Tuesday, April 19, 2016

If it’s broke, fix it

For around 15 years now the Colin McCahon online catalogue has had pretensions to being to a catalogue raisonné of the artist's work setting out to ‘catalogue McCahon's complete works’. An alternative attempt to research and publish a print catalogue was superceded by the current digital project with the understanding that professional cataloguing standards would be followed. Initially the site was to include commissioned essays and commentary on McCahon’s work but that never happened and eventually essays from a survey catalogue were dumped to bulk things up. For years the information in the Colin McCahon online catalogue has been scrappy at best. In 2010 an attempt was made to put it into some sort of order and improve the quality of the records but it was short lived and inconsistent.

Does this even matter? Given that the catalogue is hosted by New Zealand's national art institution, provides the document of record on McCahon and is the primary source of authentication for both institutions and the market, yes it does. Recently, when we were writing about McCahon’s waterfall mural held in the University of Otago, we looked up some details in the catalogue and also checked out how it was developing.

And it has to be said, it is not developing well at all. In this one entry we found -

•  The title of the painting is wrong. Whoops! It’s Waterfall Theme (and variations) not Waterfall theme & variations

•  The date is incomplete. It’s May–August 1966 not 1966.

•  The number of hardboard panels the painting is made up of is not noted.

•  The dedication to Mary de Beer which can be seen in an inscription on the work is not noted nor is the fact that the de Beer's and Charles Brasch funded the work for the university.

•  The inscription ‘As there is a constant flow of light and because of perceiving, the power of light with uninterrupted force, we are born into a new land’ is not noted.

•  The illustration of the work, as you can see above, is so poor it's barely worth publishing. There are no detail images available.

Pedantic? Sure and probably only of interest to a small number of people, but if this Online Catalogue is to be the primary record of McCahon's work it really is time to take it seriously after so many years of neglect.

Image: Colin McCahon Online Catalogue illustration of McCahon’s 7.3 x 3.31 metre mural Waterfall Theme (and variations)