Monday 8 July 2013


A week or so ago, I read an article about Accurat's 'Visualising painters' lives' project. The very detailed infographics (or, really, great big wallpapers - I'm still dicey about a lot of this infographic stuff) take the events and creations from ten 20th century painters' lives and attempts to depict them using visual motifs drawn from each painter's work.

I stopped watching the video half-way through, to be honest. It felt unnecessarily complex, and I couldn't keep up. But it got me thinking about how essays and biographies might be illustrated at room-size. As always, I turned first to McCahon. How might a wall look, mapped out with his works against his various travels, homes, relationships, influences, and world events? Like an illustrated appendix writ large and - more importantly - as a journey, an object to walk by.

And this got me thinking about a topic I return to reasonably frequently - colour in McCahon's paintings. I don't know why, but like dotted lines and vessels, it's just something I mull over every few months. And, remembering that the University of Otago has recently added the Hocken's collections to Digital New Zealand, I decided to do a small experiment and try to lay out as many of McCahon's paintings as I could find in chronological order, to see if I could discern any pattern.*

It's not as simple as colourful first, khaki in the middle, and black and white at the end (especially as DigitalNZ only contains works from those New Zealand's public collections who are content partners, and private and corporate collections aren't represented here). I'm actually not sure that there are patterns to be seen, and I was constantly surprised along the way (these two works from 1958, for example, feel much later; the North Otagos of the late 1960s meanwhile feel much earlier). Still, it was an interesting exercise, and made me wonder what would happen if you ran every work from the McCahon database through a colour abstractor (having pulled out the sketches and prep drawings first) and then laid those out chronologically. Does it say anything about the work, or the painter's life?

*The ordering of the images is a little wonky, due to metadata oddities. I checked dates whenever things felt tangibly wrong to me, but please don't expect my chronology to be 100% accurate.

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