An art historian’s view of Douglas MacDiarmid


When Douglas MacDiarmid’s biography Colours of a Life was launched in New Zealand in July 2018, senior art historian Associate Professor Leonard Bell, of the School of Humanities at the University of Auckland, had this to say about his friend and research subject:

“Until the early 2000s I knew of Douglas MacDiarmid only by name, except for a few paintings I’d seen in private collections and one painting, The Immigrant (1945), now called Otti Binswanger, which I’d seen in a touring exhibition on New Zealand art 1940-1960.

“I became a little obsessed with The Immigrant and, never encountering any other paintings by Douglas on public art gallery walls, eventually decide to investigate further – first into the holdings of the Alexander Turnbull Library, then Te Papa and then the Hocken Collection, University of Otago.

“I found a treasure trove of mostly forgotten, often wonderful paintings and drawings. So I started writing and giving lectures about his art from 2005. I got many surprised responses from people most impressed by what they saw and read.

“I first met Douglas in Paris in 2006. We got on very well and subsequently I’ve visited Paris regularly to see and chat with him, one of the world’s great conversationalists.

“We became good friends – indeed Douglas remarked that friendship is his religion.

“Douglas is the longest-lived and active New Zealand-born professional artist. He is also one of the most technically and formally accomplished, and intellectually and philosophically sophisticated artists from this country, plus a published novelist and poet.

“Douglas’s art is exploratory and questioning; founded on openness to new worlds and social and artistic experiences different from those which predominated in New Zealand. There is a growing recognition that he is a major figure among 20th century New Zealand-born artists.

“Yet still little is known about the circumstances of his life and career.

“Who is this Douglas MacDiarmid? Where did his art come from?

“Anna Cahill’s biography is thus most timely. It tells a compelling story, rich in experiences and encounters with people that could never have been anticipated in Taihape, where Douglas was born.

“Congratulations, Anna, for telling the tale, and Douglas too for living his unconventional life – ‘unafraid to be himself’, to quote Charles Brasch.”

Len Bell addresses guests during the launch of Colours of a Life - the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, at James Wallace Arts Trust’s Pah Homestead in Auckland.
Len Bell addresses guests during the launch of Colours of a Life - the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, at James Wallace Arts Trust’s Pah Homestead in Auckland on 18 July 2018.

The MacDiarmid Arts Trust is extremely grateful to Leonard Bell for his ready assistance during the biography project, and for these few words above that set the scene for his more rigorous examination of where Douglas sits in the annals of New Zealand art history, contained in the Foreword of the book. Listen to the Facebook Live feed of the event to hear Len Bell’s thoughts or find out more about biographer Anna Cahill.

Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018) online or purchase it in person from the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington, Jonathan Grant Gallery in Auckland, or from all good bookstores across New Zealand. Published by Mary Egan Publishing (July 2018).

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Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
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