The notion of capturing Douglas MacDiarmid’s diverse work in print surfaced way back in 1990. And who better to do so than his dear friend Dr Nelly Finet.
Nelly knew and understood his painting, the underlying influences and philosophies, more acutely than anyone else. Her family was his family in France, she had grown up with it, he had painted her several times. Now she had a doctorate from the Sorbonne and professional standing as a respected Paris art historian, lecturer and archivist.
Although her speciality was Renaissance art, she felt strongly that it was time to establish a comprehensive illustrated catalogue of MacDiarmid paintings.
Initially, Douglas was unconvinced. In his late 60s, he was at the height of his powers, an established painter of diverse output with a dedicated following of collectors in Europe, New Zealand and elsewhere. Naturally, he could see the value of a book to consolidate his life’s work and create a significant retrospective record, yet he was almost superstitiously wary of appearing conceited or egotistical.
Once he warmed to the idea of a scholarly monograph, they began their “labour of cooperation” late in 1990, after Douglas returned from his official Sesquicentennial visit to New Zealand, working on it with “sporadic intensity” ln their spare time.
Douglas set about unearthing titles, specifications and whereabouts of the 80 paintings Nelly chose to represent his effort over a 50-year period. All this delving was unexpectedly interesting: he had no idea it would entail such a severe self-examination…“Quite a new experience raking about over the past – whether in terms of pictures or not makes little difference – a weird amount of material surfaces, requiring sorting and selecting,” he wrote at the time.
Regular bundles of French text arrived from Nelly, to be translated into English, for dual language editions.
A year later he wrote to a cousin: “…this blooming catalogue — yes, we’re not talking about some obscure, diminutive variety of Hallucigenia (an ancient, extinct creature) whose fossils have to be dug from the mountain schist, but something smaller, still waiting to be born, but requiring no less digging for that. (It will finally be shot through the press at some wonderful, propitious moment immediately following some conjunction of paper, inks, God knows what all together for something else, thus enormously reducing the cost.)” Progress, obviously, was slow, but steady.
By mid-1993 the art history manuscript was finished but in financial limbo… “shipwrecked by the last (global) petrol crisis, on the eve of publication…”
Another six years elapsed before there was a chink of light. Ferner Galleries in New Zealand were enthsiastically exhibiting his work. They were keen to retrieve the art history project from its lonely shelf and dust it off.
A flurry of paperwork, research and faxes whizzed between New Zealand and Paris as Nelly and Douglas updated the text and images to the present, ultimately to cover the period 1944 to the latest work of 2002.
‘MacDiarmid’ by Nelly Finet was published that year in French and English language hardback editions, through her husband Claude’s design company Société Technique d’Art et Realization (STAR), to coincide with Douglas’ 80th birthday exhibitions in Paris and New Zealand.