MacDiarmid explains the genesis of this vivid and evocative image:
“Such scenes welled up in London, dark with pea-soup fogs still seeping into blitz-cracked houses at the beginning of 1947…I have to admit that this sedate picture is in no way a faithful image of the riotous fun of kids during a school holiday on a big farm at Tiriraukawa & the girl has no bearing on the sister of my school friend… The youth in this picture is vaguely me, & it was nostalgic for those luminous Taihape tussock landscapes, tree wreckage and all, that became the frame for the painting in question, which contains no direct reference to childhood.
“In any case, painting for me is still a matter of vision, not description. Nevertheless, the painting appears to correlate to such memories as “sliding down a papa-clay waterfall on an old wooden gate in 1934 or thereabouts.”
The appeal of this magical painting, with its dream-like clarity and the idyllic glow of memory, is elusive. Its composition is striking: a view across the pool to the softly rounded, sunburnt hills dotted with the stark remnants of the burnt trees.
MacDiarmid’s treatment of the cliffs is reminiscent of Quattrocento painting, Lorenzo Monaco, perhaps, seen for the first time in the National Gallery. The rhythmic shapes of the cliff and trees contrast with the youth and the girl silhouetted against the deep green pool itself, defined by a few squiggles.
Papa cliff and pool was one of several pictures that MacDiarmid took back to New Zealand in 1947 and was in his first solo exhibition at Helen Hitchings in Wellington (no 11, £8). It remained in Hitchings’ ownership until it entered the national collection in 1993. This, together with their extensive correspondence during the early 1950s, indicates their very close attachment.
In correspondence with the author, Douglas mentioned that, unusually for him, neither this painting nor its missing twin Playground 1947, inspired by the Taihape recreation ground of his childhood, had preliminary studies.
MacDiarmid added: “I’d be hard put to list all the paintings with New Zealand elements or motivation over the years. Hunting for definitions is a sterile pursuit, and in spite of struggles to define us, who can tell me what a New Zealander is? All one can do is pick out one or two things a New Zealander is not, if that helps, which I doubt. At least I can bear witness to the impossibility of suddenly or gradually ceasing to be a New Zealander. The very way one uses one’s eyes is conditioned by the skies of childhood, and I’m fascinated by discerning French folk who make it plain that I don’t see the same street as they. Some like what my vision shows, some don’t. Sooner or later it’s necessary to accept that universality of vision is for the birds, smart enough to avoid discussion of any sort.”