Colin McCahon developed a keen sense of purpose as an artist very early in life. In 1939, at the age of twenty, he wrote: ‘The force of painting as propaganda for social reform is immense if properly wielded …’1 Concerned with the human condition, he maintained a powerful desire to communicate even as he pursued an increasingly austere painterly vision. In his late work he used white paint, emerging from a dark background, to suggest the possibility of spiritual illumination — the triumph of life over death, faith over doubt and hope over despair.
McCahon began the ‘Scared’ series in 1976, after seeing a photograph of two young Māori men, Lionel and Ray Skipper, who had ventured into the unfamiliar environment of Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington to see his art. He was moved by the picture: ‘That boy to the right going to unexplored land & the smaller fellow in the middle & me pushing a message neither of them have seen yet.’2
A stark, blackboard-like image, Scared contains a brief text scrawled in white: ‘I am scared / I STAND UP’. These two phrases go to the heart of McCahon’s preoccupations: a confession of existential anxiety, couched in the most direct language, followed by a resounding declaration of courage and faith. The sense of urgency is reinforced by the script, which is hastily applied, spattering dots of white paint against the dark background. McCahon retains just a vestige of landscape in this image, in the schematic form of the cliff on the left, and the fugitive white line that suggests a horizon. Both motifs recall the ‘Necessary protection’ series of the early 1970s, which drew on the landscape of Muriwai, west of Auckland, where McCahon had a studio, and explored environmental and anti-nuclear concerns.
McCahon often used the word ‘scared’ in discussing his art. As he refined his work, paring it back to essentials, he was frequently plagued with doubts and fears. Scared can be seen as a highly personal work, an allegory of the artist’s life, but its cry is also a universal one — a call of protest and a demand to take action.
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