Critical factor

A painting by Colin McCahon. New Zealand, 1943
A painting by Colin McCahon. New Zealand, 1943

The relationship between a creative writer and the critic is a tricky one. B.N. Goswamy narrates a few examples

Years ago, angered by some callow, bookish critic’s remarks about one of his works, Josh Malihabadi, the great Urdu poet, wrote a long poem addressed virtually to all those who belonged to his tribe. Naqqaad, he called it, meaning simply Critic; and in it he spoke, in his usual grand and eloquent manner, of the pain that the poet goes through in the process of creating, and the casual ease with which the critic tosses off his views. I remember just a few lines of the poem, in which, after having questioned the critic’s very understanding of what poetry is all about, he sets out towards the end to describe in his own words what delicacy of utterance is. Shi’r kyaa hai? neem bedaari mein behnaa mauj kaa/ barg-i gul par neend mein shabnam ke girne ki sadaa. (What is poesie, if not the quiet flow of a current, as if half-asleep; the hearing of the sound of a dew-drop as it falls upon a petal in a state of dream?) So on it proceeds, in words of great anguish and refinement.

I was suddenly reminded of this while leafing through some thin booklets that I picked up years ago in the course of a visit to the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand. They were on the work of Colin McCahon, a painter that we in this country might know little about, but who is widely acknowledged as one of the most "outstanding figures in New Zealand visual art of the twentieth century", "a great painter and a profound thinker".

But things were not easy for McCahon in the beginning, for much of his work was seen at first as being obscure, "a dense confusion of symbols, lines, words and numerals". As for himself, he saw everything clearly, and for him every little part of his work made perfect sense. One of his early paintings, A Candle in a Dark Room, for instance, made after meeting a young poet, James Baxter, who became a great friend of his later, he saw as being "a portrait of a time and place." It was not, as he noted later, a portrait in the conventional sense: it was a still life, depicting a lighted candle which throws a dark, triangular shadow. But he introduced into it the title of the work itself in the form of words written by a child, as it were, anticipating much of the kind of work that he was to do later.

The foregrounding of ‘the word’ in the painting referred, as he saw it, implicitly to Baxter’s identity as a poet; the candle was identified with the poet, with obvious reference to the traditional Romantic symbolism of the artist as a source of illumination. The dark room was possibly a reference to the world darkened by the World War raging at that time—the painting is dated 1943—but one in which the visionary artist appears as a symbol of light. My soul as censer clear/In a translucent breast/Shall burn, Baxter had written in one of his poems.

Admittedly, it was not easy for everyone to pick all the references up. But, undeterred, McCahon persisted in his work with the symbolism of light in a dark room, and lamps and candles became a recurring motif, especially after he turned Catholic and saw Jesus as ‘the light of the world’.

But while on the theme of Christian belief, McCahon also turned out, later, a baffling series called Teaching Aids, which consisted of densely put together panels with numbers and equations, all sheets butted together to take on the appearance of a classroom blackboard. While visually appealing, what all these numbers were about, or signified, was not easy to fathom.

As McCahon’s son wrote, years later: "The teacher has gone, the pupils also. We can not hear the dialogue that supported this lesson", with all its rubbings out and over drawing. He recommended therefore that "we follow the artist into the work if we wish to uncover its meaning." And this he did in an essay on the subject of Teaching Aids.

The numbers, he said, McCahon was using as symbols, drawing attention, through them, to the 14 Stations of the Cross. Every devout Christian knows these ‘Stations’, for they mark the progress of Jesus from his being sentenced to his crucifixion and eventual entombment. Therefore, 1 was the ‘sentence passed on Our Lord by Pilate; 2 the receiving of the Cross; 3 our Lord’s first fall; 4 His meeting with His mother; and so on. But how much of it could have been comprehended by the viewer who came to see the work called Teaching Aids displayed on the walls of the Auckland Art Gallery? One wonders.

And yet, McCahon must have worked it all out with great labour, agonised about his expression, been racked by doubts about the outcome and the reception. There is a footnote to this, however. When Wyston Curnow, a critic, wrote about this work with enthusiasm, McCahon wrote to him a letter thanking him. "It is the first and only serious comment I’ve had – there has been a deathly silence all around."

But then this is the way it has always proceeded perhaps: this journey of the creative artist.