Creatures Emmêlées (1969)

Catching the pedestrian side of modern life

The French word emmêlées has a deceptively benign look and sound, but it means ‘entangled’. People merging one into the other, together but isolated.

The New Zealand Portrait Gallery chose this telling statement to show Douglas MacDiarmid as acute observer, and counter-balance other figurative works and faces in their current exhibition of Douglas’ paintings. Always fascinated my human behaviour, his work often contains an underlying message or social commentary.

Creatures Emmêlées 1969 by Douglas MacDiarmid. Oil, 59 x 91 cm. Collection: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
Creatures Emmêlées 1969 by Douglas MacDiarmid. Oil, 59 x 91 cm. Collection: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Douglas spent several years occupied on a major Creatures Entangled series on the human condition. Originally inspired by the rush hour mass in the Paris Metro, it prompted French art historian Dr Nelly Finet to comment on the apparent hopelessness of the predicament in her 2002 book MacDiarmid:

“A crowd is uncomfortably jammed into carriages beginning nowhere and continuing into the perpetual night below ground. They are bodiless, faceless creatures trapped in a tragic sequence of inexorable repetition, and their whole scope of action is compressed between heavy black horizontals projecting beyond the confines of the picture. Dismal light suffuses this human entanglement deprived of individual meaning as of sun and air.”

Although the people in this painting have not yet descended to that bleak reality, it is what they have to look forward to, in any metropolis anywhere in the world.

The series became progressively darker as he turned his brush to the angry, volatile scenes witnessed in the 1968 Paris riots. Several versions were exhibited in New Zealand in the 1970s, and profiled in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly in 1971. A startling departure from his early work, these interpretations came from his belief that a painter cannot escape human problems.

Creatures Entangled was first exhibited in New Zealand at the Suter Gallery, Nelson in 1969, and watercolour form, then as oil paintings at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery for Festival Week 1970. At the time Douglas was showing the series there, he was being savaged by New Zealand art critics for painting merely decorative works. He was completely nonplussed when an Auckland art reviewer critic described one of the paintings of an angry protesting mob as a ‘café scene’. He retaliated with a furious letter to the newspaper, which just made matters worse.

For a glimpse of how the Creatures Entangled unfolded, take a look at Human Predicament 1 Creatures Entangled 1960s.

This painting is currently on show at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery as part of the Colours of a Life exhibition, which continues until 23 September 2018. The exhibition coincides with the launch of the life and times biography of Douglas MacDiarmid, now aged 95. The book is available to purchase here or ask for it at all good bookstores throughout New Zealand.

Listen to biographer Anna Cahill’s thoughts on this painting:

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Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
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