Victory over Death 2

Victory over death 2, 2075 x 5977, synthetic polymer paint, 1970. Collection National Gallery of Australia, gift of the New Zealand Government 1978, courtesy McCahon Research and Publication Trust


McCahon House Director Vivienne Stone and Prime Minister the Rt Honorable Jacinda Ardern in front of Colin McCahon's Numerals on the occasion of the launch of the McCahon Centenary, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, August 2019

Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister of Aotearoa New Zealand, Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage

Colin McCahon once said of painting white upon black, “I look back with joy on taking a brush of white paint and curving through the darkness with a line of white.”

And that’s what McCahon did – he continually exposed and challenged the darkness. 

There is no doubt that McCahon is one of New Zealand’s most important modern artists and paved the way for his contemporaries and those who followed him. However, McCahon’s legacy goes much further and for me, Victory over death 2 encapsulates that intangible impact an artist can have; the ripples they can create. 

On the face of it McCahon’s Victory over death 2 sends a clear and defiant message – I AM. Emerging from the velvety black paint, on the left-hand side the word ‘AM I‘ (with the questioning AM in the shadows) are set against the affirmative ‘I AM’ which is painted in answer. As Deborah Hart, Senior Curator at the National Gallery of Australia explains, this dialogue within the canvas references the strong voice of God, and the phrase ‘I AM’ is a regular occurrence in McCahon’s work, referencing both the questions and reassurances of personal identity and faith. The answer, ‘I AM’ is visually louder and stronger than the question ‘AM I ’, and asserts an identity of its own. Ambiguity turns to clarity and there is a sense of realisation and revelation in the words.  

McCahon grappled with religion in a range of his works, and the moment I first discovered this was at the very moment I was grappling with my own belief system.

A collection of his works hung on Wellington walls, telling the story of his own faith.  Colourful images descend into blackened canvases with works and statements almost punching through.    

Victory over death 2 captures that time and experience; but also McCahon himself, what he confronted, what he challenges us to confront, and perhaps, our incomplete appreciation of him and his works. 

Of course, Victory over death 2 is a bit of an outlier because it is not housed in a New Zealand museum or gallery. My ministerial colleague, Hon Grant Robertson, has already mentioned in his contribution to this project the controversy that ensued when the New Zealand Government gifted Victory over death 2 to the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra.2 Although a small group of people had suggested our (then) National Gallery should purchase the work, this did not go ahead. Clearly there was a level of hesitation around McCahon’s practice, and very few at the time understood the power and strength in his work.  

McCahon’s influence on the contemporary New Zealand art scene is clear through the McCahon 100 project, the residencies the McCahon House Trust host, and the individual artists that respond directly to his work in their own.  

The culmination of McCahon’s influence is evidenced by the entire McCahon centenary, and the numerous people who have engaged with it. It is wonderful to see the contributions about McCahon and his work from art historians, curators, artists, critics, sporting legends, fashion designers and writers sitting alongside each other. And personally, I am humbled to be the second politician to make a contribution – but I do so as simply one of many people who have been moved by McCahon. 



[1] Words from McCahon himself



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Bridget Riggir-Cuddy
The House Protects the Dreamer
Naomi McCleary
Séraphine Pick
Northland Panels
Brian Sweeney
The view from the top of the cliff
Rudi Fuchs
North Otago Landscape
Rex Butler
I Considered All the Acts of Oppression
Donna McDonald
The Fourteen Stations of the Cross
Harold Jones
Muriwai no.7
Ted Spring
On Building Bridges
Areez Katki
The Three Marys at the Tomb
Rosanna Raymond
Jet Out
Rufus Knight
Megan Tamati-Quennell
Black Landscape
Nick Mitzevich
Victory over Death 2
Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern
Victory over Death 2
The Governor General The Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy
Gate III
Grant Banbury
I Paul
Sir Bob Harvey
Dark Landscape
Young Old Girls Christchurch Girls’ High
North Otago Landscape 19
Sophie Bannan
Van Gogh - poems by John Caselberg
Linda Tyler
Urewera Triptych
Emily Karaka
Tangi. Muriwai
Robert Gardiner
Are there not twelve hours of daylight
Thomas Crow
Are there not twelve hours of daylight
Jude Rae
Victory over death 2
Brent Harris
The Family
Cora-Allan Wickliffe
15 Drawings Dec '51 to May '52
Salome Tanuvasa
Yona Lee
Landscape theme and variations (series B)
David Kirk
Priscilla Pitts
Fourteen Stations of the Cross
Ruth Watson
This day a man is
Tessa Laird
Keep New Zealand Green
East window
Nicola Farquhar
Kauri trees
Hon Grant Robertson
Otago Peninsula
Jane Macknight
Untitled (North Otago Landscape)
Karen Walker
Wystan Curnow
The Green Plain
Philip Clarke
Necessary Protection (IHS)
Mary Kisler
A candle in a dark room
Ayesha Green
Matthew O'Reilly
Bettina Bradbury and Kararaina Rangihau
A poster for the Urewera no. 2
Al Keating
A Grain of wheat
Cushla Dillon
Entombment (after Titian)
Hamish Coney
Here I give thanks to Mondrian
Stephen Wainwright
As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the pure land
Sue Gardiner
Landscape theme and variations (series A)
Robert Leonard
Judy Darragh
Clouds 1
John Coley
Shannon Te Ao
Ka pōraruraru ahau. I am troubled.
Helen Beaglehole
Ralph Paine
Jump E9
Judy Millar
Muriwai: Necessary Protection
Fiona Pardington
C.K. Stead
All mortals are like grass
Gretchen Albrecht
As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the pure land
Martin Edmond
Cross (1959)
Lisa Reihana
Urewera mural
Peter Simpson
Jet out to Te Reinga
Christina Barton
Gate III
Dame Jenny Gibbs
I Considered All the Acts of Oppression
Zoe Black
Ruby Bay
Jim Barr and Mary Barr
Oaia and clouds
Vivienne Stone
Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is
Kate Sylvester
Northland Panels