Book extract: Landscape Paintings of New Zealand 2013


Even when deeply unfashionable, Douglas MacDiarmid continued to be inspired by the landscapes of his travels and gradually came to realise how much the wild volcanic country of his childhood resided in him.

When the first edition of Christopher Johnstone’s Landscape Paintings of New Zealand – A Journey from North to South was first published by Random House in 2006 (revised and expanded edition 2013), it was hailed a brilliant survey of landscape painting from early colonial to contemporary views.

In this wonderful book, Douglas represented the Rangitikei region with a nostalgic painting of Taihape district, painted in London in 1947. Page 148 of the 2013 edition is reproduced here with kind permission of Christopher Johnstone and Penguin Random House New Zealand.

Landscape paintings of New Zealand by Christopher Johnstone (featuring Douglas MacDiarmid)

Rangitikei

Douglas MacDiarmid

Born Taihape, 1922
Papa cliff and pool
1947
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated
38.3 x 32.5cm
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Purchased 1993 with Harold Beauchamp Collection funds

Resident in Paris since 1952, painter and poet Douglas MacDiarmid was born in Taihape. In the early 1940s he studied for his BA in English at Canterbury University College. He was included in the exhibitions of The Group from 1945 to 1947, and also studied piano with Frederick Page. Following military service, in 1946, Douglas went to London, painting and teaching English to foreigners at evening classes. Late in 1947 he moved to Paris, returning to New Zealand in 1949 because his father was unwell. After visiting his parents in Takapuna he went to Wellington, where, in 1950, he had his first solo exhibition at the Gallery of Helen Hitchings.

In 1952, when he returned to France to live, four of his works were in Hitchings’ London exhibition Fifteen New Zealand Painters. After briefly working on a farm in Provence, MacDiarmid found a job as an English “assistant” at the legendary Lycée Henri-IV, in Paris, where he has continued to live except for occasional visits to New Zealand.

He had his second solo exhibition at the Librairie Paul Morihien, Paris, in March 1952 for which he designed a poster (MONZ)

In 1968 he had a retrospective exhibition in Wellington, and in 1990 he was a guest of the New Zealand Government as a “living cultural treasure”. Exhibitions continued in Wellington, Auckland and in Paris, most recently in 2013, and internationally. In 2006, the Hocken exhibited a selection of the 120 works MacDiarmid gave to the collection.

In MacDiarmid’s biography, Papa cliff and pool – the painting’s first exhibited title – is called Tiriraukawa, which pinpoints the location of the scene to the settlement 15km south-east of Taihape on the Mangapapa River.

Papa Cliff pool with bathers (Tiriraukawa) by Douglas MacDiarmid 1946 oil on carton 35x25
Tiriraukawa (Papa cliff pool with bathers, Taihape) 1947 by Douglas MacDiarmid. Credit: Collection of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa

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.”

Interested in reading more? Buy Landscape Paintings of New Zealand – A Journey from North to South (2013) by Christopher Johnstone.

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