Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
(William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 60”)
Some such sentiment as expressed in the opening to Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 60” seems to lie behind Colin McCahon’s superb nocturne of moonlit waves hurrying towards Muriwai beach, with the merest sliver of setting sun visible along the horizon. An unusually descriptive painting for this phase of his career, the sombre atmosphere is heightened by the overwhelming blackness of the night sky, relieved only by the presence of a large pale moon—unprecedented in McCahon’s work so far as I can recall—hanging in the sky.
This work is best understood within the context of a group of paintings completed between August-October 1972, which consists of two works entitled Seaweed on the Beach and two entitled Low Tide, Muriwai. What all five works have in common is the Muriwai beach setting and the notion oftangi, the Maori ritual of mourning. The other four works all have the words “taitimu (low tide), tangi, Muriwai” written along the bottom edge in ‘seaweed’ writing; the absence of taitumu in Tangi. Muriwai suggests that it is a scene of high tide, not low tide, a fact which subtly alters the symbolic implications of the work.
An important source of McCahon’s understanding of such Maori matters was Matire Kereama’s The Tail of the Fish: Maori Memories of the Far North, a book from which he derived numerous paintings utilising Maori texts, such as The lark’s song, On going out with the tide and O let us weep (all 1969). By 1972, he was most preoccupied with Chapter 24, ”Going Out with the Tide,” which begins: “When I was a child, no person died without first asking about the state of the tide, whether it was full or low. People always liked to die at low tide because the tide had to be completely out to enable them to reach Te Reinga Wairua, ‘The Leaping Place of Spirits’, in the Far North…. When the tide is full, the hole is under water and covered with masses of seaweed” (p. 74). These words suggest the wider meaning of this group of works. McCahon is meditating on the Maori concept of death, and in particular the belief that departing spirits travelled up the West Coast beaches—Muriwai, Ahipara, Ninety Mile Beach—to the leaping off point at Cape Reinga. If Tangi. Muriwaiis a ‘high tide’ rather than a ‘low tide’ painting, the symbolic meaning of the work is moved in the direction of recovery or resurrection rather than death, a suggestion reinforced by the unusual presence of the moon.