he felt a great affinity.

Most of the time, the 'voice' in Hotere's work, with its linguistic bricolage, multiple registers and overlapping sources, is closer to the poetry of Bill Manhire or Hone Tuwhare than it is to the letter-writing of St Paul or the pronouncements of Jeremiah. It is characterised by a lowering of the voice (with some extended silences), whereas the voice in McCahon's paintings is often raised--deafeningly so in apocalyptic works like Storm Warning (1980-81).

In their resemblance to sermons or lessons, McCahon's text paintings could be said to be closer to the Protestant / Christian approach, with its focus on the Bible--as opposed to the Catholic approach which is mediated by liturgy and the clergy. The primary experience of language for most Catholics was / is the Mass, and through prayer (much of which, at the time of Hotere's childhood, was conducted in Latin). Certainly the repetitious patterns of Decades of the Rosary and the Ordinary of the Mass are alluded to and echoed in the cyclical formations of liturgical or secular words in Hotere's paintings. Regardless of their source, Hotere renders words and phrases as cantillations, mantras, prayers, spells even.

It is in the greyness or darkness of the sky above the horizon that the artists' visions coalesce. Their common ground is at once the province--the Bible-infused earth, sky and sea of Northland--and the mid-air, with its migrating birds and migrating souls. Into this wilderness--this 'beyond', which is also a shared stretch of coast, a runway and flight-path of souls--McCahon and Hotere step both forwards and backwards in time, alert, in their different ways, to layers of individual, communal and universal significance.

In rain, and the absence of rain. What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness?' The voice of Hopkins reverberating in the collective ear of Hotere and McCahon's Northland. 'Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. ' In the numbering of days and the Stations of the Cross. In McCahon's West Coast meditation, Walk with me, 1, which hung for decades in Hotere's living room at Carey's Bay. In the solemn rite, as described by Lorca, in which the artist 'rouses ancient essences from their sleep ... wraps them in his voice, and flings them into the wind'.

'Roimata o te ua, roimata o te tangata. Tears of rain are falling. Tears of rain. Tears of men.'

Stout Research Centre, 2016--Alexandra, July 2018


(1) Hone Tuwhare, 'A fall of rain at Miti-Miti', Smalt Holes in the Silence; Collected Works (New Zealand: Vintage, 2016), p. 152.

(2) To coincide with a large survey exhibition of his work at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1972 McCahon organised a public reading of work by writers who influenced him. The programme included three poems from Hopkins ('Felix Randal', 'Pied Beauty' and 'May Magnificat'), two poems from The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse, poems by Peter Hooper and John Caselberg, further pieces by the Cantabrian poet and Bloomsbury Group hanger-on, D'Arcy Cresswell, Frank Sargeson, R.A.K. Mason, M.K. Joseph and the Mersey poet Roger McGough. Some passages from the New English Bible, an extract from a Frank Sargeson play and a chapter of Matire Kereama's account of her Maori upbringing, 'Going out with the tide', completed the programme.

(3) Hotere reminded me of this on numerous occasions while I was writing Hotere: Out the Black Window (Auckland: Godwit, 1997) and after.

(4) In this, and other works by both McCahon and Hotere, the Roman numerals I to XIV denote the Stations of the Cross of Roman Catholic tradition. The Stations are not exactly 'biblical' although they are derived, for the most part, from events related in the New Testament. McCahon would reference the Stations of the Cross frequently to draw a parallel between his frequent beach-walks / journey and the Passion of Christ.

Caption: A letter to Hebrews (Rain in North/and) 1979 synthetic polymer paint on 6 sheets of paper (a-f) 73.0 X 110.2 cm (image and sheet) (each) Colin McCahon Online Catalogue cm001304 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria in memory of the Reverend Stan Brown by the Reverend Ian Brown, Fellow, 1984 (P6.a-f-1984) Reproduced with kind permission of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust

Caption: Ralph Hotere, Le Pape est mort E hinga atu ana he tetekura, 1978 acrylic on canvas 1609 X 910 mm Private collection Reproduced with kind permission of the Hotere Foundation Trust
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Author:O'Brien, Gregory
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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