A life richly led: Douglas Kerr MacDiarmid, New Zealand painter 1922-2020


Self-Portrait (1949-50) by Douglas MacDiarmid
Self-Portrait c.1949-50. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington

One of New Zealand’s most acclaimed expatriate painters, Douglas MacDiarmid, died in Paris on 26 August 2020, aged 97, after a long and unconventional life.

Celebrated for his diversity of approach and mastery of colour, he overcame hardship and tragedy to forge a successful career in France over seven decades as a highly collectable painter on the demanding European art scene. Indeed, he continued to paint daily, pushing new creative boundaries and exhibiting regularly into his nineties.

MacDiarmid always refused to be labelled or classified, except to admit he was an ‘expressionist’ painter – “one who expresses the visual rhythm of things”. He was widely interested in classical music, literature, ancient history and mythology, and fascinated by people and the ‘human condition’, as well as the beauty and sensuality of the body, all of which imbued his work.

What interested him most, as he simultaneously created landscape, portrait, figurative, abstract and semi abstract paintings, was not visual description but the tantalising essence of what lay underneath. Uninterested in fame or fortune, he kept his prices modest in the belief that art should be accessible to all, and his paintings must “live where they are loved”.

From small town New Zealand, to the world

Douglas Kerr MacDiarmid was born in Taihape, New Zealand, on 14 November 1922, the second son of Dr Gordon and Mary MacDiarmid. As a child, he attended Taihape Primary School and, after a year boarding at Huntly Preparatory School in Marton, spent the rest of his secondary education as an unruly boarder at Timaru Boys High School, considered the finest boys’ school in New Zealand at the time.

Growing up in a household full of books, poetry, music, Douglas wanted to be an artist, a writer and a concert pianist. Desperate to break free of family and inner turmoil, he found himself in paint.

The early 1940s, and war years, were spent in Christchurch where he went to university at Canterbury College, gaining an arts degree in music, English literature, languages and philosophy, and did his home force military service. Christchurch was the place where he came alive in the company of an extraordinary network of older creative luminaries such as Frederick and Evelyn Page, Rita Angus, Ngaio Marsh, Leo Bensemann, Theo Schoon, Allen Curnow, as well as the first great love of his life, composer Douglas Lilburn. Inspired by these willing mentors, he was soon exhibiting with The Group, and steadfastly continued to do so for a decade after he left New Zealand.

Once shipping routes were restored after World War II, Douglas headed overseas to “devour the world”, sailing out of Lyttleton in July 1946 for London, initially as tutor to his Christchurch landlady Blanche Harding’s youngest son on the long sea voyage. He returned home three years later with a very different horizon but stayed barely a year.

In 1951, he settled permanently in France, periodically coming back to New Zealand for exhibitions and to visit family. “I wanted a land with something to say through its physical evolution, how people had lived. I wanted to make contact with the long history of our thought-processes and words. I had no choice but plunge into the living, multiple, tumultuous continuity of the Mediterranean, which, without seeing it happen, became my second home,” he said. “Becoming part of this experience is one thing, but you don’t snakelike cast off your former skin.”

Travelling widely, ranging free

His life was an endless adventure. A bisexual man who had to leave his home country to live life on his own terms; the deliberately untrained painter was determined to make his name in art. An audacious, inquisitive spirit, he overcame the odds to become one of New Zealand’s most engaging cultural ambassadors abroad while barely being recognised at home.

MacDiarmid travelled extensively to nourish his creativity whenever he had two coins to rub together, sharing many journeys with Patrick, his beloved partner of more than 50 years, into old age. The pair had a passion for clambering over archaeological ruins across the Mediterranean and further afield to satisfy their curiosity about the world and its origins. They escaped Paris winters at Bailiff, Patrick’s birthplace on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in the French West Indies, where they built a little holiday house.

Douglas and Patrick revelling in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey, June 1985

Douglas was a man of many contradictions, as much a chameleon in his life as in his work: highly disciplined yet wayward; generous and compassionate but self-centred; articulate, erudite and classically grounded but mischievously, irreverently funny; charismatic but humble; a loyal friend and wonderful conversationalist and correspondent, but something of a loner.

The last man standing

Resident for decades near Montmartre in Paris, Douglas was the oldest survivor of his extraordinary post-war generation of creative New Zealanders and perhaps a missing link – the one who got away and slid under the radar for choosing to pursue an international career, rather than a domestic living. His life, work and insights had the rare distinction of straddling almost a century of cultural trends, across both hemispheres.

While largely overlooked in the annals of New Zealand art history for much of his career, he had recently become recognised as New Zealand’s longest-lived and longest-working painter. MacDiarmid is now considered by many art historians to be one of the most technically and formally accomplished, imaginative, and intellectually and philosophically sophisticated artists to emerge from New Zealand. He was also a published novelist, art writer and poet.

Douglas MacDiarmid on his 94th birthday, Paris, November 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Douglas at home in Montmartre, on his 94th birthday, 2016

International success

Douglas MacDiarmid exhibited in France, New Zealand, London, Athens, New York, and Casablanca. His work is owned by French and New Zealand government cultural agencies, the city of Paris, and in private households across the globe, from Korea to Scandinavia, including the collection of the late Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

The largest public collection of Douglas MacDiarmid work – 130 paintings – is held in the University of Otago’s Hocken Library Collections in Dunedin, New Zealand.

  • He first exhibited in New Zealand in 1945; 41 solo exhibitions followed to 2018;
  • Frequently had exhibitions in France from 1953 to 2014;
  • Was declared a New Zealand ‘Living Cultural Treasure’ in 1990 when he was brought back to his homeland as an official guest of the nation’s sesquicentennial celebrations;
  • An art history book MacDiarmid by French critic Dr Nelly Finet was published in 2002 in French and English language editions to coincide with exhibitions in Paris, Wellington and Auckland for his 80th birthday;
  • In 2006, ‘A Stranger Everywhere‘, a 52-minute documentary film on MacDiarmid’s art and philosophies by French filmmaker Eric Grinda was released at the Festival des Antipodes in St Tropez;
  • Douglas’ work featured in a special exhibition at the New Zealand Embassy, Paris in 2011 to raise funds for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal.

Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid

His life story became a successful book in 2018. Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, penned by his journalist niece Anna Cahill, was published in New Zealand by Mary Egan Publishing, Auckland. The biography is a love story on many levels. It explores his sexuality, prolific creativity, significant relationships, important friendships and influences – including a who’s who of Kiwi creative figures – successes and travels, as well as his beliefs and philosophies.

A 470-page, full colour, hardback volume illustrated with 150 paintings and personal photographs, Colours of a Life was launched in Wellington at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery with a two-month supporting exhibition, which included his 1991 official portrait by Jacqueline Fahey, and in Auckland at the James Wallace Art Trust’s The Pah Homestead.

Douglas revelled in the opportunity to collaborate fully on this one last creative project. He was delighted to have the book – his ‘divine brick’ – in hand, and greatly touched by the positive response from readers and critics alike, declaring it was “such a relief to know that now I’ve no need to drown to see my life unroll.”

Above all, he hoped the telling of his story would be a positive example to help other conflicted people be bold enough to unleash their potential and dedicate their lives to doing what they loved.

As he became frailer, Douglas authorised the MacDiarmid Arts Trust – set up by family as a registered, not-for-profit New Zealand entity in 2017 – to protect his creative and copyright interests and respond to inquiries and information requests on his behalf. Its educational aims include extending awareness of his work through a dedicated Facebook page and website, and investing future publication returns to further benefit New Zealand cultural life.

The book ends with an obituary of his own making:

MY OBITUARY NOTICE, simply sticking to fact…

After a full & varied life for which he was deeply grateful, Douglas MacDiarmid,

having passed the classic four score years and ten, was quite at ease with an inevitable

 finish. His lifespan’s joy had ever been from exchanges with loving, lovable friends, and a half-century’s close partnership with Patrick.

Should fond friends feel the urge for something of a parting ceremony, what better than a healthy red wine party, to revive happy times, and discuss contribution to the anti-hunger cause.”

If you are interested in donating to a worthy cause, there are many homeless people in Paris in even more dire straits as a result of COVID19. Consider a food charity such as:
https://www.restosducoeur.org/associations-departementales/les-restos-du-coeur-de-paris/
or this link in English, which describes what they do…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restaurants_du_C%C5%93ur

Douglas’ legacy will continue to live on in his work. He is survived by his life partner Patrick (89), and three generations of wider MacDiarmid family and followers across the globe to whom he has been a much-loved mentor, inspiration and cherished friend.

A bronze head of Douglas in his younger days, made by French sculptor Jean Dambrin in 1965, that has graced the mantlepiece of Douglas and Patrick’s living room ever since

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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