Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
The Architect and the Artists
Hackshaw, McCahon, Dibble
By Bridget Hackshaw et al
Massey University Press
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“The Architects and the Artists” is a rewarding investigation into 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.