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.