Gail Tatham is a retired academic, who has continued to publish as an independent researcher in art historical topics. She now lives in Timaru, proud birthplace of Colin McCahon. Long interested in how stories are told in the visual arts, she applied her methodology to McCahon’s work and was fascinated to find in the artist a strong narrative sensibility.
(Editor’s Note: 1 August 2019 marks the centennial anniversary of Colin McCahon’s birth)
COLIN McCAHON’S “SYNTAX OF NARRATIVE”
French critic Roland Barthes saw narrative as essentially a series of individual actions which made sense only when arranged in a particular grouping or sequence:
To take a deliberately trivial example, the different functions: order a drink, obtain it, drink it, pay for it, constitute an obviously closed sequence, it being impossible to put anything before the order or after the payment without moving out of the homogeneous group “having a drink.” The sequence indeed is always nameable (1984).
The truism that a story presupposes a sequence of events has implications for McCahon’s evolution as an artist. In his paintings, he often shows an awareness of the sequential nature of narrative and resorts to various strategies – what Wystan Curnow has called his “syntax of narrative” (1977-8; 1984) – to convey movement through space and time in what is essentially a static medium.
From quite early on McCahon uses so-called bird’s-eye-view narration. This primarily aims at portraying movement over a large area, and takes the form of a spacious landscape with a high horizon, as in an aerial photograph. It is expected that the viewer will survey the field and mentally recreate relevant events in some sort of sequence, so giving the impression of passage through time. New Zealand topography, with its mountains and hills, seems to encourage an aerial viewpoint, and indeed McCahon used this device in his first major landscape Harbour Cone from Peggy’s Hill (1939).
From 1947, in his early religious paintings too, McCahon regularly uses the high, “angel’s-eye” viewpoint along with other traditional narrative strategies. We see this in Entombment (after Titian), where grieving disciples lower the dead Jesus into a sarcophagus. Here McCahon follows his Renaissance model in employing classic monoscenic narration, depicting a single moment in a single location, as in a normal photograph. Observing the unities of time and place in this way is probably for modern Western viewers the most reasonable representation, conforming to our perception of external reality. It offers little scope, however, for delineation of sequence or suggestion of what happens before or after the event. In this case, the crosses in the distance and a ladder scaling the central cross refer to earlier parts of the story, but on the whole the sequence exists mainly in our minds. The artist was obliged to select a characteristic moment with characteristic detail to allow viewers to recognise the incident and complete the story for themselves. Otherwise, as McCahon soon realised, commentary had to be provided in the form of written accompaniment.
More scope is available in synoptic narration, where several aspects of a story may be combined in the same scene; the protagonist is represented once only, as in monoscenic narration, but the unities of time and place are not necessarily observed. Such an image can at first sight look quite “realistic,” but is actually a pastiche embodying a concept. This synoptic approach is used, along with comic-style speech bubbles, in McCahon’s Crucifixion According to St Mark (1947) where various episodes from the crucifixion story, as told in chapter 15 of St Mark’s Gospel, are combined within a single New Zealand landscape. As Jesus dies on the cross then (Mark 15:24-5 RSV), we see around him: the words proclaiming him King of the Jews (Mark 15:26); Jesus crying out to God in despair (Mark 15:34); bystanders offering Jesus a drink and watching for Elijah (Mark 15:35-6); the tearing of the veil in the temple (Mark 15:38); and three women mourning “from afar” (Mark 15:40). Not mentioned in the Mark account but in accordance with tradition, Mary and John stand at the foot of the cross. At the right hand edge a profile of the modern viewer/artist looks into the scene from outside, adding a further temporal dimension.
In later years, as Curnow has pointed out, in order to accommodate extended sequence more easily, McCahon resorted increasingly to serial formats, arranging separate panels in some kind of grouping to show that they were related. Such a cycle of paintings may include a range of different episodes. An important object or person may feature more than once but each time in a separate context, so the unities of place and time may be observed in individual scenes but not over all. The artist is thus freed from the tyranny of concision.
McCahon clearly found the properly narrative cycle congenial, arranging series of scenes in particular order and establishing progression without being artificially limited to a single moment in time. That these episodes are to be “read” in narrative sequence may be indicated by internal clues or else by their placement in narrative order around a room. As long as there is some reasonably clear narrative sensibility and some indication of progression, we may accept a series as narrative in intent, even when the actual story is not immediately obvious.
So, for instance, by progressing through the fourteen Stations of the Cross, McCahon constructed narrative cycles in a number of his most important and distinctive works. The Stations of the Cross represent a mini-pilgrimage that physically retraces in sequence the events of Christ’s last day. Walk, Series C (1973) is painted on eleven unframed hessian strips, to be placed horizontally side by side with the fourteen sections numbered in order. The Christian ritual here is conceived as an imagined walk along Muriwai Beach with his deceased friend James K. Baxter, and also as the soul’s journey beyond Te Rerenga Wairua, or indeed as a journey through life. With its limited palette and linked by a continuous horizon line, the series forms, as William McAloon has said, “a sequence of views showing the changing states of the tide, the horizon and sky….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” (2009).
As a mature artist, then, having explored various narrative strategies, McCahon settled into a multi-layered version of the serial format that probably came most naturally to him. In the end, he simply eschewed pictorial imagery entirely, and covered his canvases with the left to right, top to bottom directional momentum of the written word. His late series, based on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, comprises plain black canvases on which selected texts have been painted in white (c.1979-83). Strictly speaking, this series constitutes a programmatic cycle: a group of paintings with aspects in common, arranged not in narrative order but according to a conceptual framework. A theme in this series, for instance, emerges with the repetition of the word “emptiness”, often placed near a conspicuous black void. There is a sense of progression too, however, as the first-person narrator, the scriptural “Speaker,” works through the existential problem of pain. In the bottom left hand corner of the final painting, a merciful sense of serenity is reached with the Speaker’s acceptance of an imperfect world: “Better one hand full and peace of mind than both fists full and toil that is chasing the wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:6 NEB). It would be nice to think that at this stage McCahon himself was also content with one hand full. Certainly, we know that after this he stopped toiling and never painted again.
In memoriam Colin McCahon (1919-87) and William McAloon (1969-2012)
Barthes, Roland. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” in Image-Music-Text, translated by Stephen Heath, 79-124. Oxford: Fontana, 1984.
Curnow, Wystan. “Thinking about Colin McCahon and Barnett Newman.” Art New Zealand 8 (November 1977-January1978): 48-52. http://www.art-newzealand.com/Issues1to40/mccahon08wc.htm
Curnow, Wystan. I Will Need Words: Colin McCahon’s Word and Number Paintings. Wellington: National Art Gallery, 1984.
McAloon, William. “Walk (Series C).” In Art at Te Papa, edited by William McAloon. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2009. http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/657795