People come to appreciate art through numerous paths. Some are lucky enough to be surrounded by it as children, speaking from the walls to colour their every day. To grow up with art is surely as rich an education as to be immersed in books and music. Others are drawn to it later, to complete the ambience of home, invest in something breathtaking, bold or beautiful, or to nourish the spirit.
Painting fulfils many functions in society, none the least a visualisation of our history and future. What better place to be introduced to antipodean art past and present than through a remarkable book called Back and Beyond – New Zealand Painting for the Young and Curious, by Gregory O’Brien, first published in 2008 by Auckland University Press.
Author Gregory O’Brien is an award-winning Wellington based polymath – painter, poet, curator and writer. He has dipped into significant aspects of New Zealand life and heritage, and taken us on an eye-opening painting journey.
Page 68 of Back and Beyond is where Douglas MacDiarmid comes in, illustrating a narrative on immigrants with a striking 1945 portrait of newcomer Otti Binswanger, whom he knew well at the time. The following extract has been reproduced with kind permission of Gregory O’Brien and Auckland University Press.
Extract from Back and Beyond – New Zealand Painting for the Young and Curious (2008) by Gregory O’Brien. Published by Auckland University Press.
The immigrants (p.68)
During and after World War II, many immigrants from Europe arrived in New Zealand. Douglas K. MacDiarmid’s painting The Immigrant captures the sense of being out of place and ill at ease which many of these new arrivals felt. The woman in Douglas’ painting is dressed in the European style and stands in a very modern piece of Christchurch architecture. In fact the living room and furniture in the painting are based on the designs of Ernst Plischke, an important Austrian architect who fled the Nazis and lived in New Zealand between 1939 and 1963. With the outside plant life creeping towards it, the house has a feeling of a space-craft that has landed on an alien planet.
Not long after painting this picture, Douglas K. MacDiarmid became an immigrant himself. In the late 1940s he moved to Paris, where he still lives, paints and exhibits his work regularly.
More about this painting
Part of the Dowse Art Museum collection at Lower Hutt, this 37.4 x 40cm painting has since been renamed Otti Binswanger (1945) to reinstate its intended identity, at the painter’s request. In Douglas’ view, his dear friend Otti was so much more than a temporary refugee from Nazi Germany. She was a sculptor, wrote a memorable book And How Do You Like This Country? Stories of New Zealand 1945, and established rhythmic gymnastics in the community, initially as therapy for the handicapped and injured.
Coincidentally, O’Brien dedicated his book to the memory of John Drawbridge (1930-2005), painter, printmaker, muralist, teacher, who was one of Douglas’ drawing pals when he came back from Europe for a year in 1949-50. A little group including trailblazing art gallery owner Helen Hitchings and painter Juliet Peter got together at MacDiarmid’s Wadestown flat in Wellington every week to draw one another, or occasionally other live models, and experiment with different ideas. A handful of sketches from their sessions reside in the national archives housed at the Alexander Turnbull Library, as a compelling glimpse of four gifted young individuals practising their craft.
Better still, Above and Beyond finishes with some cheerful visual tasks for people of all ages to continue the adventure. It’s the sort of book every country should commission for its literary treasure chest to excite imaginations and give fresh meaning and perspective to the value of art in our consciousness.