Book Review : Otago Daily Times

Lively account sheds light on life thoroughly lived



Anna Cahill

Mary Egan Publishing


Published in the Otago Daily Times’ Weekend MIX magazine, 08 September 2018

“As one early reviewer wrote of Douglas MacDiarmid’s work: “A canvas by MacDiarmid is a meditated explosion, irresistible, buoyant, an ardent enjoyment of colour.” Now a hearty 95 and living the good life in Paris, where he has been, on and off, since the early 1950s, MacDiarmid has only recently halted production of his varied and explorative artwork, though, as this biography went to print, he was still pumping hand weights every morning to stay toned of bicep.

Born in Taihape in 1922 to a privileged family and with parents active in the local scene, MacDiarmid felt the need to escape small-town life.  He had attended Timaru Boys High School as the younger brother, where he was known as “Dial Two”, trailing Ron, and was actively involved in the performing arts and in English literature, playing a six-foot Little Buttercup in a Gilbert and Sullivan production. Colours of a Life, is niece and journalist Anna Cahill’s tribute to the vivacious MacDiarmid, who rebelled against the chromophobia, or fear of colour, that seemed to grip mainstream New Zealand and its art world as he was growing up. Taihape, more particularly had been a dour seat of Presbyterianism and freemasonry. MacDiarmid is self-taught, with no formal training in the fine arts. At university he studied English literature, and he has always had an interest in the wider arts. During his youth he became immersed in the lively arts scene in Christchurch, the “Bloomsbury of the South”, and was friendly or at least familiar with key individuals such as Charles Brasch, Evelyn and Frederick Page and Leo Bensemann. Yet it was in Europe that MacDiarmid could more freely embrace vibrancy and experimentation, and his works are passionate, bold and celebratory.

However, he has always maintained links to home. He has had more than 30 solo exhibitions here since 1949. A recent, Paris-based exhibition paired him with fellow New Zealand sculptor Marion Fountain, at the age of 90. He was also the first New Zealander to exhibit at New Zealand House in London, in the 1960s. Cahill emphasises the continual flow of his works between Europe and Aotearoa. Former partner and lifelong friend Douglas Lilburn, and Evelyn and Frederick Page, were indispensable for importing his pieces into the New Zealand market. The profile of his work has again been brought to the fore in Strangers Arrive, by Leonard Bell, who provides the foreword here. Dunedin’s Hocken Library is home to the largest New Zealand collection, with 130 of his watercolours, pastels, drawings and oil paintings. In this biography, the reader is taken through MacDiarmid’s early years in New Zealand to his travels overseas, and his developing career and artistic output. As a family member, Cahill has had access to the subject’s key friends and loves, regaling the reader with many tales of his exploits. Born bisexual, he could see only advantages in this for his imagination and the sensuality he supposedly always craved. We are given many glimpses of adventures and characters, many of whom are recorded in his paintings. He has described himself as hone who “expresses the visual rhythm of things”, and if there is a motivation to creating, it is to evoke rather than define a thing, or mood, or essence.

Colours of a Life is an accessible record of MacDiarmid’s the proximity of the biographer is continually felt. However, it is a fine, non-academic work, and visually attractive, embellished throughout with the artist’s images. Cahill also pays tribute to MacDiarmid’s partner Patrick, and the reciprocity that has gone into this partnership. They continue to live in Paris, in the home they made in 1987. The sense of generosity and delight between them, as well as work, the vast journeys that they have made throughout the world and through artwork together, present a life of colour, and a life supremely lived.”

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

 This book review serendipitously brings the author Anna Cahill’s life as a wordsmith full circle. She began her journalism career as a cadet on the Otago Daily Times in 1968.

Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018) from us, or from all good bookstores and galleries across New Zealand.

Colours of a life : The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid
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Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
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