Friday, January 11, 2013


Rounding a corner in the copy painting village of Da Fen in southern China, we saw a startlingly familiar image. A copy from a postcard was being made of Picasso's Pitcher, candle, and casserole, but our jolt of recognition connected to an early Colin McCahon painting A candle in a dark room that we had first seen in the late seventies.
One of the advantages of being in New Zealand is the easy access you have to most parts of the art world. And that was how, thanks to being in the public art museum business and writing the text for a book on contemporary artists, we got to meet Colin McCahon a couple of times. He was very welcoming and happy to talk with a couple of people who were pretty junior in the scheme of things. At one stage he said, “You two are from Wellington, I’ll show you something from my first Wellington exhibition. It’s under the bed” and dived out of the room. The painting he brought back was a little worn but spruced up it is now on loan to the Auckland Art Gallery, presumably by the McCahon family.

Although the date is unclear on the painting itself, it was recorded as 1947 and listed as entry number 37 in the catalogue sheet when it was shown in an exhibition of McCahon's paintings by Ron O’Reilly in the newspaper room of the Wellington Public Library the following year.  This date makes the 1945 Picasso painting almost certainly a key influence. You can see the black triangular shape at the edge of Picasso’s candle flame is enlarged and repeated in the McCahon work, the colour range is startlingly similar and the candle and holder are obvious soul mates. It certainly lit us up there on the streets of Da Fen.

Image: Left, a Da Fen painter’s copy of Picasso’s Pitcher, candle, and casserole (the Picasso original is in the collection of the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris) and right, Colin McCahon’s A candle in a dark room currently on loan to the Auckland Art Gallery.