Diversity – Douglas MacDiarmid landscapes over eight decades

Douglas MacDiarmid has painted landscapes since he was a young boy, as fascinated by natural surroundings as he is by the human form. Various places were recorded in passing during his extensive travels, but others have been revisited many times throughout his painting career, as favourite friends.

Like his other work, there is no singular landscape style but a myriad of approaches depending on the scene and the mood it evokes…sometimes literal, or semi abstract and others becoming more abstract with each iteration, stripping back detail as he burrows down to find the elusive essence of the vision in mind. Some are strongly lyrical, while others appear as geographical portraits. Some speak of the classical world as well as country, and he has a penchant for including figures in his landscapes. This dates back to his bemusement that the painted New Zealand landscapes of his youth always seemed to be empty of people. As if the land was unoccupied.

Even in periods when landscapes have been deeply unfashionable, Douglas has chosen to continue to paint the land as it strikes him in his travels – or it has chosen him. However, while almost all MacDiarmid exhibitions have included their share of landscape paintings, only a handful have been devoted solely to the subject.

Here is a selection of lesser known, yet very different landscapes, representing each decade of MacDiarmid’s career, to show the diversity and innovation of his practice as well as his enduring interest in looking beneath the surface.

1940s Canterbury Plains from the Bellbird 1945

Douglas recently saw a photograph of this painting in colour for the first time in more than 60 years. It is still a view he loves. He painted it from an historic hiker’s hut called ‘The Sign of the Bellbird’ on the summit of the Port Hills (the ‘Bellbird’ of the title, which was apparently located on ‘Bell Block’, just to be really confusing).

MacDiarmid walked all over the Port Hills in his Christchurch student and military days, both to discover the Banks Peninsula landscape in its many aspects and on regular hikes over to Governors Bay to stay with musician Fred Page and his painter wife Evelyn. The local landmark survived the devastating Christchurch earthquakes, then burned down in suspicious circumstances in September 2015.

Canterbury Plains from the Bellbird (Summit of the Port Hills) February 1945, small watercolour. Private collection, Sydney, Australia

1950s Landscape of the Basque Coast 1956

This dramatic French Basque landscape looks over the Bay of Arcachon, on the Atlantic Coast near Bordeaux, with the tallest sand dune in Europe, the Dune of Pyla, clearly visible in the top left-hand corner of the painting.

When most people think of the Basque Country, they think of Spain but three of its 10 provinces are in south-western France and have a distinct cultural and geographical character.

In the 1950s, the Arcachon area was a special retreat for Douglas, the place where he spent many holidays at his wealthy partner Jacqueline’s palatial summer house at Le Pyla-sur-Mer, overlooking the sea, until she died after a tragic accident early in 1961.

Landscape of the Basque Coast 1956, Oil on canvas, 49.5 x 72 cm. Collection of Te Manawa Museum of Art, Science and History, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Acquired from the 1966 Manawatu Art Gallery exhibition, Catalogue No 33

1960s Alpes-Maritimes 1961

A famous region in the extreme south east corner of France on the border with Italy and the Mediterranean coast. Alpes-Maritimes takes in the French Riviera, the cities of Nice, Cannes, Antibes and Grasse as well as numerous alpine ski resorts, and entirely surrounds the tiny principality of Monaco.

This vibrant painting was the first MacDiarmid work purchased for the New Zealand Government by the London High Commissioner late in 1958, for the Washington consular office – another landscape was bought soon after for the London office. Douglas always considered it one of his best of this period.

For many years it hung over the fireplace in the ‘small sitting-room’, as it was called, of the New Zealand Embassy residence in Washington USA. Douglas’ old university friend the late Jim Weir came to know and admire it then, when he was No 2 diplomat in the embassy. In the 1980s, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sold some of its older paintings, to diversify the collection and make way for newer, younger artists. Jim and his wife Mollie bought the painting at auction in Wellington about 1989 – “The only time I’ve ever bought anything at auction – which certainly makes the adrenalin run,” Jim later recalled. But we never had any doubt that it was the right decision to buy it! Our best painting of his -it’s a breathtaking exploration of colour.” The painting remains in the family as a treasured heirloom.

Alpes-Maritimes 1961, oil on canvas 91 x 73.5cm. Private collection Wellington, New Zealand

1970s Ceylon III A 1973

What could be less European than the tropical rice paddy fields of what is now Sri Lanka, where Douglas toured in 1973. He was intrigued by the interplay of light and shadow with water, the distinctive angles and planes, as well as by the intensity of colours, the effect of heat on the environment.

From his travel notes and sketches he made a number of pastel paintings, and later oil or acrylic versions, of the traditionally cultivated landscape. His love of landscapes, of documenting his travels in paint, has made him a historical chronicler as well as an interpreter – recording views and ways of life across the world that in many cases have since been lost to ‘progress’.

Ceylon III A 1973, pastel on paper 15 x 32 cm. Private collection Wellington

1980s Crete II 1985

This is Kakamouri headland at Plakias, a beautiful but isolated seaside village on the south coast of Crete that is reached through spectacular mountainous gorges. Crete is a place very close to Douglas’ heart, the largest island of Greece – birthplace of Zeus, King of the Gods – and the centre of Europe’s first advanced civilisation, the Minoans, dating back to 2700 BC.

The mid 1980s was Douglas’ Greek period, when he dedicated several years to capturing the splendour of an ancient land, never losing sight of the influence of those rugged coastlines, isolated beaches and hidden clefts and the wild, rocky hinterland on classical mythology. Here the landscape was as much a deity as those mercurial gods and goddesses manipulating nature and man at the beginning of time.

He travelled widely through Greece, seeking out the unfamiliar, the paths less travelled as well as places celebrated for their wonderful archaeological ruins. This reverie culminated in a significant solo exhibition ‘Translations of the Greek Landscape’ at Galerie Lambert on Île Saint-Louis, the island in the River Seine behind Notre Dame Cathedral, late in 1986. The exhibition lasted a month and was widely admired. It looked brilliant on the walls but almost nothing sold. The French economy was sluggish; landscapes were apparently not in vogue. Douglas shrugged off his disappointment, he was always more interested in making paintings than selling them. Besides, they were certain to sell from the studio over time, including three to an embassy in Athens soon after the show.

He described this scene in his painting record as ‘headland in green blue sea, two sea caves’. With its jewel-like colours, it was a standout choice as cover image on invitation cards to the exhibition.

Crete II, Greece 1985, oil on canvas 92 x 60 cm. Private collection, Paris.

1990s Three strong geographical influences

Turkey is another of MacDiarmid’s favourite countries, one he has meandered through at his leisure and gone back for more to experience not only the diverse landscape and culture, but its connection to early European civilisation. He and his life partner Patrick made at least eight trips to various parts of the country between 1985 and 2001.

Akyaka is an Aegean coastal town in south west Turkey. It is now a charming resort town with an Ottoman heritage but one that still guards its slow way of life – which is probably what attracted Douglas to the spot in the first place.

By the 1990s, many MacDiarmid landscapes had become abstract or semi abstract visions, unencumbered by detail as he dug for the rhythmic essence beneath the visual veneer. Sometimes saying less is more evocative by far.

In his painting journal, he identifies this painting as ‘outline/foreground very pink, black-lemon pines, pale mountain’. It was based on notes and drawings done during a holiday at Akyaka from 5-19 October 1996.  He also described his impressions in a letter to a friend: “I doubt that you’ll know the village I chose – it must be the last peaceful village in the world, so of course figures on no map I’ve seen. Akyaka – stunningly situated right at the head of the Gulf of Gökova. It was much later-in the season than I’d have wished, meaning no swimming — no way I could have guessed that there’d be all those fresh water springs seeping down from those paradises of pine forest and rock all round & making the sea so cold that the danger exceeded anything a brass monkey ever dreamed of. Truly wonderful, endless, walks became the order of most days…”

Akyaka III A 1997, acrylic on rag paper 66 x 50cm. Private collection France.

Any discussion of Douglas MacDiarmid and landscapes would be incomplete without including two other 1990s preoccupations – his homeland and the Roman Way in Italy. Both vie for equal attention in his painting legacy.

Firstly, New Zealand: The 90s decade was an important time of creative reconciliation when he finally stopped dreading going home. In 1990 and 1996, his last two visits to New Zealand, he saw for the first time the raw, primal power of the central North Island landscape of his youth, and realised the influence this place exercised on his work. Now he understood the New Zealandness he had done his best to ignore was the very attribute that made him sought-after, exotic even, in Europe. His point of difference.

Close to his childhood home of Taihape is a farming district called Moawhango, where Douglas used to play with friends. It is dramatic, broken country, shaped by the volcanic forces of nearby active peaks, Mounts Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. This is one of the powerful paintings that resulted from the painter revisiting his old stomping ground…

Moawhango 1993, acrylic on gesso on rap paper 32 x 48 cm. Private collection New Zealand

When the painting was included in his solo exhibition ‘Further Paintings of New Zealand’ at Christopher Moore Gallery Wellington, late in 1993, Douglas wrote in the exhibition notes: “Since I began working in acrylic about seven years ago, I have felt a new lease of life. The fluid possibilities suit my needs in an extended watercolour technique and, happily, I can see no end to it.”

Then there is Italy. A place he has never tired of, for its Mediterranean terrain, art masterpieces, history and heritage as much as an enduring influence on our civilisation.

“It matters little in which direction you decide to walk in Rome, there are details and vistas to savour without fail, and enjoyment guaranteed.”  Enter Via Appia Antica, the ancient Roman Way – start of the ancient highway of the Roman Empire from the capital into the Italian countryside that carried conquering armies, trade and tidings throughout the known world for centuries. This place has captivated Douglas since he saw it in his early days in Europe, symbolising for him the precious continuity of classical past and present. So much history wrapped up in one small place.

Little wonder it is one of the landscapes he has kept coming back to. He’s lost count how often he has painted its various forms, aspects and moods. At least 26 times. Indeed, he has dedicated whole exhibitions to the subject in both New Zealand and Paris, so closely he identifies with this location.

“Horizontals cut by verticals are basic themes of a painting. In the Via Appia Antica paintings, for example, you’ve got the horizontal road, cut by pines and cypresses. I loved that whole ambience. And exhibited them all,” he explained.

Via Appia Antica XX 1991, acrylic on rag paper 77 x 56 cm. Private collection France.

2000s Wadi El Natrun C I 2001

Egypt, the land of his childhood dreams and imaginings. It took Douglas years to actually get there and he was so overwhelmed by its antiquities he found it hard to paint.

In the 2000s, Douglas and Patrick made a series of visits to Egypt, the destinations carefully chosen for their historical and visual appeal. They embraced the silence of the desert, clambered around archaeological ruins, sailed the Nile in a traditional Felucca, viewed iconic pyramids from hot air balloon and the back of a camel.

Wadi El Natrun is a fascinating place about 100 kilometres from Cairo in north Egypt. Located in a natural depression of soda lakes, natron salt deposits and marshes, it is 23 metres below ground level. This desolate place was important to ancient Egyptians as a source of sodium bicarbonate for the mummification process. Many prehistoric fossils are found in the valley, as well as religious tombs, and it is home to a sacred cluster of Coptic (Christian) monasteries dating back to the 4th Century that are still in use today.

Wadi El-Natrun C I 2001, acrylic on rag paper 78 x 56 cm. Private collection France

2010s Love Letter to a Landscape 2010

If there is one outstanding landform that has captivated Douglas’ imagination more than any other, it is a craggy limestone mountain ridge in the south of France. Mont Sainte-Victoire, overlooking the medieval village of Puyricard. There was something about its pale presence, the way light played on its surfaces that drew him back time and again. In fact, the whole Aix-en-Provence area, home of Cézanne, is one of his all-time favourite landscapes.

At 1,011 metres, Saint-Victoire is not what you’d call a tall mountain, yet it has a long history. A Christian chapel was built on its summit in the 13th Century, and a prominent cross remains on one of its peaks. The massif has inspired many great painters – Cezanne (who could see it from his house in Aix-en-Provence), Picasso, Kandinsky among them. Fire ravaged the south face in 1989, so it is no longer as green as it once was. Now access is restricted in the summer months but otherwise it is a drawcard for hikers, climbers, paragliders, cavers. Around 700,000 walkers use its paths every year.

Douglas painted the mountain and wider countryside many times from the late 1950s on, in increasingly abstract form, culminating in the elemental Love Letter to a Landscape in 2010. The name says it all…

Love Letter to a Landscape July 2010, acrylic on rag paper 76 x 58 cm. Private collection, France.

And finally, for good measure, a Kiwi outlook MacDiarmid has returned to on numerous occasions over his painting career – a kidney-shaped view of Wellington, the New Zealand capital, with the sun circulating around the landscape.

This scene first appeared in May 1950 as a line drawing on the catalogue cover of Douglas’ very first commercial gallery exhibition, at Helen Hitchings’ legendary art and design gallery, in an old converted warehouse in Bond Street. The painting looks across Wellington Harbour from the city centre to Point Halswell and the Orongorongo Range.

Memory of Wellington 1950 – 2014, acrylic on paper 64 x 45 cm. Personal collection, Paris

To read more about Douglas MacDiarmid’s fascinating journey through life buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018).

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