Figures at Night 1950

This early painting was created in Wellington when Douglas MacDiarmid came back from Europe for a year and was experimenting with different mediums. The scene is a bridge in Bowen Street, looking up Parliament Street; the woman could be Helen Hitchings, then his constant companion, but Douglas says the other figure is not him.

The scene is described in Dr Nelly Finet’s art history MacDiarmid 2002: “Human solitude and poverty of communication are concentrated in this couple; nothing in their night seems likely to bring them nearer. However, on the hillside, two street lights flame like torches in the obscurity and provide a note of hope. MacDiarmid is no neurotic pessimist. Life is what counts.”

Now a snapshot in time, the buildings in the background have long given way to progress under the city motorway.

Figures at Night 1950 by Douglas MacDiarmid. Oil on aluminium paint on hardboard. Collection: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Figures at Night 1950 by Douglas MacDiarmid. Oil on aluminium paint on hardboard. Collection: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

Figures at Night was exhibited in his first commercial one-man show at Helen Hitchings Gallery, in a converted warehouse in Bond Street in 1950. At the time, Douglas was working at the Alexander Turnbull Library, cataloguing international reference material because of his smattering of European languages, as well as broadcasting on Radio 2YA as a newsreader, announcer and radio play actor.

There is considerable interest in these early paintings, because they were unlike work typically being done in New Zealand at the time. The ongoing focus on his early work frustrates Douglas enormously – almost as if he painted nothing more or better in the next six decades as an international artist who couldn’t keep up with the demand for his work in France, when in fact he continued to push creative boundaries into his 90s!

The painting appears in current New Zealand Portrait Gallery exhibition Colours of a Life: Douglas MacDiarmid in support of the release of his biography of the same name. Here it sits within the context of a broader slice of Douglas’ portrait and figurative work, dating from 1945 to 2013. The exhibition continues at the Portrait Gallery until 23 September 2013.

Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018) online or purchase it in person from the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington, Jonathan Grant Gallery in Auckland, or from all good bookstores across New Zealand. Published by Mary Egan Publishing (July 2018).

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Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
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