Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.

Colin McCahon – Victory over death 2

ArtWay Visual Meditation 6 July 2024
Colin McCahon – Victory over death 2
Write it Down Large
by Willem de Vink
"Write it on large boards, so that everyone can read it in passing," Habakkuk was instructed as he heard God's message. He had asked God on his watchtower what the future would look like, now that Israel was threatened by superior forces. "It's only going to get worse," God had said. "But the righteous shall live by faith." (Habakkuk 2:1-4) The prophet was to make that message known to the world.
"Write it down large." I was reminded of this when I saw the work of the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon in the autumn of 2002. He had painted huge canvases full of texts from the Bible. They were attached to the walls in the ‘must-see’ Stedelijk Museum of modern art in Amsterdam, NL. Bible quotations in white paint on huge black loose hanging canvases, like chalk script on a blackboard. A Question of Faith was the title of the one-man exhibition in Amsterdam; the first in Europe by this artist from 'down under.'
Colin McCahon was part of the New Zealand art movement The Group, which would exist until 1977. The members were looking for new ways to make art. McCahon experimented with figurative, symbolic and abstract art and began painting texts on canvas in 1947. It was a surprising and logical step in his search for meaning in his life and work. In doing so, he gave himself the opportunity to appropriate text that was important to him. Before that time, he had already painted biblical scenes, but because he was looking for the most direct way to immerse himself in the Bible, he started to fill his canvases with Bible texts.
McCahon received a lot of criticism for his unusual choices, but people also saw his work as a unique form of self-expression. The touch with which a painter depicts images is personal and intimate, but so is the handwriting of written text as McCahon's writing is touchingly human and it speaks openly of his inner turmoil, as if you are allowed to step into his diaries. The artist knew very well what he wanted to achieve with it. He said: “I aim at a very direct statement and ask for a just as simple and direct response. Any other way the message gets lost.”
The canvas we see here, Victory over death 2, is more than two meters high and almost six meters wide. In capital letters is painted I AM, the Name that God has given Himself (written in Hebrew as YHWH). It is the most common word in the Bible (rendered LORD in our translations). In front of and between the monumental letters, McCahon has written Bible texts in smaller script that match the meaning of God's name. We read Jesus' words from John 12, "Father, glorify your name," and God's response from heaven, "I have glorified him, and I will glorify him again." We also see one of Jesus' "I am" statements from the Gospel of John: "I am the light of the world."
The title of this artwork, Victory over death 2, makes clear that McCahon wanted to show with his text paintings that the words of the Bible are stronger than death. At the same time, the painter himself created timeless pieces of work, which are still appreciated even after his death.
Which brings me back to the assignment given to the prophet Habakkuk. He too created a piece of work that stood the test of time. Years later, the text he had to write on large boards became the starting point for Paul's expositions of the gospel in his letters. Hundreds of years later, it would spur Martin Luther to initiate reforms in the church. The righteous live by faith!
Colin McCahon was like a modern-day Habakkuk. He may have lived in New Zealand far away from where it all happens in the art world, but he hasn't stayed in his tower. His message still gets noticed.
Colin McCahon: Victory over death 2, 1970, polymer paint on loose canvas, 207.5 x 597.7 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. 
Read: Exodus 3:13-15; John 12:27-36; Habakkuk 2:1-4; Romans 1:16-17.
Colin McCahon (1919-1987), a legendary figure in the art of New Zealand and Australia, is curiously unknown in Europe. Colin McCahon could be called the Van Gogh of Australasia. He might even be considered the first important modern painter from that part of the world. His activities as a teacher and museum curator have also received attention, especially since his death. Central to McCahon's oeuvre is the investigation into the nature of faith and his own spiritual experience and development as he opened his understanding to modernism and abstract art. In addition, he engaged with the environment and Maori culture.
In his work, McCahon responded to the ever-changing world, both on a personal and universal level.
Willem de Vink (Utrecht, 1957) is a Dutch pastor, preacher, writer and illustrator. His picture story book Jesus Messiah has been published in more than 200 languages. He also wrote the book This is Love, Vincent. He recently published the book In the Mind of the Maker, Creativity, Art, Church.
Revd Jonathan Even’s is a regular ArtWay contributor. His July art diary includes exhibitions at Fitzrovia Chapel, Ingleby, The Gallery of Everything, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Cristea Roberts Gallery, The Parsonage Gallery, Wellhouse Gallery, The Fry Art Gallery, Focal Point Gallery, Newlands House Gallery and the Holt Festival which include work by Hayley Barker, Anna Zemánková, Bharti Kher, Miriam de Búrca, Leonora Carrington and Michael Petry, among others. These exhibitions engage with an extensive range of spiritualities, some seeking to reverse long-held perceptions.
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See for more exhibitions, symposia and lectures, podcasts, videos, books, ArtWay news and more here
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