Victory over Death: The Art of Colin McCahon

Victory over Death: The Art of Colin McCahonImagine for a moment being a great artist in a faraway and culturally marginal country in the 1950s. The audience for your work does not yet exist. You are destined to die unknown.

This was the situation facing New Zealand artist Colin McCahon. So what does he do? He makes work – as do all the artists we remember – for a future audience.

McCahon’s Victory over death 2 (1970), a huge black and white painting featuring the words ‘I AM’ and evocative of the cloudy mountains of New Zealand, is now in the National Gallery of Australia, where it and Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952) are regarded as the two most significant works in the collection.

It is a painting about the resurrection of Christ, but every time someone stands before the painting and looks at it is also McCahon who is granted a certain ‘victory over death’.

Titled after the painting, the book seeks to speak of this small miracle of art and the particular life or even afterlife it grants both the artist and their audience. Perhaps the question of the afterlife is at the origin of all thinking about culture: the artist makes their work hoping that it will live on after their death; the critic reads or looks at the work wondering whether a future audience will engage with it, It is the audience who will grant him eternal life. It is they who will allow him to live on.

In this, as McCahon well knew, he was like Jesus, who similarly lives on through his Apostles. And this act of religious transmission increasingly becomes the real subject of McCahon’s work. Just as he becomes an Apostle of Christ, so we become Apostles of McCahon.

And in so doing, McCahon tells us something profound about art, whose truth would lie not so much in what it tells us as in its act of telling.

Rex Butler is Professor of Art History and Theory at Monash University, Australia. He writes extensively on Australian contemporary art and critical theory and is the author or editor of 11 books.

Laurence Simmons is Professor of Film Studies in Media and Communication at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He has written extensively on Italian and New Zealand film.

“…a profound critical and historical reckoning with McCahon’s inestimable, yet troubled contribution to world art.” – Professor Thomas Crow, NYU

Victory over Death: The Art of Colin McCahon is published by Monash University Press and available from all leading book sellers including Booktopia.

Image: Victory over Death: The Art of Colin McCahon – courtesy of Monash University Press