DANCE OF THE GANNETS, c.1976 – 1978

Important Australian + International Fine Art
4 May 2016


(1919 – 1987, New Zealand)
DANCE OF THE GANNETS, c.1976 – 1978

synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas

79.5 x 122.0 cm

inscribed lower centre right: DANCE OF THE GANNETS
further inscribed: [illeg.]hy throne O God is for / ever and ever, and the /sceptre of justice is the / sceptre of His Kingdom

$140,000 – 180,000

Gordon H. Brown, New Zealand, a gift from the artist
Martin Browne Fine Art, Sydney
Private collection, Sydney


Colin McCahon Online Catalogue,, ref. cm000291

Catalogue text

One of the great masters of twentieth century painting, Colin McCahon today remains widely revered for his prophetic vision which imbued the vernacular with universal significance to powerfully interrogate sacred questions of faith and doubt, life and death, meaning and despair. Yet while McCahon invariably drew inspiration from the most mundane objects and events in his spiritual quest, the original sources for his meditations are rarely self-evident from the works themselves. Rather it is the existential situation that emerges from the artist’s response to this impetus – his reflection distilled through the alchemy of time, memory and recollection – that is immortalised in the sublime incarnations constituting his remarkable legacy.

As with the loosely connected group of works comprising McCahon’s ‘Necessary Protection’ series from the early seventies, the present two compositions Dance of the Gannets, 1976-78 and Gannets Leaving Muriwai, 1976 – 78 were inspired by the rugged coastal landscape surrounding his hilltop studio at Muriwai, north-west of Auckland. Describing the area as ‘shockingly beautiful…wild… and empty and utterly beautiful’1, McCahon was acutely aware of the fragility of the ecosystem here and hence, its very real need for protection; as he despaired, ‘On the lower cliffs there are the nests of Fairy Terns [McCahon later corrected himself, for the birds are gannets]. In the early summer the young are taught how to fly and swim and to gather their food. This goes on in spite of our intrusions, the cliff top parties, the broken bottles, the paper and plastic everywhere…’2 And later, ‘I am not painting protest pictures, I am painting about what is still there and what I can see before the sky turns black with soot and the sea becomes a slowly heaving rubbish tip. I am painting what we have got now and will never get again.’3

Given McCahon’s longstanding empathy for Maori culture and traditions, particularly in his affinity for and personification of the land, it is perhaps not surprising that he should possess such a deep love for this area which is also renowned as ‘the coast along which the Maori souls pass over on their way from life to death – to Te Reinga (Spirits Bay) carrying their fronds and branches…’4 Accordingly, if the ‘Necessary Protection’ series was initially conceived to highlight society’s responsibility to protect the Muriwai environment, over time McCahon’s iconography evolved to also evoke deeper spiritual implications – namely the difficulty of embracing that leap of faith required to accept spiritual nurture and interaction with God, the birds here symbolising human souls. Such connotations are perhaps most poignantly explored in the monumental Walk (Beach Walk, series C), 1973 - a closely related work which recalls the spirit of McCahon’s deceased friend and poet James Baxter, whom he joins in an imagined walk along Muriwai beach, the ‘Christian’ walk here paralleling the Maori ‘walk’.

In a similar vein, the strong T structure dominating many Muriwai compositions (including Gannets Leaving Muriwai) derives from the physical reality of the landscape - the dark landforms are immediately recognisable as the cliffs near Otakamiro Point, while the space between is the chasm which separates near-shore rock that is Motutara Island where the gannets nest – but more importantly, also symbolises the Tau or Old Testament cross commonly associated with Moses and his time in the wilderness. Similarly, the Roman numeral I featured in Dance of the Gannets may be understood as signifying the sky, falling light and enlightened land.5

Arguably elucidating the artist’s intentions most directly however, are the scripture texts reproduced here which link the two works with the crowning achievements of McCahon’s final years. Derived from Hebrews 1:7 (in turn quoted from Psalm 104:4), the line of Gannets Leaving Muriwai (‘He who makes his angels winds, and his ministers a fiery flame’) significantly also appears in the lower right hand corner of A Painting for Uncle Frank, 1980 – a work dedicated to the memory of the itinerant, uncompromising preacher who was the uncle of the artist’s friend Toss Woollaston, and under whose influence Woollaston and McCahon ‘made a sort of vow together to devote ourselves to God.’6 The verse, together with the line from Hebrews 1:8 included in Dance of the Gannets (‘Thy throne O God is, for ever and ever, and the sceptre of justice is the sceptre of His Kingdom’), similarly features in the epic three-paneled work Paul to the Hebrews, 1980 – arguably one of McCahon’s most compelling and sophisticated investigations of the sacred themes of faith and doubt, meaning and despair, life and death.

Considered together, the verses reproduced in the two Muriwai paintings on offer illuminate Paul’s endeavour to distinguish for the Hebrew recipients of the Letter the difference between the angels of Old Testament times and Jesus – to demonstrate that the latter was not merely another angel or prophet, but rather the Son of God chosen above all prophets who had gone before. More generally, the text alludes to His indulgence and everlasting protection in an essentially positive way, and as such, Dance of the Gannets and Gannets Leaving Muriwai are noteworthy within the closing chapter of McCahon’s oeuvre for the vestiges of hope they still contain. Indeed, within only a couple of years of these two works being executed, the mood of McCahon’s practice would change forever. Unequivocally bleak, dark and pessimistic, his final works – admonishments culminating in the so-called last painting I considered all the acts of oppression, 1980-82 – came to reflect rather the artist’s increasingly dispirited personal state and raging battle with mental illness, lamenting the futility of all human endeavour and suggesting a total collapse of faith in faith itself. Yet therein perhaps lies the enduring power, universality and poignant beauty of McCahon’s prophetic vision; the doubts and frailties that assail so many individuals constantly plagued him too. As one author astutely observes of his legacy, ‘…it is the existential situation that prevails… The viewer is asked to stand with the artist, in a situation where each person must decide the issue in their own way… It is a confession that, while it affects a solitary person, has become externalised and addressed to all. It is art used to give the conflict of faith and doubt coherence of thought, effort and expression in its most positive form...’7

1. McCahon, C., in his statement for An exhibition of paintings by Colin McCahon, Dawsons Limited Exhibition Gallery, Dunedin, 1971, unpaginated
2. ibid.
3. McCahon, C., cited in Brown, G., Colin McCahon: Artist, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1984, p. 166 4. McCahon, C., op.cit., 1971