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The Architect and the Artists: The great New Zealand creative collaboration

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The Architect and the Artists

Hackshaw, McCahon, Dibble

By Bridget Hackshaw et al

Massey University Press

RRP $65.00

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

One of the highlights of the 2020 exhibition “A Place to Paint” at the Auckland Art Gallery was Colin McCahon’s restored windows which had originally been the commissioned for the Convent Chapel of Our Lady of the Missions in Remuera.

The chapel designed by James Hackshaw was a major work of church architecture which saw a collaboration between the modernist architect, painter Colin McCahon and sculptor Paul Dibble.

McCahon Window, Convent Chapel of Our Lady of the Missions . Image: Hackshaw Collection, Architecture Archive, Special Collections, University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services.

In the 1960’s and 70’s they worked together on a number of architectural projects, often small chapels which until recently had very little public exposure. Now a new publication “The Architect and the Artists” conceived by the architect’s daughter, Bridget Hackshaw brings into the light the extent of the collaboration.

Along with extensive writing by Bridget Hackshaw there are  chapters by Peter Simpson, Peter Shaw, Julia Gatley, Alexa Johnston, Sister Maria J Park and Christopher Dudman the  book reveals how the collaborative process worked and  as well as looking at the wider influences and motivations behind architectural / art projects. We are made aware of the interplays  between contemporary architecture, historic church design, the demands of clients, the understanding of materials as well as personal visions.

The importance of James Hackshaw is explored, particularly his early involvement with the Group Architects and their pioneering domestic architectural work. The book also  links his domestic architecture with his church buildings in areas such as his concern with developing an indigenous architecture, his interest in the use of exposed beams and timber along with importance of  light and space. The book also notes his interest in architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier who can be seen as having a direct influence on his work.

Liston College chapel. Image: Bridget Hackshaw

While McCahon had used Christian content early on in his career it was his work at the time of his involvement with Hackshaw which saw many of his works focussed on symbolism and numbers,  seeing more meaning in the iconography then the stories of Christianity. His letters of the time also indicate his interest  in the tactile qualities and the colours of glass

“Good glass holds your hands up high & a certain glory filters through your fingers. I love glass” and there are passages where he links his glass work with his other paintings writing about the enigmatic  connections between the “5 wounds of Christ”, his “Rocks in the sky” series and the Stations of the Cross”

The period of the collaboration was important for Paul Dibble in that it provided the young artist, just out of art school with an early grounding for his future more monumental work. He became part of the team because McCahon had encountered him at Elam and offered him the position. It was as Dibble notes ”purely accidental and a bit of good fortune.”

Paul Dibble, Holy water font. Image: Bridget Hackshaw

The works he produced  – tabernacles, candlesticks and crucifixes are modernist but draw heavily on  the traditions  of church decoration and show that these sculptural  works were in line with the changes which were occurring in churches as a result of   the Second Vatican Council 

The book is profusely illustrated with Hawkshaw’s plans and elevations , McCahon’s drawings, letters and notes, along with  contemporary and historic images of the buildings, McCahon’s windows and Dibbles sculptures. Many of the photographs depict the impressive architectural spaces created by Hackshaw along with images which show how  the rich colours cast by the windows transform the interior spaces.

St Ignatius Church St Heliers. Image: Bridget Hackshaw

“The Architects and the Artists” is a rewarding investigation into of one of the great artistic collaborations of twentieth century New Zealand. It reveals the extraordinary connections between the various aspects of church architecture and design, religious tradition, new theological thinking, architectural innovation and personal concepts all underpinning the way in which creative individuals work within framework of architectural and artistic commissions.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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