Cover image of the review

Colin McCahon: Letters and Numbers & Event Horizon Symposium

22 Aug 2020
14 Nov - 20 Jul 2020

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been pondering the ironic fate of one of my favourite artists, now in total lockdown. I keep on thinking of the sadly unvisited Colin McCahon show at the National Gallery of Victoria, which includes one of his so-called Last Paintings, I applied my mind (1980–2). There it is hanging on the wall, facing outward, unseen. Its poignant message, taken from chapters 7 and 9 of the Book of Ecclesiastes, remains unread in the empty mausoleum-like room it is housed in, silent but for the occasional footfall of the security guards ensuring it hasn’t been stolen.

Colin McCahon, I applied my mind, 1982, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 195.2 × 180.7 cm irreg. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, 2012 © Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust. This digital record has been made available on NGV Collection Online through the generous support of Digitisation Champion Ms Carol Grigor through Metal Manufactures Limited.

I say ironic fate because the four Last Paintings spent some five years face-down in McCahon’s studio waiting for their creator to die before they could be lifted up and taken away. McCahon, before definitively abandoning painting due to a combination of disillusionment and a form of dementia brought on by years of heavy drinking, had given express orders that no one was to go into his studio and his paintings were not to be touched. In the heart-rending words of his biographer Gordon Brown, the family knew that he’d given up when he finally allowed a television into the house; and there McCahon sat slumped before its screen for the last five years of his life, gazing bewilderedly out from the photographs taken of him as his fame grew, various grandchildren crawling unnoticedly at his feet.

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