Victory over Death 2
Colin McCahon’s monumental Victory over death 2 has long been one of my favourite works in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection. We value our Trans-Tasman connections greatly and it is heartening and inspiring to read the words of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, in her appreciation of McCahon’s contribution to the art of his home country and this region, as well as her personal journey with this remarkable painting.
Victory over death 2 crosses many boundaries and is often shown in our Gallery in the context of connections between Australian and New Zealand art, as well as in our International displays. For instance, it has recently been exhibited in proximity to Agnes Martin’s paintings – the two artists’ works complementing each other in evocative ways. McCahon’s use of text was part of this ongoing search for meaning in his art and life around concerns of personal identity and questions of faith. In the painting he gave himself the freedom to embrace text – from the almost architectural scale of the capital letters, over two metres high, to intimate cursive script that alternates in assertiveness and a delicacy of touch.
A number of contemporary artists currently working in Australia have been inspired by McCahon’s work in diverse ways including Imants Tillers, Nell and Brent Harris. For me personally, the specific interest of Victory over death 2 is how its vastness, and by extension its timelessness, allows it to remain an enduringly contemporary work. The work resonates because it grapples with the strange and beautiful and painful phenomenon of existence. It is so deeply human in what it asks and so profound in its longing for something else, something more, some greater connection.
In 2003 the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam borrowed Victory over death 2 from the National Gallery of Australia for their McCahon retrospective and I very much agree with the assessment of Rudi Fuchs, Director at the time, when he hailed McCahon as one of the great artists of the second half of the 20th century. In 1978 Victory over death 2 was a most generous gift from the New Zealand Government to the people of Australia. It remains one of the treasures of our collection and is also a symbol of connection and cultural generosity between Australia and New Zealand that endures.