Necessary Protection (IHS)
Philip Clarke left Penrose High School in 1972 and went on to become an arts administrator working at the Crafts Council of New Zealand, ARTWORK, and Creative New Zealand. He was the inaugural Director of Objectspace and is currently Chair of the Blumhardt Foundation
The Miasma of Trigonometry
Necessary Protection (IHS), 1972, it’s a source of anxiety for me, since schooldays. My most recent Necessary Protection (IHS) anxiety dream was a few months ago, just after the launch of McCahon100. Ostensibly the anxiety is because this painting is not hanging straight. In my dream it’s askew, and despite my attempts to level it, within minutes it is again crooked. This is my sleep-time dream, the constant crookedness of its brooding blackness. It’s also my recollection when wide awake.
Remember the churn between high school classes? A thousand or so students and some teachers are on the move, multiple times a day. Hanging at the junction of two corridors Necessary Protection (IHS) was part of the churn too, banged, caught and tilted daily by bags and humanity despite its fairly high position. Its straightness often only momentary during those churnings of humanity. I was from a family that required the presence of a level and the word ‘perpendicular’ in order to hang a picture: pictures had to be true, message received. When introduced at a morning assembly – as all new artworks were – students were informed that the place ‘depicted’ was Muriwai. Whoa, I knew Muriwai. Visiting for the first time I vividly recall entering a landscape the like of which I’d never experienced. Being there felt like I’d left green New Zealand behind and entered an elemental, black and white, or more precisely grey and white, world. The sea was grey and white, the cliffs and sand were grey, the sky was every shade of grey/black and the windy air was grey with sand. To six year old me Muriwai was suffused with life and truth. And of course Muriwai was pulsating with unseen and improbable life-forces. As I dug into the sand and came across my first toheroa I was flabbergasted by the huge and strange white tongue of Paphies ventricosa: toheroa literally means long tongue.
This was my memorable first encounter with Muriwai, which some years later, was the lens for my meeting with Necessary Protection (IHS). I knew that Muriwai was literally black, white, and smudgy. I knew that Muriwai was where elemental truths were revealed. Having had it explained that IHS was short for ‘Jesus’ it was easy to understand McCahon’s association of Christian truth and holiness with this powerful landscape. And then those thousands of huge tongues: of course the landscape could speak and was speaking! This was my painting, I understood it and loved it (despite aspects of it baffling me). In my last year at school I was a prefect (do they still have them?). With hindsight I can see that my performance in that role was dutiful but rather dilatory, however my commitment to straightening ‘my painting’ that year, and for the rest of my life, could not be surpassed.
Necessary Protection (IHS), 1972 is one of ten McCahon works purchased by my old high school, Penrose High School, now One Tree Hill College, from about 1969 during Murray Print’s principalship. Eight works date from between 1969 and 1973 with just two works from outside of this time frame, dated 1954 and 1977. The art teacher, Wallace (Wally) Crossman being a McCahon acquaintance. These artworks are now owned by One Tree Hill College Art Trust. I mostly clearly recall Necessary Protection (IHS) and The Lark's Song, 1972.
When The Lark’s Song arrived, I recall almost everyone who noticed it, admired it. I do remember that despite its scale and general magnificence quite a few students did not notice its existence. Forever in my mind it is associated with the nightmare of trigonometry. I had once been quite good at mathematics and then had the same unsympathetic teacher for some years. Bursting with teenage solipsism I abandoned his subject as I felt he had abandoned me.
The Larks Song hung in the same position as Necessary Protection (IHS) on the floor below. It was directly ahead as I left the maths classroom. Its cry “Can you hear me Saint Francis", scrawled above the low horizon, echoed my inner cry each time I left maths. Here was a point to looking and thinking about lines and angles, although trigonometry, to my knowledge, had no view on smudges. Years later I would read that Lady Wilde (Oscar’s Mum) said whilst not dealing with creditors “I soar above the miasma of the commonplace”. The Larks Song helped me soar above the miasma of trigonometry. I remain grateful for this daily encounter with lyrical beauty.
Necessary Protection (IHS) was the cover image for the 1972 school yearbook (thanks for saving it Mum). There’s a double page feature ‘Art in the School’ that starts “It is school policy to foster an interest in art and to surround pupils with works which will both please and inspire.” It worked.
Many thanks to One Tree Hill College for their assistance.