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Colin McCahon's Kauri trees

'Artists and Letters, Pictures and Words', featuring key Colin McCahon artworks alongside letters between McCahon and his benefactor Ron O'Reilly, are on show at Hocken Collections from 22 June - 31 August. Pictured is: Colin McCahon, Kauri trees, 1954, oil on canvas: 775 x 883 mm, Hocken Collections Te Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago Ōtākou Whakaihu Waka, 73/190. Charles Brasch Bequest, 1973. Reproduced courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

For the first time, key letters from a decades-long correspondence between significant New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and his supporter Ron O’Reilly will be displayed alongside selected McCahon artworks.

The exhibition Artists and Letters, Pictures and Words is set to run at the University of Otago’s Hocken Collections from 22 June - 31 August 2024.

Inspiration for the Hocken exhibition came from a recently published book, Dear Colin, Dear Ron: The Selected Letters of Colin McCahon and Ron O’Reilly.

This substantial new book by esteemed McCahon scholar Dr Peter Simpson was published by Te Papa Press in March and shines a light on one of the most remarkable relationships in New Zealand art.

Dr Simpson says although O’Reilly was less famous than McCahon, he was in his own right distinguished as a philosopher of art and communication, leading librarian and educator, gallery director and as an ‘eminence grise’ within the world of the visual arts, and as McCahon’s oldest supporter.

“No doubt each man had his foibles and weaknesses; they were human after all.

“But their friendship and correspondence brought out the best in each other – intelligence, empathy, compassion, loyalty, trust: these qualities shine through their letters from start to finish,” he says.

Letters between the pair reveal O’Reilly’s positive response to every phase of McCahon’s development, from his first experiments in landscape and still life in the late 1930s, through every intervening stage, not excluding McCahon’s most challenging exercises in figurative biblical paintings, abstraction, symbolism and text paintings.

However O’Reilly’s responses were not uncritical; he was honest with McCahon whether his responses were positive or negative.

O’Reilly was one of McCahon’s most trusted and influential supporters, and from the time the pair met in 1938 they maintained a close relationship — exchanging frequent letters over the course of four decades.

O’Reilly was also an instigator of many of McCahon’s solo exhibitions in book shops, public library spaces and galleries from 1947 to 1978.

Importantly for this exhibition project, Hocken Collections also holds a significant collection of more than 200 artworks by McCahon including master works, sketches, stage designs, and book illustrations.

The Hocken is also home to the Colin and Anne McCahon Papers which were inscribed into the prestigious UNESCO Memory of the World New Zealand Register in 2020.

Artists and Letters, Pictures and Words sees a selection of those artworks, including The Virgin and Child compared and Kauri Trees, and many works from private and public collections around the country, hung evocatively alongside letters, drawings and other archival material which brings the story of the art and the artist to life.

Hocken Head Curator Art and Photography Robyn Notman says Hocken Collections holds one of the most important collections of McCahon's art and archives in Aotearoa.

Artists and Letters, Pictures and Words is an exciting opportunity to celebrate and share this material with our audiences, especially as the exhibition includes art works from our own collection alongside rarely seen private loans and significant works borrowed from other public institutions across the motu.”

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