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Paton on McCahon

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For the interested non-specialist the text offers a useful general introduction to the artist and his enigma, helping them over the conceptual hurdles. While some writers charge ahead on their own trajectory, Paton is adept at holding the door open for the befuddled straggling behind.

Justin Paton
McCahon Country

Penguin 2019


ISBN: 9780143773931
RRP: $75.00

Inevitably with the McCahon centenary has been a flurry of books published about him. On this site I have already covered Peter Simpson’s Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction, 1919-1959, the first volume of a two in a landmark study of the artist. Justin Paton’s McCahon Country is another entry in the field and a large, handsome, big budget coffee table volume it is too, well worth purchasing for the generous reproductions alone.

Paton, as expected, writes beautifully, although his short essays only make up a very small fraction of the book, and it is very much Paton’s ‘McCahon’ we’re getting, in the vein of his 2005 book How to Look at a Painting. This is ‘How to Look at a McCahon’ (there is a distinct feeling of television treatment about it) and I tend to bridle a bit at the determinism implied, despite the seductive prose. Some people like guided gallery tours, and some people prefer to be left alone with the art.

Paton is a curator, and curators are gonna curate. The reader already familiar with the legendarium may resent the way Paton gently takes their hand to guide them through the well-tilled ground of the landscape and religious paintings, but for the interested non-specialist the text offers a useful general introduction to the artist and his enigma, helping them over the conceptual hurdles. While some writers charge ahead on their own trajectory, Paton is adept at holding the door open for the befuddled straggling behind.

It’s a lovely book, enchanting even—Paton is a master of channelling atmosphere and building empathy—but if you’re looking for something with more historical-biographical detail and less of someone else’s rapturous internal monologue, Simpson’s book is more likely to be what you’re looking for. If however, on the other hand, you want a guided tour by a connoisseur through the mature part of McCahon’s oeuvre, this is the book for you.

Andrew Paul Wood

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