La Condition Humaine 2008

This vivid hot-air balloon scene has become one of Douglas MacDiarmid’s most familiar and evocative paintings. Not only is it the cover image of his biography ‘Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid but it tells a lot about his life, work and interests. And, since it was painted, the back story has taken on new life.

‘La Condition Humaine’ (the Human Condition) visibly shows the artist (in hat) and his dark-skinned partner Patrick in the basket of that balloon floating over the Valley of the Kings (the ‘Gateway to the Afterlife’) at dawn. Douglas was a sprightly 85 at the time. After several earlier adventures in Egypt, this was his final visit during which he realised his dream to see the pyramids that had transfixed him from childhood from the air. He had walked around them, touched them with reverence, thrilled to their beauty and antiquity, painted them, but now he was seeing those splendid proportions from above. Like the gods.

La Condition Humaine 2008, acrylic 1160 x 8 10 mm. Private collection, Paris (Book Cover)

Douglas’ travel notes relay the experience in his inimitable way:

23 November 2007

Sunrise over the Valley of Kings

“Some months ago on TV I watched a glorious documentary of a balloon floating over the region of Luxor. What a dream. I was far from imaging that anyone would actually suggest my participating in such a stunt, so that yesterday I was too surprised at first for any reaction whatever. I don’t know how many minutes passed before a positive wave of adrenalin caught me up and into the project with all bells ringing.

“Accordingly, this morning at the time the muezzin confederacy began bawling at top (towards 5 a.m.) we got up and left the hotel with a small group, Dutch, for the most part, and all with some English of course.

“We were driven to a point on the Nile bank where layers of gaily decorated craft, which whizz about in every direction, were still moored side by side. We were served a summary apology of a breakfast after which, stepping gingerly from boat to boat we boarded the last for the crossing over to the West Bank. This coffee-tea-bun-pause was a good idea, not only for the miracle of a hot drink, but also to allow folk to break the ice and make agreeable contact. The woman on the other side of Patrick looked rather isolated, so (for Patrick’s sake) I asked if she spoke French. I understood that her isolation was probably no accident, and her problem not a matter of ice, thick or thin. She was dank, with pale vitriol.

“A van was ready to drive us out to the Colossi of Memnon, where a little time was spent watching the first flight of balloons, whose colours began to glow in the first rays of the sun.

“These hot-air balloons seem to make their own choice in the matter of alighting. We followed our yellow beauty over nearer to the Ramesseum, where we scrambled and stumbled over ploughed furrows to the edge of a field of maize. We found the balloon basket still full of passengers who had to struggle out in twos or threes, immediately replaced by fresh weights to prevent the balloon from keeling over. It took three doughty Arabs to haul one great woman-mass over the high edge of the basket. I was thinking: “Fancy taking that up in a balloon!” when a delightful young Frenchwoman beside me exclaimed: “Ah chouette! Elle a libéré au moins trois places!” (Great! She freed at least three places) She was a joy to share the air with.

“The new sun was just ideal by the time we were all safely stowed in the basket, and we rose so gently, imperceptibly, it was unreal. It would have been religiously quiet also were it not for the violent snorting of the flame on which our staying airborne depended. I couldn’t help being struck by this unlikely unity of balloon and animal-packed basket, an intensely foreign presence up in this limpid air. Our companions exchanged expressive glances, but no one found words ready at first.

“I was as filled with wonder as anyone, but with an added preoccupation: my height brought my head nearer to our life-flame, whose rumbustious blast had something of a searing effect on shoulders and neck. But how marvellous to drift above a world at once familiar yet changed at times to abstract. The two Colossi just below, huge battered old ruffians seen close, became so neat and nice no bigger than knick-knacks. And for once to see the Ramesseum atop its ruins forming now a clearly laid out ground plan. The ideal flesh tones of this mountainous wilderness before and beyond the Valley of the Kings could not be lovelier than seen from directly above with no contrast intervening, and our lusty balloon seemed enthralled by the undisputed queen of the region, the Hatshepsut monument immutable in her wide amphitheatre. We met her from several angles as some gentle air current decided.

“Our drift took us back upon the darker tonalities of Nile fertility, villages like burnt-out termite cells, patterns of ploughed land revealed as never at eye-level, tiny insect people going about their weird business, and even a glimpse of Joseph and Mary and bundle on an ass going further west out of Egypt at a good clip.

“Was our current taken by curiosity at this sight? We veered back over the line of sudden demarcation dividing sand from vegetation and quite some distance out in the desert came down with a ludicrous little thud.

“We grated along over stones for a bit, staring out over the basket rim and wondering if our noses were destined to make furrows if tipped forward. With the fierce flame extinguished, the silence of this wasteland was impressive.

“So where in the devil did a sudden horde of youngsters materialise from? From every side were kids running or on bicycles or asses, or donkeys; there were baby goats in arms, puppies, every mouth open and making a noise forming unbelievable pandemonium. It spread to us of course, by now starting to extricate ourselves from this high-rimmed basket.

“I’ve only been 85 for nine days, and days too full to be able to perfect techniques for leaping out of a wicker hamper at short notice, and with no room to manoeuvre. I was concentrating on getting a leg too long to bend with the foot in an opening in the wicker wall, when a helpful (?) Arab below outside managed so well that he made me fall. Mercifully what he lacked in brain he made up for in brawn. He somehow managed to catch my flailing carcass and set it upright on terra firma. With infinite subtlety usual in such moments, he let me understand that he’d like me to give him something. I, not wishing to tell him plainly that not only did I feel no gratitude but that I’d like to kill him, just persisted with the insane grin one has when the horizon has been spinning.

“At this point lorries arrived on the site and in an expert jiffy this noble balloon was smacked flat and packed away like ordinary camping material.

“This was a perfect spot, for ‘from nowhere’ and from there now, an Arab began thumping on a big drum with vigour enough to get everyone up and dancing, scuffling about in a cloud of dust, a spontaneous celebration of resuming normal facilities for moving, and mindlessly to rejoice.

“In my experience, the Dutch are always open and friendly and our bright young pilot was typical of young Egypt at its best — good looking, capable, world-conscious and lively with wit.

“Revelatory also to have seen Dame Vitriol, roused from her chill Swedish neurosis, knot the corded veins of her neck in screams of abuse for her pleasant-looking husband. Couldn’t believe my eyes, and translation unnecessary for the ears.

“Our dream in the sky had lasted 55 minutes. Slightly bemused, once back at the hotel we launched into a proper breakfast, and thus revived it became inconceivable to start resting with the morning still young. We decided to take in a bit more of Luxor with a pleasant short walk to the museum…”

Douglas recorded their flight on canvas a few months later, a luminous memory that became a household favourite on their living room wall for years to come. The story of ‘La Condition Humaine’ could have ended there, yet the painting of the pair gliding in that “celestial picnic hamper” was destined for greater things.

In 2014, the War on Hunger Group of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) asked all embassies in Paris to contribute a work of art to raise funds for the 50th anniversary of its cause. The New Zealand Embassy, representing the smallest country invited, asked Douglas if he could donate a ‘painting to remember’ on behalf of his homeland.

Never one to do things by halves, Douglas offered his biggest and most loved canvas. La Condition Humaine appeared as No 1 of 53 international artworks in the catalogue. Douglas notes that the OECD “did me great honour’ by auctioning his painting first.

The supporting inscription read: “On a balloon flight over Luxor, gliding slowly and silently over this ancient land, which appeared as if unpopulated. The only human beings in existence could have been those clustered with me in that fragile wicker basket, dependent upon a flare and hot air to support us in absolute space. How like the whole of humanity seen against the immeasurable cosmos in which we are suspended.”

It proved the pick of the charity auction, held on 16 September 2014, fetching a higher price than anything else on offer. Presided over by José Ángel Gurría, Secretary General of the OECD, the sale included outstanding contemporary paintings, photography, sculpture, murals and pottery. Despite the difficult economic climate, the collection raised over €50,000 in aid of the Hunger Group’s voluntary work.

Today La Condition Humaine continues to be much loved, for its clarity and vision, on another man’s wall in Paris.

Douglas chose this painting for his book cover because it conveys a certain universality and is characteristic of the body of his work. “It clearly says what a front cover must say. You, me, and the works.”

La Condition Humaine 2008, acrylic 1160 x 8 10 mm. Private 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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Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
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