Title: Somebody Say Something

Author: Gregory O'Brien

In: Sport 23: Spring 1999

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, November 1999

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Literature

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Sport 23: Spring 1999

Gregory O'Brien — Somebody Say Something

page 9

Gregory O'Brien

Somebody Say Something

Colin McCahon's Storm Warning, Wellington, 1999
a scrapbook

Boxed text - black and white

page 10
Black and white image of a newspaper article

McCahon back for opening

By TOM CARDY, Arts reporter
A Colin McCahon painting sold by Victoria University amid controversy earlier this year is back on show in the new art gallery its sale helped fund.
The $2.2 million Adam Art Gallery on the university campus was to be officially opened today and be open to the public from tomorrow.
On display is McCahon's Storm Warning, which the university sold to an Auckland couple for between $1.2 million and $1.5 million in April.
It is being displayed above a piece by Maori protester Te Kaha, convicted of stealing a McCahon painting from the DOC centre at Lake Waikaremoana in 1997. It was recovered, damaged, 14 months later.
University Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Irving Yesterday again defended the sale of the painting. “We had a lot of controversy about selling that painting. Interest from money [from the sale] will be used to buy new [art] works.”
Its owners allowed the painting to be displayed during the gallery opening.
Another university-owned McCahon, Gate III, was one of 10 artworks in the gallery's opening exhibition Manufacturing Meaning. It will be the only artwork to be housed permanently in the gallery.
Professor Jenny Harper, head of art history, said more than $2 million of the cost of the gallery had come from private donations, including $1 million from art patrons Denis and Verna Adam. About $150,000 came from the Wellington Community Trust.
The university has 240 artworks, most on display around the campus. Ms Harper said the gallery meant the public, students and staff could, for the first time, view a selection of its collection in one place. It would also be used as a teaching and research facility, with some students working as volunteers or as interns.
RETURN SHOW - Colin McCahon's painting Storm Warning, displayed, top left, above a place by Te Kaha at the new Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University. Picture: PHIL REID

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On 19 April 1999, the day after Victoria University made public the ‘intended’ sale of Colin McCahon's Storm Warning, a painting the artist had gifted to the institution in 1981, I wandered into the Art History Department. Like everyone I had encountered that morning at the university, I felt certain the proposed sale of the painting was a mistake which would, in due course, be rectified. The Sunday Star Times had reported the previous day that the work was being sold ‘to plug an $80,000 shortfall in funds for the construction of a new on-campus gallery’, with the additional funds being used to buy new artworks. Some bottom-lip biting went on when I cast around for comments from members of the Department. Even at this stage there was a palpable unease at the sale of the work for between 1.2 and 1.5 million dollars.

Just over a week later the University announced the ‘discovery’ of a letter from Colin McCahon stating that the painting was ‘a public work’ and that he didn't want it to disappear into a private collection. By that time, a deluge of letters and e-mails objecting to the sale had descended on the Wellington daily newspapers as well as the vice-chancellor's office. It was subsequently announced that the painting had effectively been sold by the time the ‘intended’ sale was made public. Some members of the university staff were in teärs over the sale. It is a rare painting that can have this effect.

Some Disciplined Mayhem

In June 1999, Sir Denis Mahon, an 89-year-old art collector, arranged for his collection of Italian baroque art to be distributed among a number of British and European public art galleries. ‘There was disciplined mayhem at the National Gallery in London,’ reported The Guardian Weekly (27 June 1999). ‘Saints, virgins, popes and angels were on the move to accommodate the premature arrival of 26 paintings conservatively valued at 17 million pounds.’

Sir Denis had decided to distribute the contents of his will while he was still alive. The Guardian continued: ‘The treasures come with strings. They are loans that will become permanent after Sir Denis's death, on condition that none of the British galleries introduces page 12 admission charges, or sells anything from their collections. If they do, the National Art Collections Fund is charged with whipping the pictures off the walls immediately.’

In ailing health and painting only with great difficulty, Colin McCahon, by the early 1980s, was aware of his impending death. Like the admirable Sir Denis, he managed the preparation and execution of his will while he was still around to oversee it. No longer able to paint, he set to placing some of the important paintings still in his possession in public collections around the country, working out where they might be most effective. With neither Sir Denis's foresight nor his distrust, McCahon placed no written conditions on his gift to Victoria University (apart, that is, from writing informally that he did not want the artwork to disappear into a private collection).

McCahon believed passionately in the moral and spiritual dimensions of art. His innovations using language were principally to achieve such ends. He underlined the message-bearing capacity of art not only in the titles of his works (‘Load-bearing structures’, ‘Teaching Aids’, ‘Necessary Protection’) but in just about every published statement he made: ‘Painting can be a potent way of talking.’ His stated reason for painting on loose canvas unencumbered by a frame (as is the case with Storm Warning) was because it gave the artwork ‘more room to act’—his notion of the painting ‘acting’ went well beyond aesthetics to questioning and influencing how people went about their lives. He believed his paintings could act as ‘environments’, and written and spoken messages were an integral part of these environments.

In the early 1980s, Alexa Johnston, then Curator of Contemporary New Zealand Art at the Auckland Art Gallery, was involved in the purchase of a number of works from the artist. The gallery was also recipient of a large number of gifted works. She recalls Colin McCahon ‘clearly stating that he had specific destinations in mind for some of them—Wellington, Dunedin etc … gifts given with particular attention to what was being communicated and to whom’. So, in the last decade of his productive life, we find McCahon gifting the Parihaka Triptych to the people of Parihaka Paa, The Wake and Song of the Shining Cuckoo to the Hocken Library in Dunedin, Storm Warning to Victoria page 13 University and The Lark's Song to the Auckland Art Gallery.1

There is a purpose and there is a pattern to this gifting.

Just as McCahon grafted language and meaning onto the New Zealand landscape and night sky of his paintings, this time he was placing the paintings in the actual landscape. These markers or beacons were perhaps his last great statement as a painter, a final coming to terms with ‘the terrifying present we live in’ and a strategic placement of messages in places where they might be heeded.

What Has Been Communicated

Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver,
That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt …

So chimes Gerard Manley Hopkins's suitably stormy ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’. Hopkins was a bright light in McCahon's literary constellation. His ‘Angel and Bed’ paintings cite Hopkins's poem ‘Felix Randal’. Another of McCahon's favourite poems, Hopkins's ‘Pied Beauty’, also serves as a manifesto for the artist:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow …
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim …2

Words, for McCahon, were never inert or neutral—they functioned as catalysts and vehicles for meaning. They were links with the past, explorations of the present and messages for the future. As in Hopkins's poetry, the metaphor of the storm was a particularly poignant one in page 14 Colin McCahon's art. Storm, fog and encroaching darkness are three central visual metaphors of his late works.

In a series of painted scrolls exhibited at the Barry Lett Gallery in 1968, McCahon quoted his friend, Peter Hooper (whom he had met at the Woollaston household in Greymouth during the 1950s). The seething cauldron of darkness and fire that is Storm Warning has an analogue in Hooper's ‘Notes from the Margin’, a poem which also locates itself in Wellington:

Here is the weather forecast
What was it for us?
I missed it
although who forecasts the
storms that do
the real damage?
strong to gale
southerlies in Cook Strait
separate more
than two islands

the roof falls
is destroyed …

Certainly McCahon's intentions for his works are at odds with the manner in which much contemporary criticism deals with them. Postmodernism has, conveniently, made his work an easier pill to swallow, his ‘messages’ reduced to the status of quotations within quotations. The fashion may well be to treat a work like Storm Warning as primarily an example of semiotic sampling, an ambivalent re-rendering of lines from the New English Bible, headlined by the slogan: YOU MUST FACE THE FACT (which may well have been taken from a Christian religious tract). This kind of inability to ‘read’ the work in its intended manner, one can only assume, underlies the university's decision to sell it. Its religious and moral charge cast to page 15 the wind, Storm Warning becomes a signature ‘McCahon’ with all the prerequisite stylistic tics. A rare, if somewhat ungainly, bird.3

At the present time it would be a critical heresy to read Storm Warning as primarily a spiritual or social pronouncement. This, despite McCahon's strategic use of virtually every visual device in the work to underline the literal meaning and urgency of his text. We are simultaneously given hell-fire, a tempestuous Wellington evening and an all-encompassing night fog, partitioned off by McCahon's ‘load-bearing structures’, the bars and pillars that might once have supported bridges but are now frail and dissolving in the acid-bath of McCahon's oncoming storm.

‘The physical art of painting, its mechanics and its labour need not interest the viewer,’ McCahon said. ‘The work of art is done by the time the viewer views. What has been communicated is now of primary importance, indeed, this is the only importance a work of art has.’

Paradoxically, when, in September 1998, Jenny Harper, the head of the Victoria University Art History Department, was publicly criticised for hanging a painting by Peter Robinson entitled Pakeha Have Rights Too!, featuring a swastika and not much else, in her office, she said the individuals critical of the work's placement were ‘people Black and white image of a newspaper article page 16 unskilled in reading the visual’. Surely, such a dismissal could be just as aptly directed at those responsible for selling Storm Warning—one of McCahon's most clearly articulated statements.

More recently, Harper has been dragged, rather unfairly it has to be said, into public discussions of whether McCahon could paint or not. In an Assignment documentary on Television One in June 1999 she was filmed nodding in agreement as self-professed man-in-the-street Rob Harley droned on and on about McCahon's overinflated reputation. Her decision to cash in Storm Warning was upheld by Harley as that rare thing: a sane decision in the insane art world. Likewise, in the press, a number of correspondents, as well as Sunday Star Times columnist Frank Haden, endorsed the sale on the grounds she had palmed off a piece of junk for a cool million plus.


While studying at Auckland University in the early 1980s, one of my favourite items in the Elam library was the published version of Georges Rouault's series of Miserere lithographs. This was before the time of computerised library withdrawals and borrowers had to write their names on yellow or red cards located in a pouch at the rear of the book. These cards provided a useful and endlessly fascinating whakapapa of previous readers of any given book.4 I recall being surprised that hardly anyone had withdrawn Miserere during the 1970s although—and there his handwriting was, in pencil—Colin McCahon had signed it out many times while teaching at Elam during the 60s.

So much for the temper of the times. While Rouault's crushing meditation on morality and the modern world was bypassed by students, the copies of ARTFORUM in the Elam library were so well-read they were falling apart on the display shelves.

Like Rouault, McCahon was an artist concerned with moral and spiritual collapse. While many commentators have married McCahon's paintings to the ‘death of god’, the works might more accurately be page 17 seen as explorations into the ‘possibility of god’. (McCahon, as both painter and individual, didn't so much critique the idea of god as struggle towards some recognition or realisation.) McCahon's attachment to the work of the fervently Christian Rouault echoes through his word paintings with their moral imperatives.

‘Tomorrow will be beautiful,’ said the shipwrecked man
Peace seems never to reign
Over this anguished world
Of shams and shadows.

‘Man is a wolf to man’

These quotations are from Rouault's Miserere, although they could easily have been taken from McCahon's canvases. (Conveniently, the Auckland Art Gallery owns a number of Rouault's Miserere lithographs which, no doubt, McCahon would have appreciated while he was employed at the gallery.) Like Rouault, McCahon was capable of the most abject despair. At other times, as in Storm Warning, he could also turn bull and charge.

‘Nous sommes fous’
We are mad

‘Men will love nothing
but money and self …’

Black and white image of a painting

en tant dondres divers, le beau metier d'ensemencer une terre hostile.

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The McCahon Vacuum (‘Towards Auckland’)

I imagine Colin McCahon—towards the end of his life—squirrelling some of his most potent works away in public collections to keep them away from the marketplace—a market he lampooned in the title and concept of his 1968 exhibition at the Barry Lett Gallery:
Black and white image of an artwork


A few years ago, while working for the McCahon Trust, Gerald Barnett commented on how all the Colin McCahon paintings were heading for Auckland. It was as if a vacuum cleaner was positioned in the city and the paintings were being extracted from their collections and drawn inexorably northwards. More recently, Gerald observed, an even more powerful vacuum cleaner had begun shifting McCahons across the Tasman. And, in all likelihood, within the next decade an even more powerful vacuum will draw them further afield.

We witness the McCahons—apart from those secured in public collections—caught in this art-market whirlpool, a storm rather different from that in Storm Warning, although one into which the painting of that title has vanished.

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According to the Head of Victoria's Art History Department, ‘the painting may have gone anyway … the issue of its value might have tipped the balance in the end’. A few years ago, our neighbours in McFarlane St, Mt Victoria were in a similar fix over a large painting which had been gifted to them. This work was on public display in the St Gerard's Monastery chapel which opened directly onto Hawker Street. The door was left unlocked during daylight hours. Gagliardi's painting of St Gerard (after whom the monastery was named) was gifted to the monastery at the turn of the century and, by 1992, was conservatively valued at just over one million dollars.5 So what was the church to do with it now the chapel was no longer in public use?

Far be it from me to endorse the fiscal policies of the Catholic Church in general but, in this instance, the religious community ceremonially farewelled the painting then shipped it back to the people of the Italian town of Mater Domini, whose forebears had gifted it to the Wellington parish a century earlier.


In July 1998 I was talking with a successful young local painter at the New Gallery in Auckland, not far from a huge wall-mounted work, Untitled (1980) by the Greek artist Jannis Kounellis. The artwork comprised three industrial steel panels with beams bolted to them and pieces of clothing affixed between the beams and panels. When I remarked on what a powerful work it was, the artist replied that he couldn't bear the ‘nostalgia’ of it.

I queried this remark. The three panels obviously referred to the rather un-nostalgic business of the tripartite crucifixion on Golgotha. The aged articles of clothing evoked the forced emigrants and civilian prisoners of World War Two and, more particularly, the persecution of Jews. ‘Nostalgia’ didn't feel like the right word.

Months later, amidst media images of the Kosovo crisis, Kounellis's artwork seemed to me to contain the essence of that catastrophe as well, the breaking of humanity on the the wheel of wanton power. page 20 (HOMO HOMINI LUPUS, Rouault might well have captioned the work.) I tried to think of who among the contemporary New Zealand artists might plausibly create a work capable of articulating the enormity and gravity of such public, social calamity. Which isn't to suggest this is the only area worth painting about (and, lord knows, public calamity has led to miles of rotten Expressionist canvas), but who was there capable of painting with the necessary seriousness and self-excoriating honesty?

‘Nostalgia’, of course, is to do with events being lost in the past or being infused with a sentimental attitude to the past. Perhaps, on the terms of the young artist, McCahon's Storm Warning would also be a nostalgic work, especially if you packaged up its religious and, I guess, High Modernist references and consigned them to their historical niches. On the other hand, I would assert that a work that can reference and inhabit the past at the same time as it remains alive and relevant in the present cannot be exactly nostalgic. The work might appear unfashionable and untimely but surely that is something a sophisticated critical environment should explore rather than side-step or deride. Maybe the young artist's approach is akin to ‘post-humanism’—a term that has crept into art parlance but which I've never found an explanation of, or justification for. Maybe ‘post-humanism’ suggests we have transcended art's ability to get inside the human situation? Such a state of affairs would have been anathema to McCahon.

The point at which humanist or moral aspects of an artwork are deemed ‘nostalgic’ is, it could be argued, a point at which the work becomes imminently saleable. The artwork becomes a quotation rather than a statement, a semiotic hiccup rather than an outpouring—in the case of Storm Warning, a ‘gift’ in the material sense only. (And this would accord neatly with the parallel point in the history of Art History when the master-narrative of Western Art becomes a socio-economic narrative of the buying, commissioning and selling of chattels.) One can only assume that at the point the Storm Warning sale was decided upon, the status of the item to be sold had been distorted and reduced accordingly. However, while the purpose and spirit of the work had obviously been decommissioned as far as those directly involved in selling the work were concerned, this was far from the case for the page 21 Black and white image of a painting Black and white image of a painting page 22 university community at large. The University Council's right to sell Storm Warning will always be contested, if not necessarily on legal grounds then certainly on moral and ethical ones. At the time of writing, with the Adam Art Gallery recently opened, the Storm Warning debacle lingers like a black cloud or busted Zeppelin over the Hunter Building where the painting was once installed. The brilliantly conceived, Athfield-designed Adam Art Gallery deserved a better opening fanfare than the fallout from this piece of bureaucratic and art-historical misadventure.

Get Up, Stand Up

A parallel could be drawn between the case of the Peter Robinson painting with the swastika and the sale of the McCahon. In both instances, the ethical implications of the artwork were deliberately downplayed or anaesthetised—in one case to justify a work remaining on public display and, in the other, to permanently remove a work. And what of the artists’ intentions?

Certainly in the case of the Storm Warning sale, you could be forgiven for thinking that the intentions of the artist don't count for much these days. A fortnight after the sale was announced I discussed the matter on National Radio's Kim Hill programme, having called up a number of people close to McCahon the previous night and asked what they thought the artist would have made of the sale. Without exception they said he would have been appalled.

The artist is ‘dead’, so they say, just like the author. But if intentions don't matter, then, stripped of its irony, Peter Robinson's swastika in the office of the head of the Art History Department has the same status as Fascist propaganda (which was how it appeared to the Maori student who felt intimidated by its placement and lodged a complaint). On the other hand, if intentions do matter, then weren't McCahon's, in relation to Storm Warning, patently clear from the start—and underlined by the letter that surfaced later in the debacle?

‘Someone has to stand up for what artists do,’ Harper stated in the 1998 Listener article. But what exactly is it that they do? If she will stick up for Peter Robinson's right to paint a swastika why would she page 23 not stand up for McCahon's right to strategically place a work called Storm Warning on the hilltop above Wellington, overlooking the Beehive.

Impeded and Unimpeded View

Colin McCahon's belief in art as a means of ‘conquering spiritual death’ must sound like mumbo-jumbo to the post-humanists and those sainted individuals bold enough to describe themselves as ‘skilled in reading the visual’. How also would they cope with McCahon's stated objective ‘to make a painting beat like, and with, a human heart’? Not that McCahon would have been particularly impressed by the theorists who, if forced to confront the ferocious religiosity of his work, would probably consign it to the same basket as, say, the folk art of Howard Finster—filed under Quaint, Eccentric Religious Visionary—or William Blake, a writer-painter whose anti-monetarist imperative was often cited by Toss Woollaston: ‘Where any view of Black and white image of handwritten text page 24 money exists, Art cannot be carried on.’ A thought worth noting in the present circumstance.6

How do we—as viewers and commentators—cope with the confrontational aspect of Storm Warning? By retreating into formalism and seeing it as entirely self-referential and contained within a Modernist tradition of art speaking only to itself? But wouldn't that mean fixing McCahon at the point he reached relatively early in his career with the infamous Painting (1958), in which he had dispelled not only imagery but words. That painting was both a nadir and a watershed for the artist, a wall he hit hard, rebounding back into ‘content’ with the even more stridently voiced messages which would dominate his work for the next two decades.

Most likely, the answer is to bear in mind Octavio Paz's assertion that ‘theory is grey, green the tree of life’ and abandon all our discussions and speculations, and simply stand before a painting like Storm Warning in all its expressive, explosive vigour. As Julian Bell usefully points out: ‘Who needs a theory of firework displays?’


While goodwill towards Victoria University certainly prompted the Storm Warning gift, other factors came into it.7 According to Alexa Johnston, McCahon consciously placed the painting in a university that had an active religious studies department—and a Continuing Education programme involving the likes of Lloyd Geering, which provided a dynamic spiritual environment beyond, as well as within, the university proper. Geering's beliefs and non-conformist religious stance had greatly impressed McCahon over many years. A case could certainly be argued that the fate of Storm Warning should in fact have been placed in the hands of the Department of Religious Studies rather than the Art History Department which—as a number of comment-ators have reminded us—didn't even exist at the time of the gift.

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If McCahon had wanted to hand the painting over to an art history department (and a university with a well-organised collection) he might well have gifted the work to Auckland University. However, as it happened, Auckland in 1982 had no religious studies department and attempts around that time to found one had apparently been scuttled by an ardently secular university council. This was a state of affairs that deeply troubled McCahon, Johnston recalls.8 Despite the fact he taught at Auckland between 1964 and 1970, McCahon never, to my knowledge, gifted any of his own works to that university's collection.

The recent metamorphosis of Storm Warning into capital would certainly never have been a possibility McCahon would have enter-tained. To add to the absurdity of the whole business, it looked for a time as if the painting might well continue to metamorphose into even stranger forms. The Evening Post (24 June 1999) quoted some university staff members who thought some of the funds should go towards a McCahon Swimming Pool—a fittingly surreal conclusion to a course of events which tests the bounds of credibility anyway.9

The Spirit of the Age

If many contemporary artists like to think of Marcel Duchamp as the towering spirit of the age, I would argue it is in fact the spirit of Salvador Dali presiding over much contemporary art practice: witness the Dali-esque attraction to right-wing politics, banality and boyish/adolescent humour that now almost defines a movement in contemporary New Zealand art. One of my favourite stories about Salvador Dali concerns his falling out with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the 1960s. In a proposed film-script, Dali outlined a scene in which a number of swans, with gelignite page 26
Black and white image of a poster

after after McCahon

attached to their backs, were to be released onto the flat surface of a lake. The camera would follow them slowly around the mirrored waters as, one by one, they were blown to pieces.

Such a mixture of bad boy-ism and showmanship certainly has its proponents here just as anywhere else in the world. A good deal of contemporary New Zealand art looks like a case of the rebellious grandsons and daughters of McCahon getting their own back on his solemn, deliberated art. Or are these artists simply drawing logical conclusions from the cultural climate in which they live? Such a state of affairs Ernest Hemingway had figured in his 1960 Collected Poems:

The Age Demanded
The age demanded that we sing
And cut away our tongue.

The age demanded that we flow
And hammered in the bung.

The age demanded that we dance
And jammed us into iron pants.

And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded.

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Black and white photograph

Or, as that great punster Rrose Selavy would have said, ‘Oh! Douche it again!’ If, on the one hand, many contemporary artists dabble with ‘transgressive’ ideas/materials à la Salvador Dali, there is also a passivity to much contemporary practice which comes uncomfortably close to the complacency that George Orwell warned against: ‘Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism—robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it.’

While Peter Robinson's word-and number-based paintings have assimilated generous chunks of McCahon, the works’ real affinity is with the 1960s word-productions of Allan Kaprow—a concrete poetry full of neutralised or ironised imperatives and large themes rendered playfully inert. Perhaps, if the art of Kaprow and Robinson is true to page 28 the fragmented reality of its time (and is, in the latter case, a by-product of the ‘post-humanist’ era), then McCahon is the anachron-ism?10 More and more, then, McCahon reconfigures as a lone prophet, although in a different wilderness now.

Black and white image of an artwork

In contrast to McCahon's impassioned ‘way of talking’, we find ourselves presented with a piece like Julian Dashper's What I am reading at the moment (1993)—an installation comprising a well-worn chair and a glass case full of back-issues of—you guessed it—ARTFORUM magazine. Admittedly, Dashper's meditation coheres neatly with the narrative of reading and writing which runs through New Zealand painting since World War Two; only now the artist's role has become that of a passenger, a wry consumer or commentator who has chanced little, rather than a citizen who, in Samuel Beckett's phrase, ‘stakes his entire being’.

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‘McCahon's gift is still with us. We have just changed the nature of that gift.’

Given the obviousness of Storm Warning's message and the ease with which details surrounding the gift could have been gathered from people who were close to McCahon at the time, the fact that the head of the Art History Department went on national television and said she thought the sale was in the spirit of McCahon's gift underlines the implausibility and sheer outrageousness of this chain of events.

Within the university itself, opposition to the sale came, in particular, from the Departments of English, Music and Religious Studies. Many staff members felt the painting didn't entirely belong to ‘Art History’. The literary element in McCahon's painting certainly places it, at least partially, within the domain of the English Department. McCahon is inarguably an important presence in New Zealand literary history—his association with writers such as Caselberg, Hooper and Baxter has been explored in two recent exhibitions.11 The artist wrote: ‘I suppose writing is above painting. The beauty of words grab me. I love words—you get “told” by words.’ I've already mentioned McCahon's relevance to the field of religious studies. His relevance to the music and dramatic arts of this country is unequalled by any other visual artist, with the possible exception of Ralph Hotere.

Maori members of staff had every reason to question the authenticity of the university's supposed bi-culturalism after the powers-that-be felt no compunction about secretly despatching a work of this nature—a gift from an individual to a Maori as well as a Pakeha community—without taking it through the appropriate Maori channels. (Ironically, a week or two after the sale was announced, Jenny Harper was publicly criticising the Museum of New Zealand for its 1993 restructuring which, she said, was done with ‘minimal internal consultation and no public debate’.) It was even suggested, in at least one quarter, that Storm Warning might well inspire the kind of committed re-claiming that the Urewera Mural met with in 1997 (which would explain the decision to hang the work on hooks six page 30 metres high in the Adam Art Gallery, when it was returned temporarily to the university for the opening exhibition.)

The actual process by which the painting was sold has alarmed a large sector of the university community. The University Council's resolution, passed early in 1998, was that the possibility of selling a work from the collection could be looked into if funds had not been raised by 31 December 1998. Selling valuations for Storm Warning and three other McCahons were being sought in October of that year. Two independent legal opinions have described this as an unauthorised act. And still the university simply refuses to admit the sale was a mistake. An official statement in the parish pump VicNews was jaw-dropping in its illogicality: Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Irving said that the sale did not breach McCahon's wishes because the new owners had agreed that the painting will be made available for public exhibition from time to time.

Whether the institution admits it or not, the sale has led to a collapse in confidence on the part of donors and friends of the gallery and university. The Turnovsky Trust has written to the university concerning the ‘gift’ status of a number of grand pianos donated to the Music Department. A series of 32 photographs originally intended as a gift to the University has now been gifted to a specific department of the university on the condition it does not become part of the University Art Collection. It will take the university a long time to regain the goodwill and trust of countless artists, collectors and others. The whole business reads not only like a fulfilled prophecy (McCahon's pessimism confirmed) but also like some grim parable of the unstoppable, unmeasured opportunism of New Right economics.

Richard Killeen, discussing the sale recently, went on to draw the gloomy conclusion that in the restructuring of welfare and education in particular, Pakeha New Zealand was showing its true colours. In short, the country had been colonised by a band of gold-diggers and the period of the welfare state was but a brief aberration before we returned to being who we really were all along: a nation of gold-diggers.

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In the end, you could be forgiven for thinking that McCahon's Storm Warning—with its expressed sentiment—was exactly the kind of painting a university in the present monetarist era didn't want around.

‘In this present time it is very difficult to paint for other people—to paint beyond your own ends and point directions as painters once did,’ Colin McCahon wrote in 1972. ‘Once the painter was making signs and symbols for people to live by: now he makes things to hang on walls at exhibitions.’ This statement reads like an uncannily accurate description of Storm Warning's progression from being a community-owned icon on permanent display to being an artwork temporarily on loan to a gallery from a private collection.

Gordon H. Brown, McCahon's biographer, said recently that more and more in his latter years the artist divided the people around him into two factions: the ‘believers’ and the ‘betrayers’. The Storm Warning debacle was one occasion, Brown surmised, when the ‘betrayers’ had had their way.

Black and white image of an artwork


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p.10 Evening Post, September 1999. The inscription on Storm Warning reads: ‘YOU MUST FACE THE FACT The final age of this world is to be a time of troubles. Men will love nothing but money and self. They will be arrogant, boastful and abusive, with no respect for parents, no gratitude, no piety, no natural affections, they will be implacable in their hatreds. PAUL TO TIMOTHY.’

p.12 Article by Tessa Laird in the Listener, 5 September 1998.

p.17 Page from Miserere, Georges Rouault (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1952). The caption translates: ‘In so many different ways, the noble vocation of sowing in hostile land.’

p.18 Invitation to Colin McCahon's 1968 exhibition at the Barry Lett Gallery, Auckland.

p.21 left Colin McCahon, Untitled (My brothers, not many of you) 1969, crayon on wallpaper, c. 133× 55 cm (McCahon Family Collection).

p.21 right Colin McCahon, Untitled (‘Parts of speech’ Peter Hooper) 1969, mixed media on wallpaper, c. 133×55 cm (McCahon Family Collection).

p.23 Handwritten draft by Colin McCahon of his notes for Colin McCahon; a survey exhibition (Auckland City Art Gallery, 1972).

p.26 Invitation to exhibition AFTER AFTER McCAHON at Cubewell House, 17 April 1993, featuring works by Chris Cane, Neil Dawson, Julian Dashper, Michael Harrison, Ronnie van Hout, Philip Kelly, Daniel Malone, P. Mule, Michael Parekowhai, Patrick Pound, John Reynolds and Isabel Thom. In keeping with the spirit of much post-McCahon art, this invitation featured an early photograph of McCahon with a pointed beard and moustache scrawled onto it. This gesture invokes both Marcel Duchamp's infamous revision of the Mona Lisa, L. H. O. O. Q., and the equally notorious facial hair of Salvador Dali.

p.27 Allan Kaprow, Words, an environment installed in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, c. 1967.

p.28 McCahon's invitation to his 1971 exhibition at Dawson's Gallery, Dunedin. Here he reconfigures his signature as, at once, mandala, asterix, blazing sun and the spokes of a wheel rolling along a firmament of words.

p.31 Mary McFarlane, Dear Wee Storm Warning 1999, ink on paper.

Thanks to the Colin McCahon Trust for permission to reproduce works by the artist.

1 McCahon, throughout his career, gifted works to his friends and family. Many of these have subsequently been sold on, for one reason or another. I recall Maurice Shadbolt telling me sometime in the 1980s that he had had to sell a number of McCahons (works he had bought as well as been given) to enable him to continue writing full-time. He broached this matter with McCahon and his family, who were approving of this course of action. These works were not, however, gifted in the manner of Storm Warning or the other public gifts.

2 McCahon selected these two poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins to be read out at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1972 as part of a presentation, ‘WORDS FOR PAINTING: poetry and writing influential in the work of Colin McCahon’.

3 Tellingly, at the Curating Now conference in New Plymouth, September 1999, there was a discernible unease when a visiting American curator, Dana Friis-Hanson, said he believed artworks should not be shown in a way that the artist would not have approved of. Many of the curators in the audience, I presume, sensed a loss of power—or perhaps even a responsibility they did not want—in his statement and responded quite aggressively.

4 Now that library withdrawal cards are a thing of the past, this traceable history is removed from the public gaze and lost—one presumes—somewhere in the inner brain of the institution. (lain Sharp's Landfall 156 review of Kendrick Smithyman is a paean to the virtues of this outmoded system.)

5 This painting was reproduced in Sport 21 (October 1998) p.40.

6 Woollaston, quoted from ‘The origin of beauty and the function of appearance in art’, Art in New Zealand, March 1938, pp.165–66.

7 Peter McLeavey pointed to the important friendships between McCahon and such Victoria University figures as Frederick and Evelyn Page, Douglas Lilburn and J.C. Beaglehole in the Listener, 29 May 1999.

8 Conversation with the author, July 1999.

9 The much vaunted justification for the sale was that, as well as meeting the $80,000 shortfall, it would enable the university to buy new artworks. In fact, the purchase of new works was always part of the project description at the time it was initially sanctioned by the University Council. Certainly no mention was made of the possible selling-off of artworks to facilitate acquisitions in the fundraising letter I received in my pigeonhole in the English Department in February 1998.

10 Paradoxically, Colin McCahon was himself aware of Allan Kaprow's work and had met Kaprow in the USA during his 1958 tour (their encounter is described in Gordon Brown's monograph). However, it is the differences between McCahon's and Kaprow's ‘word environments’ that are remarkable rather than the similarities.

11 A Candle in a dark Room (Colin McCahon and James K. Baxter) 1997 and Answering Hark (McCahon and John Caselberg), both curated by Peter Simpson.