At first glance this is a train carriage at one of the few above-ground subway stations in Paris, but don’t assume that is all this painting has to say for Douglas MacDiarmid is a master of the unforeseen. Look closer and you will see a mythical drama of grand proportions playing out on the platform. For the train driver is none other than a modern-day Pluto – the God of Hades – capturing a screaming blonde maiden (Persephone) to carry her back into the underworld as his wife and queen of that shady realm. Persephone was Pluto’s niece, only daughter of his sister Demeter, the Goddess of Harvest and Fertility, who was so incensed by the abduction that drought fell upon the world until it was agreed that the girl would spent half of the year on earth, and the other half below. That is how seasons were born, and the growth of crops was explained.
“On the point of trundling back down into the underworld, the train driver, a modern-day Pluto, has seized a shrieking blonde and makes off with her. It is common knowledge that the Metro is rife with dreams.” says Douglas, tongue in cheek.
He has regularly introduced classical elements from ancient Greek and Roman legend into his work, sometimes as the dominant theme, other times more overtly. It also harks back to his frustration that the New Zealand painted landscapes of his youth were invariably empty, unpeopled scenes – something that led him to portray urban scapes that embraced human interaction. Further, the painting reflects a quote from philosopher Bertram Russell…“The world is composed not of objects but events”…that greatly influenced MacDiarmid in his conception of painting. Location-wise, Quai de la Rapée is on the right bank of the Seine River, built across the entrance to the Canal Saint-Martin, which leads to the Place de la Bastille. The railway abruptly plunges into tunnels at either end of the station. This is one of the canvasses from the ‘white period’, when Douglas used a lot of neutral background colour to give greater depth of light and an edge of coolness to familiar landmarks in his adopted city.
First exhibited in April 1985 at 11 Views of Paris, a MacDiarmid exhibition at Louise Beale Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand, the painting was part of the artist’s ‘white period’, when he used a lot of neutral colour in cityscapes to give greater depth of light and an edge of coolness to familiar landmarks. Metro was one of a number of favourite paintings displayed by collectors for just one night at the Wallace Trust’s The Pah Homestead in support of the Auckland launch of Douglas’ biography Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid in July 2018.