Ruapehu (1945)


As a child growing up in Taihape, Douglas MacDiarmid was surrounded by a dramatically broken land of blackened bush, shaped by the three active volcanoes that dominate the centre of the North Island.

Ruapehu, the nearest and largest, was visible from nearby hilltops and was the source of occasional showers of ash that spelt instant death to any bugs attacking his mother’s prize rose gardens at 24 Huia St, Taihape.

Little wonder it was the subject of one of his first paintings, a tiny but exquisite oil of that familiar place 57 kilometres from Taihape, as the crow flies, where Douglas hiked as a youth and first learned to ski.

Ruapehu (1945) by Douglas MacDiarmid. Oil on board. Private collection, New Zealand
Ruapehu (1945) by Douglas MacDiarmid. Oil on board. Private collection, New Zealand

Snow-capped Mount Ruapehu is a splendid, surreal place of three major peaks, an intensely coloured crater lake, tiny glaciers and tumbles of volcanic rock. The mountain was well known to the Maori for its fiery unpredictability – in fact the word Ruapehu means pit of noise or exploding pit.

In recent years it assumed a whole new international persona in popular culture, after some of the scenes of ominous Mordor and Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings were filmed on its slopes.

For all its turbulent history and occasional rumblings, today the mountain is also famous among skiers and snowboarders as the home of New Zealand’s two largest ski fields, and some of the best snow sport to be had anywhere.

The crazy contours of his boyhood landscape are etched in Douglas’ consciousness. After he left New Zealand in 1946, it was to be more than 40 years before he went back to Taihape region. But when he did, he was drawn to the primal power of those mountains and felt compelled to paint them in various moods.

In stark contrast to that lovely, nuanced but traditional early oil painting, here is one of his 1990 invocations of Mount Ruapehu in all its glory.

Ruapehu I (1990) by Douglas MacDiarmid, acrylic on paper, 77 x 66cm. Private collection, London.
Ruapehu I (1990) by Douglas MacDiarmid, acrylic on paper, 77 x 66cm. Private collection, London.
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