Douglas MacDiarmid first explored and painted on the mountainous French island of Corsica while working au pair on a farm in the hills behind the French Riviera. He had just returned to France to make his life as a painter. A long ferry ride from the mainland, the intense light, wild rocky vistas and ramshackle villages were exactly his sort of Mediterranean landscape. “The air is calm as two centuries back,” he wrote to his parents. “Really one takes a leap out of the familiar world.” The brewed coffee obsession, cafés and coffee houses had yet to appear in post-war New Zealand, where tearooms and milk bars were still the norm. In that context, this everyday European scene would have appeared exotically foreign or avant-garde to untravelled kiwis. The café patrons here are no-doubt taking refuge from the scorching heat of the Corsican sun outside. He returned to Corsica many times to paint, captivated as much by the landscape as the resilience of the people, and the novelty of a distinctly Italian culture on French territory. With his love of the classical world and ancient mythology, here was a place where he could picture himself in a different time. Ponte Leecia probably hasn’t changed that much since Douglas was first there 60 years ago; it is the junction for the only railway branch on the island.
This is the smallest and oldest of the three MacDiarmid paintings in the permanent Wallace Arts Trust collection in Auckland, bought by Sir James Wallace in 1985. It had a brief public airing in a collector’s exhibition in July 2018 for the launch of Douglas’ biography Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid. It probably came to New Zealand in one of many bundles of work posted to MacDiarmid’s dear friends and unofficial ‘agents’ composer Douglas Lilburn and musician Professor Frederick Page for private sale within their wide social networks in the early hand-to-mouth years of his career.