In the Coil of Life's Hunger

Looks at the work of James K Baxter 1926 - 1972 (poet) Colin McCahon 1919 - 1987 (artist) both of whom found in travel through New Zealand recurrent metaphor's for life's journey. The principle referent in their work was death.

Just as the Bomb shadowed the gathering glitter of consumerism in the 1950s, so the high peaks of New Zealand tore hard shadows from the clear light of the South Pacific sky, paralleling the dark underside of a socially secured paradise. That the metaphysical dimension of this realm was explored by Colin McCahon is now well-known in Australia, but not perhaps that his life and work bore many parallels with that of another figure, namely the poet James K. Baxter, who explored social as well as spiritual unease in God’s Own Country. It has long seemed to the author that a volume of Baxter’s poems, complemented by an equal weighting of McCahon’s art, would comprise a telling distillation of an important strand in post-war New Zealand culture.[1] Both figures emerged from Dunedin in the 1940s[2], both drew throughout their lives on the boyhood experience of Otago’s coastal bays, rivers and serried inland hills; both found in travel through New Zealand recurrent metaphors for life’s journey. The principle referent in their work was death.

The dominating post-war nationalist critical position implicitly invoked above has been long outmoded in critical consciousness as a factor of ‘Landfall culture’ (after the literary journal[3]), animated by that characteristically dualistic New Zealand mind-set before jet travel, postmodernism and a postcolonial sense of equalised power relativities: a melancholic and yet redemptive sense of isolation. If geographical determinism is even less adequate as an explanation for cultural production within a postmodern frame than it was in the 1950s, it is undeniable that the capacity of the figures in question to drink deeply from the well of regional origins has continuing implications for particular forms of art practice today. The latter may also be said of McCahon’s and Baxter’s increasing embrace of (an)other culture, that of the Maori. Above all, their world stature seems dependent, inter alia, on a determination to put all the resources of their art to the service of meaning rather than style, those elements encompassing high and low culture, a considerable technical variety and the deployment, when desired, of extreme aesthetic beauty.

McCahon evidently paid Baxter the (perhaps equivocal) complement of recognition on meeting him in 1948: “Are you a prophet or what?”[4] The latter as a young man repaid the complement in the same year, stating that “McCahon is expressing the sour and struggling pity that lies behind the blank mask of Presbyterianism.”[5] Christian traditions at that time still had power as cultural reference points, as indeed did high culture (especially literature) when McCahon and Baxter were in their formative years. The despairing, existentialism-influenced culture of their circle still maintained a ‘great divide’ between high and low culture, playing against which helped give a transgressive spin to their iconoclastic, Catholic-influenced visions of a Calvinist country, albeit one increasingly given over to secular materialism.

By the 1960s, on the other hand, when numbers of young people began to wrap a prophet’s mantle around Baxter of McCahon, it was not because of religious specificities (embarrassing, after all, to many), but through recognition of the prevailing mood of their work: a tragic, almost Manichean sense of good and evil locked in battle, a terrible vision of the universe too powerful to be dismissed as anachronistic, sheeted home, as it was, to quotidian social and physical realities. Baxter, in his late work, embodied a sense of enmeshing the numinous and the everyday through easy movements from the banal to the sublime in subject matter, from the colloquial to the formal in language:

 

Yesterday I planted garlic,

Today, sunflowers - ‘the non-essentials first’

Is a good motto - but these I planted in honour of

The Archangel Michael and my earthly friend,

Illingworth, Michael also, who gave me the seeds -

And they will turn their wild pure golden discs

Outside my bedroom, following Te Ra

Who carries fire for us in His terrible wings

(Heresy, man!) - and if He wanted only

For me to live and die in this old cottage,

It would be enough, for the angels who keep

The very stars in place resemble most

These green brides of the sun, hopelessly in love with

Their Master and Maker, drunkards of the sky.

(‘Jerusalem Sonnet’ 18, 1969, CP 463)

 

McCahon paralleled throughout his career something of the tone thus achieved through economy of means, both technically - for example the use of raw unstretched canvas - and conceptually, as evidenced by his adoption of words in a lettering style suggesting home-made black and white signs advertising road-side vegetable stalls. His work, the poet A.R.D. Fairburn infamously but appropriately observed in 1948, resembled “graffiti on the walls of some celestial lavatory.”[6]

Both McCahon and Baxter enjoyed particularly creative periods in the late 1950s and again for a number of years from the late 1960s, the former period reinforced by the sway of the nationalist critics, a factor augmented in the latter period by the wider currents of creativity flowing at that time of peace, love and protest against the Vietnam war. Both men possessed a sharp consciousness of war as disaster, growing up in a country which had sent large armies to the two world wars. Baxter’s father was grievously tortured and persecuted for conscientious objection during the first war. McCahon witnessed American military police shooting an Afro-American escapee in a Wellington street during the second war. An unexamined, Christianity-inspired sense of generational sacrifice, of young men being reared for death, was strong in the pakeha (white) community, against a suppressed awareness of Maori warrior traditions. Such was the cultural terrain; little wonder, perhaps, that the work of both McCahon and Baxter constantly refers to a search for redemption, with stress on suffering along the way:

 

There is (conveniently) a hollow space

Between the upper and the lower jaws

Of the world serpent. There, as if all days

Were one, the children whack

Their seaweed balls, brag, tussle, comb the shores

For little crabs. There’s no road back

To the dream time, and I endure instead

This hunger to be nothing. I supplicate

Dark heaven for the peace of that woman they

Lifted out of the breakers yesterday,

With blue deaf ears, whom Poseidon banged on the kelp beds

Though she was a good swimmer, her body oatmeal white

Spotted with shingle. To and fro

She was rolled by the undertow.

This I understand. Sister, remember

Us who wrestle yet in the coil of life’s hunger.

(‘Shingle Beach Poem’ 1963, CP 270-71)

 

Expression of a death wish recurs in Baxter’s writing: another poem asserts that in the end an individual “…does not want beer, bread, or the prancing flesh,/ But the arms of the eater of life, Hine-nui-te-po,/ With teeth of obsidian and hair like kelp/ Flashing and glimmering at the edge of the horizon.” (CP 273)[7] The terrible character of death, and God, cause the poetry in Baxter’s verse to reside in its sorrow and pity for humankind. Baxter drew on Catholic (as well as Buddhist and Maori) mystical traditions in developing his views, culminating in a sense of death as kenosis, a final emptying out into the silence and darkness of God as much as into a state of illumination. In ‘Autumn Testament,’ a late masterwork, he invoked the Maori conception of the cosmic void: “Wahi Ngaro, the gap from which our prayers/ Fall back like the toi-toi arrows/ Children shoot upwards - Wahi Ngaro,/ The limitless, the silent, the black night sky/ From which the church huddles like a woman/ On her hillock of ground - into your wide arms/ Travelling, I forget the name of God,/ Yet I can hear the flies roam through the rooms…” (CP 542).

The manifold invocations of death permeating McCahon’s work suggest not so much a state to be desired but rather an ultimate ground of reference. Fear of death is vividly expressed in works like Am I Scared (Scared series:1) 1976 which thus transcends its genesis in an incident of Maori apprehension of the pakeha world[8]. Gate: second series, 1962 essayed the prospect of nuclear annihilation in biblical terms while indicating a way past humanity’s self-betrayal. The monumental works Victory over Death 2 (in the collection of the National Gallery, Canberra) and Practical Religion: The Resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha, both from 1970, appear to be concerned with overcoming spiritual death in this life as much as achieving eternal life. McCahon, it seems, was a passionate, religiously inclined agnostic, for whom Christian imagery and a Catholic vision was appropriate for a variety of cultural and artistic reasons, of which an early interest in the work of quattrocento Sienese painting was only one.

Death as subject-matter was informed by self-destructive proclivities contributing to actual death. Both suffered from alcoholism, encouraged early, it seems, by the macho drinking of bohemians and workers with whom they associated as young men based in Christchurch, scratching a living by periodic labouring work. Abusively negative criticism[9] - and overly belated recognition by former critics - encouraged a degree of paranoid withdrawal in McCahon, wheras an ‘outsider’ mentality was fostered in Baxter by his family’s ostracism for his father’s (and brother’s) pacifism. The ‘man alone’ of New Zealand literary culture, found, for example, in the work of Frank Sargeson[10], and the outside-artists figure generally, as valorised by writers from Camus to Colin Wilson, undoubtedly found a correspondence in the self-image of both men as ‘fructifying victims’[11].

McCahon lived his life with a regard to privacy, his relative modesty of conduct perhaps allowing full scope to his capacity for artistic re-invention and for conveying a sense of gravitas convincing even to a sceptical, secular audience. Certainly his low profile contrasted vividly with Baxter’s theatricality. That the latter’s writing was concerned with mythological journeys to a transfigured world is not extraordinary - what is, is the degree to whcich he acted out his life as myth, in his last years appearing barefoot and straggle-bearded, a latter day St John the Baptist atoning for his sins through poverty and hardship. It is tempting to speculate that Baxter sought to emulate the suffering of his father, a loved role model who had been tethered like a goat in no-man’s-land during the First World War.

Baxter’s sympathy with the down and out developed after a two-pronged search for stability in his twenties: membership of Alcoholics Anonymous from 1954 and conversion to Catholicism four years later, the culmination of development from youthful agnosticism. His youthful marriage to Jacquie Sturm, a Maori woman (a noteworthy event in its own right[12]) might be seen in the same light, through he was estranged from her for much of his subsequent life. Sex ultimately represented death in his verse, in spite of some striking love poems and a plethora of later disowned ‘bar-room verses’[13], being linked with a pronounced, quasi-Calvinist distaste for the physical world. Baxter’s Catholicism, one might imagine, inflamed as much as it assuaged a tearing sense of Greene-like, narcissistic guilt which afflicted him for much of his life.

Death in life was a recurrent issue for the art as well as a challenge to the psyches of both men. During the  1960’s both came to associate pakeha culture with destruction, Maori culture with aroha (love, respect, compassion)[14], their melancholic rejection of Anglo-Celtic constriction and sense of social equity rendering them open to such a perspectie. The increasing adoption of a bi-cultural viewpoint encouraged Baxter to set up communes for drug addicts and drop-outs, most notable at the (for him) significantly named Maori mission of Jerusalem, on the Wanganui River. Here he and his young acolytes sought to escape the city, which was drawning in “The sound of the opening and shutting of bankbooks,/ The thudding of refrigerator doors,/ The ripsaw voices of Glen Eden mothers yelling at their children,/ The chugging noise of masturbation from the bedrooms/ of the bourgeoisie…” (form ‘Ode to Auckland,’ CP 600).

So read a section of Baxter’s last poem. Such protest from a person who lived his beliefs to an extreme degree allowed little room for manoeuvre, although there were indications that Baxter wanted to escape the trap of his own trajectory and start afresh. He died a month later, in Octover 1972. McCahon’s creative career ended a year vefore he was found suffering from dementia in the Sydney Botanic Gardens during the 1984 Sydney Biennale in which he was exhibiting, oblivious to Australia’s growing recognition of his achievements[15]. His Biennale satellite exhibition I will need words included works comparable to The lark’s song (a poem by Matire Kereama), 1969, featuring a poem in Maori intended to evoke children mimicking the song of an ascending lark, but in fact based on traditional ‘nonsense’ chants to ward off frosts. No precise translation appears to be possible[16]: the only English words apart from the title ask of the void, “Can you hear me, St Francis?”

Footnotes

  1. ^ This is in no way to diminish the diversity and density of New Zealand art and literature during the period concerned: publications surveying the former include Mary Barr (ed) Headlands: Thinking through New Zealand Art Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992, produced in association with an exhibition curated by Robert Leonard and Bernice Murphy; and The 19502 show, a special edition of New Zealand Home & Building, produced in association with the Auckland City Art Gallery, c. 1992.
  2. ^ Peter Simpson succinctly pointed out correspondences between the lives and work of the two figures (‘Candle in a dark room,’ NZ Listener and TV Times 19 March 1990, p 98). My highly speculative essay is proposed as a futher step towards what deserves to be a more exhaustive and ‘objective’ study of the subject: the two figures were a real if distant part of my youthful cultural formation.
  3. ^ The phrase has surely been used elsewhere. Landfall was established by its Dunedin-based editor, Charles Brasch, in 1947, and published by the Caxton Press, Christchurch. Conceived primarily as a literary quarterly, its polemical thrust towards the establishment of a national identity made it a significant cultural force for the following two decades. It routinely included a small section of reproductions of works by leading artists: four works by McCahon were reproduced in the December 1947 issue.
  4. ^ Frank McKay The Life of James K. Baxter Auckland: Oxford University Press 1990, p 108.This encounter occurred five years after their first meeting (Baxter was seventeen, McCahon twenty-three or four), in turn memorialised in McCahon’s symbolic portrait of Baxter, A Candle in a Dark Room (1943). The two men had more to do with each other in 1948, as drinking companions in Christchurch, than at any other time in their lives. At that time a literary circle around the Caxton Press lionised Baxter as a young prodigy, and McCahon was staying with Doris Lusk, a member of ‘The Group,’ an association of (regionalist) artists who also included, inter alia, Rita Angus and William Sutton. While subsequent contact between the two was limited, McCahon painted a small picture for Baxter’s widow shortly after his death in 1972. MCahon’s Beach Walk paintings of 1973 originate in part from imaginary walks with Baxter on the beach at Muriwai, on the path that spirits of the dead take to Cape Reinga on their way to the spirit world, according to traditional Maori belief. Baxter also painted sets for the presentation of four of Baxter’s plays at Victoria University, Wellington, in 1973.
  5. ^ James K Baxxter. ‘Salvation Army aesthete? …’ Canta XIX 9, 21 July 1948, p 6.
  6. ^ Lanfall 5, vol 2 no 1, March 1948, p 50. While his statement may be destined to join the ranks of art history’s notable critical ‘backfires,’ Fairburn was a cultivated man who feared that McCahon’s apparent lack of fine technique would give succour to Philistines - NB Alexa M. Johnston, ‘Christianity in New Zealand art,’ in Mary Barr (ed) Headlands, op cit p 100.
  7. ^ Hine-nui-te-po is the Maori goddess of death. Baxter’s verse periodically displays, as here, arguably, an element of misogyny. Vincent O’Sullivan: ‘(A) frequent association of sew and death, destruction and female demand, might well raise the suspicion that the springs of such poetry - as in many ‘drowning’ poems of the nineteenth century - are in the …area where necrophilia carries corrosive psychic tides.’ (James K Baxter Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1976 p 25). Baxter’s sometimes difficult relationship with his Cambridge-educated mother might have helped trigger an unconscious disposition towards a narcissistic and melancholic sense of diffused, unlocated loss, but no fully convincing account of the reasons for his mental disposition seems yet to have appeared.
  8. ^ Gordon H Brown Colin McCahon: artist Auckland: Reed Books revised ed. 1993, p 170.
  9. ^ This included virtual accusations of blasphemy and ridicule in the New Zealand press, the latter still occurring as late as 1978, on the occasion of the New Zealand Government’s gift of Victory over death 2 to the National Gallery of Australia.
  10. ^ Popular culture, not surprisingly, also celebrated such figures in the period under discussion, for example in the form of author Barry Crump’s fictional ‘good keen man’, a down-home proto-Crocodile Dundee scratching a living through deer culling and other occupations at the rough edge of the rural industry, a fringe survivor possessed of a quasi-existential sense of absurdity.
  11. ^ The phrase is adapted from Vincent O’Sullivan op cit p 40.
  12. ^ A mixed-race marriage would not have been a common occurrence in Christchurch at the time (Baxter’s parents were Scottish). The marriage was opposed by his wife’s parents, who regarded the young poet as a poor prospect.
  13. ^ Cf. in this context Max Harris (ed with introduction) Two Obscene Poems by James K. Baxter Adelaide: Mary Martin Books, c. 1973. The poems in question ‘Letter to Max Harris’ and ‘Letter to Sam Hunt’ (both in the Collected Poems), are not ‘bar-room ballads’, but do comprise good examples of Baxter’s capacity for bardic rumbustiousness.
  14. ^ The first direct evidence of Maori culture in McCahon’s work occured in 1962 (Brown op cit p 155). Baxter started to become interested in Maori culture while working for School Publications Branch of the Education Department in Wellington between 1956-63. He was known to work on behalf of Maori prisoners during the next decade, which also saw him produce protest poems like ‘The Maori Jesus’ (1966, CP 347-38).
  15. ^ Perhaps the context will allow the quotation of the unwitting prophecy contained in Baxter’s following quatrain: Here comes the mirror-gazing multitude, Bureaucrat, yahoo, statistician, prude; And who’s that in the corner pissing? Why - old Utrillo with a brain-lobe missing! (The Origins of Art,’ 1960, CP 216). It might be noted that McCahon’s Biennale exhibition impressed critics and visitors but was marginalised by its out-of-the-way location at the Power Gallery, Sydney University. The National Gallery of Australia’s display of McCahon’s Victory over death 2 in its foreign art section at the time of the gallery’s opening in 1982 remains the single most important event in terms of fostering an awareness of McCahon in Australia during the artist’s lifetime. Earlier instances of recognition had been both slight and fleeting: his work had been included in periodic surveys of New Zealand art which had visited Australia, and the Bonython Gallery, Sydney, held an exhibition of his work in 1968.
  16. ^ Wystan Curnow ‘McCahon and signs.’ In Alexa M. Johnston (ed) Colin McCahon: Gates and Journeys Auckland: Auckland City Art Gallery 1988, p 54.