‘A landscape with too few lovers’

Following McCahon to the Far North

‘It’s there that this land starts’

Colin McCahon had an abiding love of the Far North.

“Up there is like standing on a moon,” he wrote. “[It] is unlike any other part of the land. I can’t talk about it, I love it too much.”

He may not have been able to talk about it, but he could paint it—in ways that are as evocative today as they are when he painted them half a century ago. He got under the skin of the land, as the land clearly got under his skin. He wanted to feel its pulse: “to make a painting beat like, and with, a human heart.”

In 1958, he made one of those paintings, artistically speaking, in a heartbeat. McCahon had just returned to Auckland after a long, intensive tour of the United States. He had been inspired by meeting the work of contemporary giants such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem De Kooning. Back home, feeling confined in bushclad Titirangi, “cold and dripping and shut in,” he “fled north in memory,” as he put it, “bursting for the wide open spaces,” and in a single afternoon produced a series of eight paintings he called the Northland Panels, painted with enamel house paint on the recycled canvases of other unfinished works.

The panels are said to have marked a turning point in McCahon’s approach, delving more deeply and abstractly into the land and its meanings. And the Far North, he wrote, “all sculpted by wind and rain” is somewhere to “bury your heart, and as it goes deeper into the land you can only follow.”

As the 100th anniversary of McCahon’s birth approaches, I wanted to follow him to the Far North, to try to see the landscape through his eyes, to bury my heart and follow.

In my mind I carried a line McCahon had scrawled in thickly brushed letters on one of the panels: “A landscape with too few lovers.”

It frustrated McCahon that many of his fellow Pākehā New Zealanders regarded landscapes with utilitarian indifference. They endangered the landscape by taking it for granted. Landscapes need the protection not just of laws but of loving hearts. McCahon later gave the name “Necessary Protection” to the drawings and paintings he was creating.

He believed his role as a painter included opening people’s eyes to this relationship between people and land. He put it this way: “I saw something logical, orderly and beautiful belonging to the land and not yet to its people. Not yet understood or communicated, not even really yet invented. My work has largely been to communicate this vision and to invent the way to see it.”

Looking at the Northland Panels, it is as if the painter tipped his memories on to the canvas. The colours of the north: the kikuyu green of pasture, bursts of rust-red clay, black volcanic rock, the blues of ocean, swamp and sky.

One of the panels has the word “rain” inscribed on it—and from the lighthouse path at Cape Reinga I watched rain squalls move like floating islands across the lead-coloured sea. I saw the entire western horizon grow dark and brooding as I walked the length of Twilight Beach, south of Cape Maria van Diemen.

Last time I was on this beach I found the rib bone of a whale. This time I found plastic fishing floats, a washed-up John Dory with its eyes pecked out, sponge skeletons, a colloquy of oystercatchers and a nomad isopod, solitary as I was, walking across the harlequin sand.

Another of McCahon’s panel has the words “Tui, tui,” under a slab of black with splashes of blue and feathery wisps of white—the visual essence of the bird. McCahon didn’t paint landscapes, wrote poet Ian Wedde. What he painted was “the essential evidence of creation.” And here, though we don’t see tui, we sense their presence, as I had at Ruapekapeka, on the road north.

I had diverted to the famous battle site, which I hadn’t visited in decades, to reacquaint myself, and as I walked under a puriri tree and heard the squeaky rasp of lily leaves rattling in the wind above my head, in nearby trees came the saxophonic blast of tui, demanding that I stop and pay attention. Up on the hillside, with its strange cauldron-like hollows—the earthworks of war—a man with full-face moko, leaning on a whalebone tokotoko, was telling the story of the place to a group of tamariki who were sprawled on the grass in front of him. The whenua, telling its stories to the whanau.

Three of the panels show slabs and slashes of red clay, encountered in road cuttings and in the dunelands of Te Paki. On the track to Twilight Beach I met three Ahipara women on a day walk to “Red Mountain,” as one of them called it—the highest landscape feature hereabouts, an ochre outcrop that glows like Uluru when the setting sun strikes it. I had climbed its crumbly flanks that morning, in places smoothly curved, in others thrown up into fiery pinnacles, a place of strangeness and wonder.

McCahon was drawn to the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. One he chose to be read at an exhibition was “Pied Beauty,” and you can see his paint strokes when you read Hopkins’ lines:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough . . .

Switch tui for finch, manuka for chestnut, dunes for trout and you have the Northland Panels.

McCahon had special things to say about manuka. It was typical of the man, who was drawn not to the scenic splendours of tourist attraction but to humbler fare, both landscape and vegetation, and in his day “tea-tree”—scrubby manuka—was as humble as you could get. How different today, when the nectar from its pink, red and white flowers is economic gold. Parts of the Far North, now planted in radiata pine, will likely revert to higher-value manuka when the trees are logged.

“Take the manuka and the land is lost,” McCahon wrote, speaking of the land’s necessary protection from destructive human schemes. Trees are the land’s protective skin, he believed, and we imperil the landscape when we exfoliate its plant life.

The eighth panel has ominous words: “Oh yes it can be dark here, and manuka in bloom may breed despair.” What was McCahon thinking about when he painted in those words? His gloom in the rain-soaked darkness of the Titirangi bush? The difficulty of even the jaunty loveliness of manuka flowers to call forth the landscape love and protection he longed for New Zealanders to share?

McCahon’s witness to the land remains vivid and compelling today. So, too, his aroha. “It’s a painful love, loving a land, it takes a long time,” he wrote. “I stood with an old Maori lady on a boat from Australia once—a terribly rough and wild passage. We were both on deck to see the Three Kings—us dripping tears. It’s there that this land starts.”

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