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"Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith"
2002-08-31 until 2002-11-10
Stedelijk Museum
Amsterdam, , NL

The Stedelijk Museum is organising the first major survey exhibition in the Western hemisphere of the New Zealand painter Colin McCahon (Timaru, N.Z. 1919 - Auckland, 1987). Work by McCahon had already appeared in the Stedelijk’s Gallery of Honour in 1996 during the exhibition Under Capricorn - The World Over. Curiously enough, McCahon, who is legendary in New Zealand and Australia, is almost unknown in Europe.

Colin McCahon can be called the Van Gogh of Australasia. He is the first important painter in that part of the world. Particularly since his death his activities as a teacher and museum curator have also become the subject of much discussion and research. Central to McCahon's oeuvre is the investigation of the true nature of faith and his own spiritual experience and development. In addition he sought to maintain a relation to 'modernism' and abstract art. He was deeply committed to the environment and entered into an engagement with Maori culture. In his work, McCahon responded to an ever-changing world, at both the personal and universal level.

The 77 works in the exhibition are selected from his whole oeuvre, from the end of the 1930s to the beginning of the 1980s, with clearly distinguishable stylistic periods. The presentation is linear and chronological, so that the public can follow McCahon's development. Landscape and religion – in particular the language of the Bible – are constant factors in his work. McCahon constantly sought to give arresting visual representation to post-World War II society. To do so he made use of the existing visual vocabulary and perspectives of the Western Judeo-Christian artistic tradition, 'modernising' it. In this way he developed a form of painting that could communicate these points of departure to an audience in a small, isolated country in the mid-20th century.

At the end of the 1950s his need to communicate led him to replace the figurative image with words. McCahon's interest in the nature of Christian spirituality extended to the question of how the Maori in New Zealand had responded to their 'conversion' in the 19th century and how this conversion had led to their own hybrid form of Christianity. From the early 1960s landscape also functioned as a metaphor for the journey of life. In 1966 McCahon found a theme that fitted precisely with his concept of this journey: the Stations of the Cross. This theme appeared suitable for combining the passage of time with the symbolic meaning of numbers, in an increasingly abstract formal language. Only in his final works did McCahon let go of landscape. There remained only large black canvasses, neither stretched nor framed, like blackboards with white letters, regarding the relativity of temporal life. Seen from the perspective of Western art, these late works by McCahon are the most original and authentic. Over the course of time McCahon evolved from a positive outlook through a period of doubt to a sense of absolute despair. What at first sight would seem to be the naive work of a religious believer from a distant corner of the world is revealed to be the explorations of a doubter whose questions and concerns have a much wider significance and add a dimension to our view of postwar modernism.

An English language catalogue (with a Dutch insert) will accompany the exhibition, with texts by William McCahon (son of Colin), Marja Bloem (Curator of Painting & Sculpture at the Stedelijk and organiser of the exhibition), Murray Bail, Francis Pound, and foreword by Stedelijk Museum Director Rudi Fuchs. Included in the book is a biography, assembled by Marja Bloem and Martin Browne. The book will be published by Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, New Zealand. After Amsterdam the exhibition travels on to the City Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand ( December 7, 2002 - February 2003), Auckland Art Gallery (March 9 - June 29, 2003), the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia (July - September, 2003), and the Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (November 15, 2003 - January 16, 2004).

Colin McCahon
A Question of Faith, 1970

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