PVA and sand on board
1490 x 1190mm
cm000376 on the Colin McCahon Online Catalogue.
‘The waterfalls started flowing in 1964 and there were hundreds of them,’ wrote McCahon. ‘They grew out of William Hodges‘ paintings on loan to the Auckland City Art Gallery [later Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki] from the Admiralty, London. Hodges and I eventually realised we were friends over the years and got talking about his painting. He was dead and I was about the same. We conversed through paint (about Naples yellow to start with)—and in 1964 I painted my first waterfall.’
In 1959, ten paintings by William Hodges had been loaned to the Department of Internal Affairs for an exhibition. When this was complete, the works were temporarily stored in the Alexander Turnbull library while awaiting their return to London. Among them were three views of Dusky Sound in which waterfalls were depicted. Arrangements were made for some of the Hodges paintings to be transferred to the Auckland City Art Gallery for inclusion in an exhibition called Captain Cook: His Artists and Draughtsmen.
It was during this period that McCahon, who was employed at the gallery, was able to study the waterfall paintings. The one with which he was most concerned was Waterfall in Dusky Bay, New Zealand, a large romanticised landscape in which the foaming cascade tumbled out of the darkness of the bush to crash and foam around several large boulders. Over these, in the spray, arches a rainbow. A Māori family stands on rocks overlooking the base of the waterfall. McCahon selected certain elements from this painting: the overhanging rock and water flowing between two boulders, or the straight shaft of water emerging out of darkness.
Compared with Hodges’ romantic watery disorder, McCahon’s treatment is highly ordered and altogether more tranquil, although dramatic in its juxtaposition of light and dark. Later, McCahon acknowledged that in addition to Hodges, who got him started, the Fairy Falls in the Waitākere Ranges and Japanese and Chinese paintings provided further impetus.
Most of the large waterfall paintings, including July Waterfall, show tall narrow columns of falling water. However, this work is unusual both because there is no pool into which the fall descends, and because the water is viewed straight on, rather than from an oblique angle. Ron O’Reilly described the waterfalls as ‘a sort of symbolic handwriting’. Light can be viewed as a guiding force through the darkness, and the pouring water as the power that nourishes spiritual life.
Real-world elements are so reduced as to almost completely lose their naturalistic significance, becoming instead diagrammatic design elements. Landscape becomes an adjunct to symbolic purposes, devoid of specific reference but enormously widened in significance.
McCahon essentially finished with the waterfall paintings in 1965 but was prompted, somewhat regretfully, to examine the theme again the following year following a commission to paint a mural, Waterfall Theme & Variations, for the new University of Otago library. On this work, McCahon inscribed words that summarise the whole waterfall series: ‘… and there is a constant flow of light and because of perceiving the power of light with uninterrupted force we are born into the Pure land’.
In association with the mural, McCahon produced a series of 12 waterfalls painted in black and white acrylic on heavily grained paper. July Waterfall is likely connected with these works on paper, its gritty texture produced by applying sand to the base board and then painting over it.