A speech for Timaru Boys High School

Life is inseparable from art

On Douglas MacDiarmid’s last trip to New Zealand in 1996, he found himself back at his old boarding school, Timaru Boys High School, talking to a new generation of indifferent teenagers on art and life and finding oneself. “At heart I felt terrified about addressing the school and entering with the headmaster through the sheer mass of boy, silent, at attention, was in a way daunting,” he recalled. “But then seen from the level of the stage in front made me think of a colony of baby gannets massed on a cliff top. They sat very still, more though boredom than fascination, given the extent of their yawns – countless grey gullets and glazed eyes. Mercifully, occasional bursts of amusement from the staff ranged behind gave me support.” He talked about art and life being intertwined. About finding the best you can be by not accepting the mundane or settling for easy – a timeless philosophy, really, that resonates with inquiring minds of all ages. Here is the full transcript of Douglas’ school talk on 15 March 1996, an address he still regards as “easily the most succinct expression of my deepest convictions”….

Douglas MacDiarmid TBHS aged 15, 1937

“For a start, let’s say straight off that just because I’m old (a youthful 73 at the time) and you’re young, doesn’t give me any special right to your attention. But it seems to me that, given the number of people who are given over to boredom by the time they’re 30, when anyone more than twice that age still enjoys life to the full, his point of view is worth at least passing consideration. On the other hand, the moment the word ART comes up, complication begins – mostly I think through some misguided notion that Art can be defined, which is impossible – it’s too closely hooked into life to be defined. It’s altogether more healthy to regard Art’s function, which is to give expression to life, and to learn to see as a result. I think I can safely say that you’ve never really looked at anything till you’ve tried to draw it. This is never a waste of time consequentially – you run into endless surprises and if you’re not careful, discover challenges that can run away with your whole existence. At the risk of sounding like a madman, let me tell you that the adventure possible with marks on paper or bashes of colour on canvas can make bungy jumping look a bit repetitive and flat by contrast. Granted, to dive over the parapet of a bridge, tied by the heels with a bit of elastic, requires a huge amount of decision and sheer physical courage, but after you’ve proved that to yourself, where does it lead? To some further unfamiliar experience – or some dead end?”


“Painting has the terrible advantage of eluding you for ever – you never manage to seize the vision you’re trying for – approximations when you’re lucky, and so you work for ever on a fresh start, this time you actually feel convinced of more mastery, which is an illusion of course – because the business of raising your whole ability just a fraction is the hardest thing any man can come to – which you probably know already – or soon will. In the nature of things, a painter tends to work alone, and this combination of solitary application and reflexion (a wave of light or sound being thrown back from a surface) causes a few screws to work loose in some, and in others a sharper view into the social scheme from which he is a little apart, looking back. It is here that lies his usefulness. Painting – and the other creative expressions are not useful in the way inventions of a practical sort are, but the contribution of what a painter can help to see can be an important element in what leads up to invention, or realisation. I mentioned the way screws sometimes work loose, and everyone these days is familiar with works of art that just look like plain lunacy. How are you to situate yourself in all this? And how many times does one hear things like: “I don’t know anything about Art, but I know what I like. People say this almost apologetically as if after years of studying they might come to an end of it – there never will be an end of course, because art develops and changes as fast as life itself – it is an absolute mirror of life, a mirror that shows that this is perhaps the only justice we’re likely to meet on this earth. Human society seems doomed to create endless injustice, and the only poor remedy is the law which, being man-made, is just as imperfect. But in the world of art you really get what you deserve – a crazy world gets crazy art, and we’ve made spectacular progress in both. You can limit the damage in your own private universe if you learn young enough to be honest with yourself. And by that I mean giving your best energies to what you most like. Discard the crazy works of art, refuse them if they do nothing for you at all. Follow the lead that comes from your deepest motivation – what you like, you’ll pursue, and the work of finding out more won’t seem like work. You’ll even develop discipline from inside yourself – it’s the beginning of maturity, or finding out the sense of co-operating with other people – nobody can get far in isolation. It must be obvious by now that it’s impossible to talk about art without straight away branching out into life in its widest sense. And, of course, the only yardstick for art is to what extent is it full of life? Naturally, what each artist believes is what is going to come through in artistic expression, and when an artist is spiritually barren, he all too often finishes by giving expression to the sickness that easily takes over in the void.”

“The media: I think at this point I’d better apologise for inflicting on you what must sound like some sort of sermon. But I take the honour of being able to talk to you today very seriously – besides, I’m too Scotch to want to waste the chance – one or two of you might actually be listening, and getting the drift of what feels urgent to tell you – so I can’t afford to make a botch of it – please excuse this careful use of all this paper. So it would be great if I could clear up some of the confusion that bedevils art at present – if I could make you recognise that good art is full of life, and this means what’s good for you in this life. There are always so many sorts of folk dictating what you ought to like – nobody can know this but you. We all need other people – specially when at an age of first discovery – but what we need is to be liberated, to find the best flowering of potential – not squashed down into negative similarity – not denied the possibility of making the maximum contribution. Certainly, it takes courage to resist undue pressures from society; and from family too, but it can be done without mindless destruction. We owe consideration as much as we hope to receive it. In any case, the way through life is not going to be easy – and there is no reason why it should be. It’s best to grow up not expecting total security at any point. A painter’s life is a good illustration of what I’m talking about – how could it be otherwise?  So, to speak personally for a moment, as a 20-year-old I left New Zealand not only because I wanted to immerse myself in the sources of our civilisation, but also because there was no hope of living here from painting in New Zealand in the years just following the last world war. I didn’t want to relegate painting to mere hobby status at weekends. In France, a bigger population with cultural awareness meant a bigger potential market, feed-back, indispensable exchange. That didn’t absolve me from a year or two’s living in sordid conditions – no gas, no electricity, no water, and of course, not enough food. In Summer, sweat trickling into my work; in Winter, my breathing froze canvasses against the wall. If I raised my eyes to the heavens, bedbugs dropped into my face. But it all made me more sure of why I did one thing rather than another. There have been spectacular ups and downs – and finally it does us no harm to know some of the extremes – to be able to survive life in trash cans or in palaces. I could also mention that I’m finally glad to have lived so long as an unprotected foreigner, as part of a minority. You have to stay awake, and finish soon by realising the folly of getting excited about any mere label. The world grows smaller, technologically anyway, and we’re all in this together. Unfortunately, I can’t wind this up by giving you some marvellous answer to anything. I can only encourage you to share what a life of painting has taught me: be a bit hard on yourself – to be honest – don’t be ungrateful – the cost of that is your private well-being – just find the way to develop what really turns you on. In that way you’ll work really well and everyone stands to benefit. That’s what success means – not just going blind for money. I don’t know if it’s still true, but some years back I was impressed to learn that the Balinese were still able to say: “We have no art because we do everything as well as we’re able”. That’s a merger you’ll not meet in big business. You’re at an age already at which you have to choose.”

The cast of the 1939 TBHS musical ‘Les Cloches de Corneville’. Douglas is the tallest ‘girl’ actor, front row left

Beyond these words, Douglas’ recollection of his high school years are well recorded in Chapter 2 of his biography Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, and in another blog on Timaru Boys High. His life story and both French and English language editions of the 2002 art history MacDiarmid by Dr Nelly Finet represent his legacy in the school library, and one of his paintings Hand game – till Night 1990 has pride of place in the school foyer.

Read more about Douglas MacDiarmid in Colours of Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, written by his niece Anna Cahill.

The book is available to purchase here and at selected galleries or ask for it at all good bookstores throughout New Zealand

« | »

Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
Visit our shop to purchase

Subscribe for updates

Receive the wisdom of Douglas and other updates from the MacDiarmid Arts Trust.



Social Media:

© Copyright 2020 MacDiarmid Arts Trust on behalf of Douglas MacDiarmid – New Zealand painter. All rights reserved