‘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.”

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