From The Collection of Pat & Gil Hanly: Colin McCahon ‘Visible Mysteries no.4’

By August 3, 2017News

It is a great pleasure to be entrusted with presenting this rare and powerful painting to the market, and we take this opportunity to reflect on its qualities and singular provenance.

From the Collection of Pat and Gil Hanly.
Colin McCahon, ‘Visible Mysteries no.4’

Colin McCahon’s Visible Mysteries no. 4 is the highlight of the upcoming sale of Important Paintings & Contemporary Art, to be held on Monday 7 August 2017. It is a great pleasure to be entrusted with presenting this rare and powerful painting to the market, and I take this opportunity to reflect on its qualities and singular provenance.

Visible Mysteries no. 4 was purchased by Pat and Gil Hanly from McCahon’s exhibition at Barry Lett Galleries in 1968, and it has remained in the Hanly Collection ever since. Not only is the painting itself a treasure but the prominence of its descent is also very special, offering insight into the origins of New Zealand’s art market. Further on in this catalogue, we delve into the Auckland art scene in the 1960s, when the work was originally presented, and consider the way in which the intersection of artists, critics and gallerists active in that period gave rise to the art market we know today. I have seen and admired this work many times over the years at the Hanly’s home so it also has great significance to me personally.

The painting belongs to a series of eight produced by McCahon in 1968. Within the context of the artist’s oeuvre (and particularly with respect to his handling of iconography and composition), these Visible Mysteries works are most obviously comparable with the Still Life with Altar series, which was produced a year earlier. Although paintings from this earlier series have occasionally become available over the years, no Visible Mysteries work has ever been offered at auction. Its provenance, quality and rarity make it one of the most important works by McCahon to be presented to the market.

Colin McCahon, 1968.

Invoking spiritual radicalism through the lens of religious tradition, the Visible Mysteries series represents the pinnacle of McCahon’s engagement with the language and iconography of Catholicism. More significantly, it also represents a divergent chapter in the artist’s broader spiritual journey towards philosophical and formal abstraction in the late 1960s. At its essence, it speaks to the realisation of a shift in McCahon’s practice: from the pursuit of spirituality and expression through the land, to the embracing of painting as a feat of transcendent, abstracted divinity.

Through Visible Mysteries, McCahon invites us to partake in his personal spiritual manifesto of despair, forgiveness, love and redemption. On the mysteries of the life of Christ, the catechism of the Catholic Church states: “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Not only are these words closely linked to the text visible along the bottom edge of Visible Mysteries no. 4, but they are interesting to consider in the context of the painting’s physical existence and mysticism. Assuming the role of both creator and priest, McCahon has here given form to that which “we may receive in its invisible effect.” In partaking of this work, therefore, we as viewers are invited to enter into the mysteries of a reformed Eucharistic ritual.

Verso of ‘Visible Mysteries no.4’.

The luminescent form at the centre of the work is the embodiment of many. All at once, it is the Sacred Heart and a lunar beacon within an abstracted landscape: the physical body of Christ with blood pouring out of its side and the Eucharistic wafer suspended at the moment of consecration. The form of the altar grounds the painting both literally and figuratively, and brings to mind the majuscules of McCahon’s earlier works.

Through this series, McCahon invites us to appreciate his role as a critically engaged outsider, both with respect to the evolution of abstraction (while he continued to work with, and through, classic genres such as the still-life) and in the treatment of his spirituality. For McCahon, the commonality of religious and art-historical tradition offered a framework against which he was able to thrash out these numinous philosophies.

In an essay on ‘Visible Mysteries no. 4’, in our dedicated publication about this work, Peter Simpson further illuminates this art-historical significance and contextualises the creation of this painting alongside others in the series.


By Sophie Coupland