Red Queen 2011…faster! FASTER!!

What sort of a Red Queen does Douglas MacDiarmid have in mind? Well, the most insistent literary figure, of course.

The Red Queen was a malevolent force in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 classical fantasy novel Through the Looking Glass, in which some of the characters are based on playing cards & chess pieces. Her wild eyes and frantic demands are wedged in many childhood memories as a deeply scary presence.

Late in 2010, overwhelmed by the weight of Christmas cards to be written to friends all over the world, Douglas exclaimed to a close painter friend, “I feel like I have the Red Queen on my back. Faster! FASTER!”

She replied, “The only way to get rid of her is to paint her.” And they both did, Douglas MacD’s painting glaring balefully at all-comers to his 2013 New Zealand exhibition at Jonathan Grant Galleries in Parnell, Auckland.

Faster! FASTER! relates to ‘The Red Queen’s race’, an incident in the book that has both Her Imperious Majesty and Alice constantly running while remaining in the same spot.

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”                                                                 “A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

Many people make the mistake of confusing this Red Queen with the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s earlier classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who was wont to shout “Off with his head.” Both queens are red horrors but nothing alike – one is a chess piece, the other a playing card. Their creator pointed out their different personalities in his lifetime…

“I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion- a blind and aimless Fury,” said Carroll. The Red Queen was “a Fury of another type. Her passion must be cold and calm – she must be formal and strict, yet not unkindly; pedantic to the 10th degree, the concentrated essence of all governesses!”

Douglas’ Red Queen is “an embodiment of force’s fragility. Suitably crowned with a mad sort of knitted(?) crash-helmet.”

“…And here she is, the very spirit of our times, unhinged with the impetus of what “Faster! FASTER!“ ineluctably leads to.”  Faster, MacDiarmid would say, is the curse of modern life.

Red Queen 2011, acrylic on paper, 61 x 43 cm. Jonathan Grant Gallery, Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand.

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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