Book Review : Art New Zealand Number 167 Spring 2018

This significant review appeared in Art New Zealand Number 167, on pages 109-111 of the Spring 2018 issue of the country’s oldest and most respected quarterly visual arts magazine.

Beyond Accepted Boundaries

Colours of a Life: The Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid

By Anna Cahill

Published by Mary Egan in association with MacDiarmid Arts Trust, Auckland 2018


“With the recent passing of Milan Mrkusich, Douglas MacDiarmid (born 1922) surely qualifies as both the longest-lived and longest-active New Zealand-born artist. But as Leonard Bell points out in his foreword to this book, MacDiarmid has rated ‘barely a mention’ in this country’s standard art histories written since the 1960s. Bell offers several reasons for this relegation to the ‘extreme margins’ of our art narratives; the fact that MacDiarmid has worked in  several different styles simultaneously, and the perception that much of his art did not comfortably fit the standard New Zealand categories. In addition, he left the country in 1946, a decision described by Bell as ‘tantamount to betrayal, traitorous even’.

However, MacDiarmid was not entirely overlooked. In 1981 he was represented in the travelling exhibition New Zealand Painting 1840-1960: Conformity and Dissension with his 1945 portrait of sculptor, writer and refugee from Nazi Germany, Otti Binswanger. In the associated publication curator Gordon H. Brown acknowledged MacDiarmid’s involvement with The Group, in Christchurch, in the period 1943-1948, and also with Wellington gallerist Helen Hitchings and his inclusion in her Fifteen New Zealand Painters exhibition in London in 1952. Nine years later MacDiarmid received official recognition when invited by the New Zealand Government to return to his homeland during the 1990 celebrations as a ‘living cultural treasure’, during which time his portrait was painted by Jacqueline Fahey and he was interviewed for this magazine by Ross Fraser.

Since then there has been further recognition of MacDiarmid’s achievements, in particular Bell’s 2007 article ‘A Stranger Everywhere’, also in this magazine (Art New Zealand 123) and with the artist’s disquieting 1948 urban nocturne Figures at Night on the cover. Since then, Bell’s 2017 book Strangers Arrive: Emigres and the Arts in New Zealand 1930-1980 includes discussion and reproductions of several of MacDiarmid’s paintings, among them the Binswanger portrait, a 1950 portrait of Helen Hitchings and Figures at Night on the back cover.

As the title of this new biography asserts, colour has played a major part in MacDiarmid’s life. In fact, from an early age he saw everything in colour, even the days of the week (Wednesday for example, was ‘luminous light yellow’). He did not suffer from chromophobia, the fear of colour, which the author claims had ‘quite a strong purchase’ in twentieth-century New Zealand art. According to MacDiarmid the only reds to be found in our landscape were on the roofs of houses.

The other recurrent theme in this book is the subject’s personal life; there are references to his ‘being born bisexual’ and his relationships, as with Douglas Lilburn, his ‘first great love’, and his use of painting as ‘a kind of safety valve’ for dealing with sexual energy. If New Zealand was a chromophobic country, MacDiarmid also found it homophobic, but did not believe there was one problem that could not be solved by ‘joyous fornication’. He had no truck with mind-altering substances, for all he needed as a life force was sensuality, the ‘worst excesses’ of which were conducted far from any family scrutiny. This sensuality appears to have been infectious; when one of MacDiarmid’s client collectors took delivery of a commissioned work he did so with ‘a raging erection’.

This rollicking account of MacDiarmid’s career begins in his central North Island hometown of Taihape. By the early 1940s he had moved to Christchurch and found himself ‘in the right place at the right time, a cultural milieu well documented in Peter Simpson’s 2016 publication Bloomsbury South. Although in his element, MacDiarmid was dissatisfied with New Zealand’s Anglo-orientation and the parochial state of the arts.  Europe was calling and he wanted to ‘devour the world’. Within a year of producing his portrait of Otti Binswanger, MacDiarmid had himself sailed for Europe.

Taihape 1991, acrylic on paper 280 x 220 mm Private collection, Wellington

Unhampered by the lack of any formal art training, he forged his own distinctive approach, as was clearly apparent in his 1948 portrait of Constance Sochachewsky, produced at the time of London’s notorious pea-souper fogs. In this touching tribute to a friendship the subject all but bursts through the picture plane, her smile and sidelong glance adding an air of mystery, while the warm tones of her complexion counter the chill of a post-war winter.

In June 1949, following his first solo exhibition, held at the Wellington Public Library, MacDiarmid was ‘the toast of the town’. He was still torn between Europe and his homeland, but now recognised the latter as ‘too comfortable and too familiar’ and offered no prospects for a career in painting. In early 1951 he made the decision to return to Europe permanently and subsequently settled in Paris. There were serious challenges on the way. In 1953, half of the 35 paintings in his exhibition in Chelsea, London, were stolen after the opening: although Scotland Yard were called in they were never recovered. News of his progress filtered back, and by the late 1950s MacDiarmid was seen as ‘the New Zealand poster boy for successful expatriate painting’. But as documented by Cahill, it was a roller-coaster ride; there were periods of ‘economic gloom’ – when he froze in a Paris garret during the winter of ’53 – but he was also ‘feted’, enjoying frequent sell-out shows and attracting a circle of regular clients who purchased him over the years.

Photograph of Douglas and his subject at the unveiling of Suzy Solidor’s commissioned portrait 1956, Paris

Although MacDiarmid was self-trained – he claims he has never been inside an art school ‘for so much as a sniff’ – he gave painting classes t maintain a continuity of income. Even so, he does not believe it is possible to teach painting: ‘All you can do is liberate what is already there.’ And while he refused to be categorised, he described himself as an expressionist painter who ‘expressed the visual rhythm of things’.

He maintained that ‘you’ve never really looked at anything till you’ve tried to draw it’, and talks of the need to ‘escape the tyranny of pure description.’ With that and his interest in optics and colour in mind, perhaps he could be categorised as an ‘expressionist impressionist’.

Following negative comments by Auckland reviewers T.J. McNamara and Hamish Keith in 1973, MacDiarmid boycotted the Queen City and did not return until 2002 when he was given a survey show at Ferner Galleries. Cahill identifies that event as signifying the beginning of the recognition of MacDiarmid as a significant figure in the New Zealand art world, as opposed to being disregarded as ‘a product from somewhere else’.

This biography is richly embroidered with candid comments from the horse’s mouth. MacDiarmid is also a published poet, and his many memorable descriptions include the nature of the London winter of 1951 –‘cold enough to paralyse penguins’ – and his discomfort taking a camel ride in Egypt, when his testicles were ‘ground to fois gras’ [sic] against the saddle. He referred to a painting sold from the studio as ‘still hot from the toaster’, and to the ‘nutty intensity’ of his Christchurch colleague Rita Angus. This idiosyncratic way of looking at things may owe something to MacDiarmid’s ‘years of curiosity’ which had, allegedly, extended his powers of ‘peripheral vision’.

The first price tags on MacDiarmid’s paintings were from five to eight guineas, which the author states was no more than NZ$14 in today’s terms. Not taking inflation into account. A more meaningful measure might be to consider this relatively, with say the price of a car, or an average week’s wages. Another mystery is an entry in the bibliography that does not appear to exist. [NOTE from MacDiarmid Arts Trust: Not much mystery, simply a pesky typo – the first listing in the Bibliography is an Art New Zealand article in No 118 Autumn 2006 edition titled ‘Enthusiastic Gift’; The page number should have read ‘P46’ not P60! The Trust is grateful to the reviewer for picking up this error]

As befits the title, this is a colourful, engaging and action-packed account of an extraordinarily lengthy life and career of an artist described by the author as ‘once met, never forgotten’. It has been contained within this attractively designed 470-page volume, and sumptuously illustrated by some 30 photographs and a selection of 108 paintings. The latter begin in the mid-1940sm with landscapes in the prevailing regionalist style, but an originality of vision was already apparent in MacDiarmid’s early portraits, most notably those of Rita Cook (Angus), Theo Schoon and Constance Sochachewsky. The directness of his own self-portrait, of 1949-50, provides an interesting comparison with Jacqueline Fahey’s 1991 interpretation of the artist looking both ways, from France to New Zealand and vice versa.

Douglas MacDiarmid’s Portrait of Theo Schoon c.1944, oil on canvas, 354 x 283 mm. (Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery)

Once established in Europe MacDiarmid carried out a chromic explosion and adopted a lighter touch, and in later years his characteristically unconventional compositions became distinguished by outlines and increasingly abstracted and symbolic forms. Cahill records that MacDiarmid’s last painting, a simple profile of a close friend produced from memory, was done on 15 December 2014. As adroitly summed up by Gregory O’Brien in the back-cover blurb, this book is ‘a paean to free-spiritedness, and to a colourful, passionate life, lived well beyond accepted boundaries’.

Richard Wolfe is a freelance writer and curator. [His books include New Zealand Portraits 2018, which contains MacDiarmid’s 1948 painting of Constance Sochachewsky]. His next book, co-authored with Peter Alsop and Anna Reed is Mitchell & Mitchell: Father & Son Arts Legacy, to be published by Potton & Burton in October this year.

Frédéric Castet avec un chien 1961, oil on canvas 540 x 820 mm (Private collection, Paris)

Read more about Douglas MacDiarmid in his the recently released biography Colours of Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, written by his niece Anna Cahill.

The book is available to purchase here and at selected galleries or ask for it at all good bookstores throughout New Zealand

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Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
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