Cotton and McCahon

Story by Lachlan Taylor

School of Art History, Classics, and Religious Studies, 2017

Sir Charles Cotton and Colin McCahon

A central quality of Victoria University is its commitment to interdisciplinary creativity. As an institution, Victoria encourages its many schools and departments to interact with each other and to create a flow of ideas and creativity.

It is no surprise then, that one of the most interesting interactions between science and art in New Zealand’s history had Victoria at its heart.

Colin McCahon’s famed landscapes of the 1940s and 1950s are intimately linked to the work of the geologist Sir Charles Cotton. The relationship between their two bodies of work fostered an important development in New Zealand art in the twentieth century.

A Scientist

Charles Andrew Cotton was born in Dunedin in 1885. In 1909, at the age of 24, he moved to Wellington to become Victoria University’s first lecturer in Geology. He was made a Professor in 1915, and remained at Victoria until his retirement in 1953.

During this period, Cotton produced a large number of books and papers on Geomorphology: the study of the physical features of the earth as they relate to geological processes and structures. While many of these works gained critical acclaim, his most well-known is 1922’s Geomorphology of New Zealand.

Cotton’s book gained international recognition for its clear and well-described explanations of landforms and the processes behind their creation. In particular, Geomorphology’s many pen and ink diagrams were lauded for their ability to demonstrate Cotton’s principles with clarity and precision.

These simple line drawings were free of clutter, and were accessible to both the advanced geologist and the general reader.

An Artist

Colin McCahon is arguably New Zealand’s most famous artist. Born in Timaru, in 1919, McCahon is credited with helping to bring modernism to New Zealand, and with introducing new ways of depicting this country’s landscape.

McCahon had a close relationship to Victoria University through his friendship with Tim Beaglehole. In the course of this relationship, he advised Beaglehole on the purchase of Don Binney’s Tabernacle (1966), and sold the University its largest piece, his own Gate III (1970), at a discounted price.

In the late 1930s and into the 1940s, McCahon began to search for a new way to depict the New Zealand landscape. Following the influence of European modernism, he began to distort perspective and form to "emphasise or summarise landscape features" (Adam Art Gallery, 2000).

But while modernist sensibilities may have lent McCahon the ability to manipulate the land as he saw it, he still searched for a further simplicity and clarity in his painting. These qualities were to be found in the work of Charles Cotton.

An Artist and A Scientist

  • <p>An up-close image from the Adam Art Gallery's <em>An Artist and A Scientist</em> exhibition. </p>

A New Way to See the Land

McCahon searched for something "logical, orderly and beautiful belonging to the land and not yet to its people" in his work (Brown and Keith 1975, 181). Through his interaction with Cotton’s writings and drawings, McCahon found this.

Works such as 6 Days in Nelson & Canterbury (1950) or Otago Landscape (1950), a painting in the Victoria University art collection, demonstrate the relationship between the two.

Both feature rolling ochre hills with few signs of human habitation. The simplicity and directness with which McCahon painted these flat hills makes them appear ancient and unmoving.

But with their staunch black outlines and smooth undulations, McCahon allows us to feel the ancient geological processes that brought them into being.

In 2000, Victoria’s Adam Art Gallery staged an exhibition entitled An Artist and a Scientist that brought the work of Cotton and McCahon together.

The show recognised the impact of Cotton’s work in Geomorphology on the art of McCahon, which in turn influenced the way we view our nation’s landscape.

Beyond this, the exhibition was also a recognition of Victoria’s role in an intriguing intersection of art and science in New Zealand’s history.

Find the Adam Art Gallery

Gate 3, Victoria University, Kelburn Parade, Wellington 6012, New Zealand