Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sacking Colin McCahon

Let’s hear it for Hessian. Last week in Peter McLeavey’s gallery, we were swept back in time when looking at the framing of Colin McCahon’s 1962 painting Was this the promised land. Peter McLeavey purchased the work shortly after it was painted and had it framed, with McCahon’s agreement, onto a hessian covered board. He later sold the work to allow him to carpet the new gallery he had moved into on Cuba Street. When we saw it last week the painting was back on sale and Peter and his new Gallery Manager Olivia McLeavey were checking out new carpet samples (sisal, a Central American cousin of jute) for the Cuba Street space, spooky. 

Although the Promised land painting was on hardboard, hessian was one of the favoured materials of the time. It was cheap and readily available (bolts of canvas were still a rare commodity) and gave a satisfyingly textured surface to work on. McCahon used the material (often catalogued as unstretched jute canvas) for his great series Landscape theme and variations with the width of the hessian rolls giving the paintings their distinctive format. Up to the late seventies artists like Philip Clairmont used hessian and it was also widely employed as a covering for display screens, doors (laid flat on concrete blocks for the display of ceramics) and walls. How often in the history of art is it the small practical limitations that shape how things are seen and remembered.
Image: The corner of the McCahon painting showing its hessian covered backing board frame