In January 1973 Douglas MacDiarmid toured and sketched around Ceylon at the very time the island nation was leaving the Commonwealth to become the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. He travelled extensively with a group of French students he encountered there and stayed with an old friend working for the international Red Cross organisation. One of eight oil canvasses inspired by this sojourn, Douglas describes Ceylon V 1973 in his painting register as a “deeper, rhythmic version” of an earlier, softer evocation of jungle, palms and traditional agriculture.
“I’ve just come back from a month in Sri Lanka – a country, among dozens like it – where possibly a majority of housewives don’t have enough to eat, or a decent roof, or any pleasures by our standards, and the condition of neurosis is as unknown as an electric mixer-beater,“ he wrote. “I’m too Scotch to be anything but furious with people who waste their education and comfort and creativity and lives by rushing straight round the first bend. Why should everything be made so bloody easy – that’s where the boredom comes from – and people are far better off catching TB or syphilis…. “The sickness is a terrible reality in comfortable countries like USA and New Zealand. I was royally shocked by it when I got back to France after Ceylon – all the scowling discontent of the material luxury and sophistication here, after the heart-warming smiles and nearly intact balance between what is called ‘Man & Nature’ in poor, beautiful Ceylon – it really rocked me.”
Fascinated by the contrasts he observed there, his perceptive eye saw beyond the peaceful surface. The unhurried pace of village life, lush jungle and picturesque angles and planes of the paddy fields hid both endemic poverty and an ever-present undercurrent of violence. This tropical paradise was a volatile place of simmering political unrest that soon mired the island, and its development, in decades of bitter civil war. Douglas had his sights set on seeing Ceylon long before he got there. Previous plans to visit as he country-hopped back to Europe from a trip home to New Zealand were aborted when he discovered he needed a visa to enter. Finding the essence of a landscape is an abiding interest, one he has returned to often over the years – even when landscape painting was deeply unfashionable on the art market. In this way he has documented his travels in paint, recording views and ways of life across the world that in many cases have since been lost to ‘progress’. Most MacDiarmid paintings are first worked as a pastel or watercolour, before the final oil or acrylic versions. He has often returned to the notes made in his travels years, and even decades, later. Ceylon was a meditation he pursued on and off for 12 years after he visited.