From the Collection: Rediscovering McCahon and Brown


Colin McCahon, Partridge St., 1968 (printed 2004), Gordon H. Brown, New Zealand Portrait Gallery Collection, Gift of Avenal Mckinnon.

Colin McCahon, Partridge St., 1968 (printed 2004), Gordon H. Brown, New Zealand Portrait Gallery Collection, Gift of Avenal Mckinnon.

Portraits navigate being equally authentic and inauthentic – wrapped up conflicting opinions, status, truth and interpretation. Whether glimpsed by means of a lens or brush, portraiture walks the line between conveying the intangible spirit and a visual shell. 

In striving to unearth more about the genre, I stumbled across this photograph taken by prolific New Zealand art historian and artist, Gordon H. Brown. Amongst art lovers and aficionados, Brown is revered for the wealth of work he has contributed to our country’s cultural heritage. One of the most pivotal aspects of his legacy results from the relationship he held with one of our most prominent artists of all time, Colin McCahon. 

Colin McCahon, Partridge Street, (1968), was taken by Brown in what he once described as a “come-what-may situation” outside McCahon’s Auckland residence. 

It was here that my gaze met the true force of McCahon 

Donning a checkerboard jersey and bathed in a hazy light, McCahon superimposes the chaotic flora of the background. As shadows imprint themselves on the stoic wooden slats of his home, the eye is drawn into a silently dramatic black and white image. 

What struck me wasn’t his troubled artist persona or his iconic status, but the capricious nature of a man who took no joy in being photographed. With his guarded posture exuding a thinly veiled guise of a challenge, McCahon is captured in a moment that is powerfully ubiquitous. Despite his unintentional manner, Brown beautifully highlights the life of a man constrained in the public eye. 

Regardless of McCahon’s obvious physical ties to the location, nothing in this image truly ties him to his surroundings. Within the work, the modern master is irrevocably displaced from the space he inhabits and we as mere observers, witness an overwhelming scene of isolation. It was this snatched glimpse of McCahon, so detached from his present and disavowed in the act taking place, which poignantly resonated with me and renewed a sense of fascination in the man behind some of New Zealand’s most celebrated paintings. 

When asked about the work, Brown stated “there was no time to seek out an ideal background” - perhaps there is none truly fitting for an artist so intrinsically complex. As I discovered in the commanding presence of McCahon, when standing before portraiture all else becomes irrelevant. 

- Myrah Walters