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This article is taken from PN Review 152, Volume 29 Number 6, July - August 2003.

A Short History of the Poem in New Zealand Painting Gregory O'Brien

Text Message

With its billboards, video monitors, holograms and virtual reality, the post-modern world would seem to have blurred and broken down the distinct territories of art and literature. Yet words on paintings can still challenge and perplex, as the recent exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, by New Zealand's greatest painter Colin McCahon (1919-87) made apparent. Seventy of McCahon's paintings arrived in Europe last August bearing lengthy scrawled passages from the New English Bible and quoting from a lifetime's passionate reading of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, traditional Maori waiata (song) and such antipodean inheritors of the poetic mantle as Peter Hooper and John Caselberg. Promoted in Holland as an `Australasian Van Gogh', McCahon might more accurately be described as an antipodean William Blake, his large, roughly brushed canvases a primitive text-messaging system from the far end of the world.

Colin McCahon is the foremost but by no means the only painter of words to have emerged in twentieth-century New Zealand. In fact visitors to this country often ask how it is that the visual arts and literature have become so interwoven here. It is as if the painting and poetry genes have been spliced to create not only a singular organism but one that, over the generations, is capable of replicating and evolving. How do you account for this cross-disciplinary quality? asks a perplexed visitor from Manchester. Is this visual/verbal melding a provincial or postcolonial eccentricity - or an affectation? Does this make ...


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