This three panel 'word' painting comes from one of those periods of intense activity in McCahon's life when his creative energy pushed his work ahead of what most of his supporters could fully grasp. Even McCahon, late in 1969, momentarily wondered if he was breaching the boundaries of artistic acceptability.
After his leisurely recollection of the North Otago landscapes in 1967 McCahon's work slowly gathered pace to reach the spiritual tremors of the Central Plateau in his Easter Landscapes of 1968. Then the darker tempo of his landscapes temporarily relaxed until confronted by the challenge presented in September 1968 by the eight Visible Mysteries. This series not only set the pace for 1969, but firmly re-established his disposition for paintings seasoned with thoughtful and often evocative texts. As fortune can pre-arrange things, 1969 was the year in which McCahon acquired three books that were to change the drift of his work. The first was Matire Kereama's The Tail of the Fish, then his wife's gift of The New English Bible. Later on that year, John Caselberg sent to him through the post, Journey Towards an Elegy and other poems by Peter Hooper. Each book was enthusiastically greeted by McCahon as an acquisition to be treasured. Each possessed texts fitting enough to capture a painting with words that could blow like the wind through the mind. As the months of 1969 passed, there came from McCahon a flow of 'word' paintings that culminated in the two large works, Practical Religion: the resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha and Victory over Death 2, plus the four other word paintings shown at the same time in March 1970 at the Barry Lett Galleries.
As is clearly stated on the middle panel of Can you hear me St Francis, McCahon expressly painted this work for Peter Hooper in June 1969. There is admiration in his dedication 'For Peter Hooper, poet of Grace and Truth'. It is a painting that resulted from McCahon's spontaneous reaction to reading Hooper's poems, especially his captivation with the section of the book headed 'Notes in the Margin'. There is every reason to believe that this three-piece painting is the first in which McCahon was moved to transplant a poem by Hooper into one of his paintings. This work follows on from a second group of similar looking word paintings with texts relating to the life of Jesus, and taken from the recently acquired New English Bible. The first set received the collective title, The April Paintings, the second set, The June Paintings. Although Can you hear me St Francis was painted in June, it is outside The June Paintings series.
If Can you hear me St Francis failed to spawn a similar series, it did become godfather to numerous later works that quoted and requoted a select number of Hooper's poems. A large proportion of these are found among the paper 'scrolls' that were to come shortly after in August and September that year. And the words that gave the title to this work, 'Can you hear me St Francis?', became a catch phrase that was to echo in many other paintings that owe nothing else to Hooper, paintings such as The Lark's Song, August-October 1969, and an acrylic watercolour from 1972 of a sky landscape with the inscribed title, The Lark's Song: Can you hear me St Francis?.
What of the texts that give to the Can you hear me St Francis triptych its substance ? The words that became the works title stand as the heading for poem IX in the 'Notes in the margin' sequence in Hooper's book. These words dominate the first panel. They begin audibly enough but die to a whisper so that a viewer needs to be close to the work's surface to make out the softly spoken words. This was often the case when conversing with McCahon on intimate matters or when he was contemplating some tricky issue. Then, written in capitals along the bottom of this panel is part of the ninth poem. The quote starts not from the beginning but from the three to the end of line seven. I quote these lines in the form as given by the poet:
make a kind of
invisible fence about
some form of life
so it could flourish
in its own way
By extracting these five lines from a twenty-eight line poem, McCahon is focusing on the generality of these lines, ignoring the specific references to none in on what he quotes in order to give an edge to its universality. Such a selective tactic was not unusual for McCahon.
The middle panel gives the entire thirteenth poem, but ignores its title, Poetry is for peasants, a fact McCahon did not always do when later quoting the poem. Again, I use the form the poet gave to his lines:
isn't in my words
it's in the direction
if you can't
and if you're appelled
at the journey
stick to the
they issue return tickets.
With this poem McCahon felt he could embrace a kindred spirit. These were the sort of words he would have loved to have used in reply to those people who, when in front of one of his paintings, refuse to use their eyes for the purpose of looking, but unthinkingly ask: 'But what does it mean?'.
So it is, that in the third and final panel, McCahon reiterates the thought he saw as the core of the poem, even slightly modifying the wording of one line to emphasise what it was he found frustrating, yet so painfully obvious: 'It's the direction I'm pointing'. Then, as it were, he charged into top gear to ride on growing capital letters. 'IF YOU CANT UNDER STAND AND IF YOU'RE APPALLED STICK TO MY GUIDED TOURS'. See now McCahon has again edited the text by removing the line 'at the journey' and, with a touch of scepticism, changed the impersonal phrase 'the guided tours' to 'my guided tours' as if he had clenched one fist and smacked it into the open palm of his other hand to give his message a blunt emphases.
In signing these panels McCahon abbreviates his usual initials to CMc
We are grateful to Gordon H Brown for providing this catalogue entry