A surreal landscape given to close friends, émigré photographer Frank Hofmann and his poet wife Helen Shaw, before Douglas MacDiarmid left New Zealand in 1946. It has remained in the family ever since. Allegory says a lot about his state of being at the time. The war had ended in the South Pacific, there was hope for a brighter, safer future…but Douglas had no clarity of purpose beyond a burning desire to escape. Here a young couple are poised at the edge of a New Zealand landscape, looking down into a rich, green future of unknown tree forms. Or is it as simple as that….after all, an ‘allegory’ traditionally has a hidden meaning, political, moral or even personal, and Douglas is very particular in his use of language. Perhaps the underworld is a tangled abyss of seething disquiet threatening to burst through? Is this the first representation of him as the perennial ‘stranger everywhere’? Open doors continued to appear now and then in work throughout his career as a symbolic portal to another reality. This was the largest painting he had produced to that point, one he had poured more concentrated care and feeling into than anything else he had created. Certainly, the painting has attracted speculation and commentary through the years. It was no doubt considered quite startling when it appeared in Douglas’ first showing at The Group’s 1945 exhibition at Christchurch soon after being painted.
New Zealand’s most senior art historian Associate Professor Leonard Bell takes up the case in his Foreword to Douglas’ biography Colours of a Life: The life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid… “On the edge, their backs to an open door, an architectural fragment, a man and a woman, small figures, look down into a chasm (or is it a reflection?) with entangled, fractured tree-like forms, as if the world were turned upside down,” he wrote. “Does this suggest the remains of war-battered Europe? Fields lying beyond with distant mountains echo verdant New Zealand, the Canterbury Plains and the Southern Alps perhaps. Striations of blues and greens mark the sky above. The painting’s various strata seem to come from different zones of time and place. Conventional unities are displaced. How could such a painting have been imagined in New Zealand in 1945? Allegory is anomalous. It doesn’t fit into the standard picture of New Zealand art then, and it doesn’t fit still. The picture is an early instance of the complexities, ambiguities and pluralities that characterise much of Douglas; art to come in Europe. His art, like the artist himself, looks in several directions in differing ways. It asks questions, it thinks, it doesn’t offer easy answers. Allegory is one of the strangest paintings produced in New Zealand. Estrangement and familiarity coexist.”