'Victory over death 2' 1970
Gift of the New Zealand Government 1978
Colin McCahon's Victory over death 2 invites us to contemplate issues of personal identity and questions of faith. On the left, in the velvety black ground are the very indistinct letters 'AM I'; the question facing the luminous, affirmative'I AM', which refers to the voice of God (taken from the New English Bible). The work is striking in the way McCahon has given himself the freedom to embrace the text itself—from the cursive handwriting to the architectural capital letters, over two metres high, stretching from the top to the bottom of the composition.
The use of written text may look very current but for McCahon it was part of an ongoing search for faith and meaning in his art and life. In the face of the big issues of his time, including the Cold War and threats to the environment, he often felt he needed words. Since his school days McCahon had a passion for poetry. Early on, too, an uncle of one of McCahon's close artist-friends had shown him blackboard signs lettered with religious texts and Christian symbols, as well as a large aid to meditation that he had painted himself. What was important to McCahon overall was the need to communicate and wrestle with 'practical religion'—not simply faith as it was professed in a weekly Sunday ritual.
In 2003 the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam organised a major retrospective of McCahon's work that aimed to demonstrate the power of this New Zealand artist's work to an international audience. The Director at the time, Rudi Fuchs, noted in the catalogue introduction for the show that the focus was on McCahon's exploration of the nature of religious belief and the challenges this poses in an increasingly secular age. McCahon's monumental Victory over death 2 is widely recognised as a key work in his output that takes up these challenges. It was a gift from the New Zealand Government to the people of Australia and is one of the treasures of the National Gallery of Australia's collection.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008
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