About Douglas MacDiarmid

Acclaimed expatriate painter Douglas MacDiarmid holds a unique place in New Zealand’s creative core. Regarded as the one who got away, Douglas is a significant missing link in post-war New Zealand art culture. By choosing to pursue a global career rather than make a domestic living, he has largely flown under the radar until recently.

Born in Taihape in 1922, he boarded at Huntley Preparatory School, Marton, and Timaru Boys’ High School. He graduated from Canterbury College, Christchurch with a Bachelor of Arts in English, literature and music after World War II.

Based in Paris since 1952, Douglas has found his own way and outlived his contemporaries. MacDiarmid is a gifted, charmingly charismatic, highly articulate, erudite and witty individual. With his prodigiously versatile painting style in portraits, figures, landscapes, urbanscapes, representational and abstract art, he has had wide success earning a living from his art in a very competitive market.

Now 96, he continues to represent New Zealand on the world art scene. He has returned regularly over the decades and featured in many exhibitions in his homeland.

Douglas describes himself as an expressionist painter – one who expresses the visual rhythm of things. He has worked in oils, watercolour, acrylic on various surfaces, and experimented with new textures and sculptural mediums. All of his work is imbued with his deep interest in the classical world, music, mythology, literature, and the origins of civilisation and language.

Career Highlights

This multi-faceted man has led an extraordinary life. He is an important artist with a wide view of art, history and life that spans almost a century. His diverse body of work is strongly influenced by his extensive travels, observations, writings, friendships and exchanges over the past nine decades.

In the 1940s, he was the young darling of the avant-garde The Group in Christchurch, encouraged by Evelyn Page, Leo Bensemann and Rita Angus.

In the 1960s, he gave lectures on contemporary painting around New Zealand and was the first New Zealand painter to exhibit at New Zealand House in London.

In 1990, he was declared a New Zealand ‘living cultural treasure’ during an official sesquicentennial exhibition of his work in Wellington, and his portrait painted for the National Portrait Gallery. The artist’s 80th birthday in 2002 coincided with the publication of an illustrated art book titled MacDiarmid by French art historian Dr Nelly Finet, published in both English and French.

In 2006, a 52-minute documentary film about Douglas MacDiarmid’s art and life views premiered at the annual Australia New Zealand Film Festival at St Tropez, France. Called A Stranger Everywhere, the documentary was supported by an art exhibition of the same name.

In 2011, he invited fellow expatriate New Zealand sculptor Marion Fountain to join him in mounting an exhibition at the New Zealand embassy in Paris to raise funds for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal.

In 2012, a collection of 130 of his artworks was acquired by Otago University’s Hocken Library. In 2014-15, his work was featured in Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand’s Ngā Toi exhibition. In 2017, the University of Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery exhibited work covering a period of six decades, gifted to their permanent collection by the artist in 2015.

In July 2018, his biography Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid was published. Written by his niece Anna Cahill, the book is available here. Its launch was accompanied by an exhibition of portraiture at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery and a one night exhibition of private works at the Pah Homestead in Auckland. Listen to what Douglas had to say about writing his biography.

Douglas MacDiarmid: self portrait 1982. Pen and ink drawing on paper.

Douglas MacDiarmid, 1922

Self portrait, 1982, pen and ink on paper. Acc. No. 06/50, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, Dunedin.

Since 1949, Douglas MacDiarmid has had more than 30 solo exhibitions in New Zealand alone, the most recent in 2017, and been represented in many more. In Paris, he staged an exhibition every two years until 2014.

His paintings are owned by French and New Zealand governments, the City of Paris, and hang in public and private collections across the world, including New Zealand, Australia, the United States, France, England, Scotland, Greece, Switzerland, Morocco, Scandinavia, South Africa, China, Hong Kong, South America, Korea and Tahiti, as well as the collection of the late Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

His work is also held in New Zealand by all major art collections, including Alexander Turnbull Library, Te Papa Tongarewa National Museum of New Zealand, New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery, Auckland Art Gallery, University of Auckland Art Collection, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Sarjeant Gallery,  Dowse Art Museum, Suter Art Gallery, Victoria University of Wellington, Sir James Wallace Arts Trust, Manawatu Art Gallery, Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, Waikato Museum, Dame Ngaio Marsh House, Aigantighe Art Gallery, New Zealand Treasury, and the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade collection – Wellington, London, Paris and Cairo.

Where to next?

Take a look at some of Douglas MacDiarmid’s paintings.

Read more about the man behind the paintbrush in our commentary.

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Douglas MacDiarmid

Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
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