Commenting on The Group’s 1947 exhibition, in which these paintings were shown, critic and poet ARD Fairburn suggested that ‘they might pass as graffiti on the walls of some celestial lavatory’.1 Fairburn’s assessment was far from typical of the reception of Colin McCahon’s work at this time. Poet James K Baxter wrote about it enthusiastically, as did the historian JC Beaglehole. Even reviewers who found McCahon’s paintings challenging were prepared to recognise the sincerity that underpinned them.
One of the challenges these paintings offered was their representation of biblical stories within a recognisably New Zealand context. The Angel of the Annunciation shows Mary receiving the news of her miraculous pregnancy. Nelson’s ochre hills rise up in the background, while a building McCahon later identified as the Tāhunanui golfcourse clubhouse is shown in the middle distance. By giving local, vernacular expression to the mysteries of the Bible, McCahon was consciously taking his cues from the art of the early Renaissance; if such events could be depicted as reality in Florence or Siena, so too could they belong to contemporary New Zealand.
McCahon’s use of words had similar origins, in the painted scrolls and illuminated script of earlier religious art. The text in King of the Jews also had a contemporary source, as McCahon revealed to a friend: ‘The inspiration — the legend from a Rinso packet & the yellow I suppose from Byzantium’,2 while the figures of Christ and the Virgin were modelled on the work of Luca Signorelli, recently encountered as tiny black and white illustrations in Thomas Bodkin’s 1945 book Dismembered masterpieces, and pronounced to be ‘magnificent, magnificent, magnificent, magnificent’.3 This blend of disparate sources, an admixture of high art and popular culture, modernity and tradition, the local and the universal, signals the formation of the extraordinary vision that would propel McCahon’s work throughout his career.
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