This curious Douglas MacDiarmid artwork of a face within a face tells a complex story of centuries past and the progress of humanity. It’s a striking example of Douglas’ use of classical references in his work. In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the Eumenides were originally the Erinyes or Furies, three primal-goddess monsters of vengeance – Tisiphone (avenger of murder), Megaera (the grudging) and Alecto (constant anger). These winged horrors, entwined in poisonous snakes, tortured souls in the underworld and travelled the world punishing the wicked. They are thought to have originated as personified curses or the ghosts of the murdered. These were gory days. The Furies pursued Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra at the behest of the god Apollo, after she supposedly killed her husband and his lover. When younger deities, led by Athena, the Goddess of Justice, intervened to save Orestes, the Furies were overpowered and retired on her casting vote. She euphemistically renamed them the Eumenides, the ‘kindly ones’, for allowing him to be spared, and ruled that hung juries must always result in the defendant being acquitted as mercy should always take place over harshness. First appearing in literature in one of Aeschylus’ famous plays in 458 BC, the story of the Eumenides represents the primitive laws of blood-for-blood vengeance giving way to the new order of reason and democratic civilisation – and the weight of responsibility justice carries.
But be warned, MacDiarmid the painter says the two faces of the Eumenides are inseparable: “The small one being the Fury’s unerring guiding intuition in tracking down her prey. From classical times, all down the ages, nice kind names have been devised for what is dreaded, in the vain hope of some sweetening effect. We’re still at it. Only official registers talk about death, whereas the multitude prefer ‘passed away’. What’s the difference?” This pastel came to New Zealand as part of Douglas’ 2015 bequest to the University of Auckland’s permanent art collection. In keeping with the university’s policy of keeping its collection visible in the workplace, the picture is enjoyed every day on the wall of a shared area on campus.
In July 2018, Eumenides weaved its enigmatic charm at the one-night ‘circle of friends’ exhibition at the Wallace Arts Trust’s The Pah Homestead for the Auckland launch of Douglas’ biography Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid. A much larger oil canvas of Eumenides is in a private collection somewhere in New Zealand. It was first exhibited in New Zealand in Douglas’ Visions Fugitives retrospective exhibition at Ferner Galleries in Wellington in 1999, and later sold at auction in 2011.