Important Australian + International Fine Art
26 November 2008

Colin McCahon

(1919 - 1987, New Zealand)

acrylic on Steinbach paper mounted on hardboard

73.0 x 109.5 cm

titled lower left: Mondrian’s Last Chrysanthemum: Scared
signed with initials and dated lower left: C.McC / ‘76

$260,000 - 300,000
Sold for $312,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 6 - 26 November 2008, Melbourne

Private collection, Auckland, 1978 – 1994
Martin Browne Fine Art, Sydney
Acquired from the above in 1994
Private collection, Sydney


An Exhibition of Recent Works by Colin McCahon, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, 17 August – 3 September 1976, cat. 9, n.f.s.
Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 30 August – 10 November 2002, travelling to City Gallery, Wellington, Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki, Auckland, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, during the period December 2002 – January 2004


Brown, G., Colin McCahon – Artist, A.H. & A. W. Reed, Wellington 1984, p. 182
Bloem, M. and Browne, M., Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam/Craig Potton Publishing, New Zealand, 2002, pp. 138 (illus.), 226, 267 & back cover of dustjacket (illus.)
Mondrian's Last Chrysanthemum: Scared is listed in The Colin McCahon Database and Image Library ( as no.001460

Catalogue text

Mondrian's Last Chrysanthemum: Scared is one of five works in a small but iconic group of paintings by Colin McCahon from 1976. Referred to collectively as the Scared series, the remaining four paintings in the group are Scared (also known as I am scared, I stand up) (Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand, Wellington), Am I scared (Govett- Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth), Open Door (Private collection, Lower Hutt), and Scared: a small prayer (Private collection, Geneva).

In the Scared paintings McCahon sought to confront the very deepest issues of the human condition. As was so often the case within the artist's various series, he developed his theme from the personal to the universal over the course of the five images. Thus, while the first two images, Scared and Am I Scared, express the personal fear of someone involved in facing uncertainty, and address the need to confront the existential situation that is everyone's life, Open Door and Scared: a small prayer - in which fear seeks out the reassuring protection of God with its request to 'watch over me' - acknowledges the human urge to seek divine protection. Mondrian's Last Chrysanthemum: Scared, the final painting in the group, addresses the need for resolve to face the awful possibility of annihilation in an image in which, as Gordon Brown has pointed out, a nuclear holocaust descends with more devastating certainty than it did in McCahon's earlier vision of such a horror, Mondrian's Chrysanthemum of 1908 (Brown, p. 182).

It is no accident that the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian is invoked in the titles of these two McCahon paintings. Indeed, there is a third work that acknowledges the artist, Here I give thanks to Mondrian, 1961, (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki). Mondrian was regarded by McCahon as one of the two giants of the Western painting tradition, the other being Michelangelo. Gordon Brown again: 'Each was a giant because he created a sense of constructive order so massive in its artistic achievement that the image, in a spiritual and an aesthetic sense, was liberated from its own descriptive role. This unbinding of the image was such that both artists, each in his own time, initiated a creative impasse so crammed with potential that initially it inhibited the artists who followed them. As McCahon saw it, these latter artists found it difficult to disengage themselves from a mere surface exploration of what Michelangelo and Mondrian had achieved' (Brown, p. 76). Writing of this in the catalogue for his 1972 Survey exhibition, McCahon commented: 'Mondrian, it seemed to me, came up in this century as a great barrier - the painting to END all painting. As a painter, how do you get around either a Michelangelo or a Mondrian? It seems that the only way is not more 'masking tape' but more involvement in the human condition'. (Colin McCahon: a survey exhibition, Auckland City Art Gallery, 1972, p. 28)

Unlike his other artist heroes such as Michelangelo, Titian, Bellini and Gris, whose works McCahon had known only from reproduction, his first real encounters with Mondrian were'in the flesh' during his 1958 study trip to the United States. At San Francisco's Museum of Art he saw Mondrian: The Earlier Years, an exhibition that included paintings and drawings from 1904 to 1924, while in New York, the dealer Leo Castelli showed him at least one later work. Included in the San Francisco exhibition were several of Mondrian's flower studies from 1907-09, among them at least one of the now iconic images of a single chrysanthemum, its petals curling and twisting in an energetic frenzy.

It was clearly this image that McCahon was referencing in the well-known painting from his 1971 Kaipara Flat series, Mondrian's Chrysanthemum of 1908. Indeed the inscription on the work reads 'Greetings to Mondrian's Chrysanthemum of 1908'. However in McCahon's image, Mondrian's flower has become a turbulent and dark cloud - the writhing mushroom cloud aftermath of a nuclear explosion. Painted at a time when international protest against the French Government's atmospheric nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll was at its height, images of mushroom clouds rising in all their terrible beauty above the idyllic French Polynesian atoll were strong in the public's mind. But for those who might still miss the analogy, McCahon made the connection clear in the catalogue notes for his 1972 Survey exhibition in which he included the work as the final painting. He wrote of it: 'This is perhaps a chrysanthemum, perhaps a sunset: quite possibly a bomb dropped on Muriwai - all these things can be beautiful, some most deadly. As a painter I may often be more worried about you than you are about me and if I wasn't concerned I'd not be doing my work properly as a painter. Painting can be a potent way of talking.' (ibid. p. 38)

Four years later, in Mondrian's Last Chrysanthemum: Scared there is no ambivalence in the message. The image is constructed around a golden yellow Tau Cross, the structure that appears first as far back as 1952 in Triptych: On Building Bridges (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki) and would later be reprised in the series of Truth from the King Country: Load Bearing Structures paintings from 1978. Across the upper third of the field the flash of a nuclear detonation turns the apocalyptic sky fiery red, the intense colour churning over darker underpainting. Below, the lower two thirds of the image are divided into two quadrants. On the left, in a scene echoing the Muriwai beachscape compositions of the Rocks in the Sky images, which were painted contemporaneously, an ink black sky hovers above a thin band of white sand. But here there are no Stations of the Cross, no sign of life, no plankton in the lagoon - it is the darkness after the flash of nuclear annihilation. Finally, on the right, as light dawns on the post-apocalyptic landscape, we see all that is left 'Ash'. But perhaps through the grey clouds of smoke and ash, there is the pale light of a new dawn?

All the paintings of the Scared series give visual expression to the dark fears - and possible responses to those fears - that are universal to the human condition. In their scrawling white lettering on black - or in the case of Scared: a small prayer black on ochre - the paintings are possessed of an urgency far less meditative than those series that had gone immediately before. Only in the final work, Mondrian's Last Chrysanthemum, in which the affirmative or beseeching texts have been replaced by the horrifying vision of a landscape laid waste by a nuclear explosion, are words no longer sufficient. This vision of nuclear annihilation and its aftermath - 'Ash' - is McCahon's picture that paints a thousand words.

Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum is home to one of the world's most significant collections of works by Piet Mondrian. It is both fitting and an acknowledgement of the power and importance of Mondrian's Last Chrysanthemum: Scared that in selecting paintings for the Stedelijk's major 2002 McCahon retrospective 'Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith', the museum's curator Marja Bloem chose to include the painting - taking McCahon's ultimate homage to Mondrian back to the artist's homeland. Her subsequent decision to illustrate the work on the dustjacket of the exhibition catalogue has ensured that Mondrian's Last Chrysanthemum: Scared has become one of Colin McCahon's most well-known and iconic paintings.