Book Review: Is This the Promised Land? by Peter Simpson

June 8

“DRIVING ONE DAY WITH THE FAMILY OVER THE HILLS FROM BRIGHTON OR TAIERI MOUTH TO THE TAIERI PLAIN,” WRITES COLIN MCCAHON, “I FIRST BECAME AWARE OF MY OWN PARTICULAR GOD, PERHAPS AN EGYPTIAN GOD, BUT STANDING FAR FROM THE SUN OF EGYPT IN THE OTAGO COLD.”

This is a sensibility that drove McCahon’s life work – to bringing together the land, the gods, the art, the seeing. It’s also the quote that shaped the title for Peter Simpson’s comprehensive two- volume coffee-table books on McCahon, Is This the Promised Land?

Volume 2 (1960–1987) is out now and much is promised, and delivered, in these pages. Sketches, personal photographs, exhibition invitations and catalogues sit up against a catalogue of biographical and artistic text. Organised chronologically, and geographically – Newton, Muriwai, Grey Lynn – McCahon’s landscapes, mindscapes and wordscapes are listed into his life, and his legacy.

If you’re like the friend who said “McCahon – isn’t he, like, that religious guy? Used a lot of black and numbers and crosses and scrawly writing and stuff,” then this is the book for you. Simpson illuminates the “and stuff” in particular, and readable, detail.

The epilogue holds volumes in itself – McCahon’s non-appearance at his first major show in Sydney, the political travels of his Urewera mural, the questions of curation in putting religion to the forefront of his work and a slim shout-out to a supportive wife.

All in all, a fascinating read – about an artist who may seem as familiar as a well-known, popular landscape, and as a reminder, also, of other ways to look, more to see. – LB


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