Overview

Executed in 1949, Colin McCahon’s Annunciation is a monochromatic masterpiece of concentrated energy, hallowed serenity and an overriding sense of repose. It was completed in charcoal on paper and the close proximity of the two figures to each other and to the spectator, provides an honest directness that removes any possible barrier of distance, thereby heightening the immediacy of the scene. Narrated in The Gospel of Luke in the New Testament, The Annunciation is the event when the Archangel Gabriel was sent from Heaven to tell the Virgin Mary that she was to be the mother of Jesus, son of God. This pivotal biblical occasion has come to be one of the most common subjects in the history of Christian art

In choosing to depict The Annunciation, McCahon established a direct dialogue with the great masters of European art, paying homage to artists such as Duccio, Giotto, Titian, Signorelli and Gauguin who, from the pages of art books, had aided McCahon in his journey to clarify his painterly approach to religious themes and ideas. While Annunciation does not offer any direct quotations, the emotional and psychological intensity keenly harks back to the work of Titian while the stylised simplicity of the figures is reminiscent of Giotto, and the strong use of line recalls the cloisonné style of Gauguin. The composition of McCahon’s Annunciation is powerful in its simplicity, with both the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel presented in extreme close-up and acutely cropped to bust-length format. A roughly shaded area of charcoal forms a circular framing device, crowning the two figures and creating a window through which the details of a distant landscape become apparent. A linear set of hills is seen rippling along the horizon line, blanketed by a stream of brisk cloud that scurries overhead. The middle ground offers an expansive spread of pasture interrupted only by a copse of trees and what is perhaps a milking shed or barn that has been neatly framed by a fence. Against this rural backdrop, McCahon envisions the portentous moment of The Annunciation.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, one of McCahon’s primary aims was to reconfigure the events of the Bible in order to make them relevant to the everyday concerns of contemporary New Zealanders. The
way in which he achieved this was by bringing biblical episodes closer in time and space and by transplanting them into a locale that was inherently New Zealand. Thus, the rolling hills and wide, sparse areas of the Nelson region are recognisable as the physical location of many of McCahon’s early religious
paintings. In discussing this section of McCahon’s oeuvre, Gordon H. Brown notes that ‘frequently the situation depicted shows one agent in an active role while the other is a passive recipient’1, which is clearly borne out in Annunciation.

Here, McCahon casts Mary as the inactive, acquiescent character in the scene, showing her with eyes closed and head bowed in a manner of reverent contemplation. Her abeyance is balanced by the Archangel who adopts an animated role, staring resolutely ahead with eyes
wide open and lips slightly parted as though in the middle of delivering God’s sacred proclamation. Capturing the sacrosanct figures of Mary and Gabriel in a prophetic moment, McCahon’s tightly controlled composition, his sincerity of approach and his stylistic rawness coalesce to produce a work of enduring
originality and pertinence.

By Jemma Field

Medium

Charcoal on paper

Estimate

$20,000 – $25,000

Price Realised

$32,900 (including Buyers Premium)