The tables turned – MacDiarmid portraits by other artists

What we see in the mirror is not necessarily the image we present to the world because we never quite see ourselves as others do. All the more so when one artist depicts another, suggesting the hidden depths below the skin.

A number of portraits have been made of Douglas over the years, mainly by close friends working together and ever in need of a willing model. People familiar with his personality and quirks as well as his physical appearance. As a body of art they are a fascinating reflection, adding further layers and texture, shedding more light and new perspectives on a complex yet fascinating individual. As is always the case when confronted with someone else’s penetrating view of one’s own self, Douglas has warmly embraced some of these interpretations, but shied away from others.

Let’s start with the strangest painting. Iconic New Zealand painter Rita Angus was probably the first to use her young friend as a subject, back in his student days in Christchurch in the 1940s. In her own inimitable way, her Douglas is a puzzling, almost troubling vision – obviously MacDiarmid but perhaps never meant to be seen as portraiture but simply as a distinctive model for some personal reverie.

For here in Figure Allegory 1945 are two semblances of our young man on the canvas – a contemplative figure in an armchair, and behind the devil incarnate, surrounded by all sorts of symbols.

Figure Allegory c.1945 Rita Angus Oil on canvas 61.6 x 86.4 cm, Collection of Rita Angus Estate

Douglas remembers Rita making this surreal vision in her slow, deliberate manner but was not allowed to look at it being created. It’s hard to know what to make of it, even Rita seemed unsure because it remained unfinished, unsigned. He sees the scene as just another illustration of her creative madness, something we shouldn’t read too much into as it was probably based on his description of attending an arts costume ball as the devil.

When Douglas returned home from Europe in 1945 there was no shortage of good company and robust discussion among the creative set in Auckland. Many of Douglas’ good friends from Christchurch had moved north in his absence so they picked up where they had left off. A host of images were made by fellow artists in the year he was back in New Zealand. The most impromptu and charming of these is a series of three sketches on a paper bag drawn by Dennis Knight Turner, another self-taught, overlooked painter who was also destined to become a long-term expatriate, while calling himself “an unrepentant New Zealander.

Douglas MacDiarmid 1949 By Dennis Knight Turner Pencil drawings on brown paper, 39 x 48 cm Private collection, Auckland

The inscription under these whimsical sketches reads ‘At a Molly Macalister party, Auckland 1949’. Invercargill-born Macalister was a talented painter and woodcarver but is best known for her substantial sculpture, such as the imposing ‘Māori Figure in a Kaitaka Cloak’, in Queen Street, Auckland. In 1964 it was the first public statue commissioned from a female artist in New Zealand.

Douglas moved on to Wellington to work and quickly gathered a circle of creative friends who regularly sketched at his flat. That group included artists John Drawbridge, Helen Hitchings and Juliet Peter, who drew this study of Douglas deeply engrossed in his practice…

Douglas MacDiarmid sitting on the floor, sketching Juliet Peter Ballpoint pen on paper, 33 x 49 mm Alexander Turnbull Library, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Wellington. Ref B-104-011

Ultimately, Douglas saw he could never survive in New Zealand as anything other than a part time painter. The lure of the Mediterranean, and a wider horizon, drew him back to France for good.

Fast forward to the 1960s in Paris, when Douglas was experimenting with sculptural forms to diversify his artistic range at a time when painting was considered in some French circles to be passe. He and his sculptor ally Jean Dambrin unsuccessfully tested out the potential of new media such as polyester resin before returning to their specialities to stage a 1965 gallery collaboration of scorching Corsican landscape paintings and stunning bronze sculpture.

This wonderful bust of MacDiarmid was centre stage of the joint exhibition and has remained with Douglas, gracing his living room mantlepiece to this day. Incidentally, the original plaster cast Dambrin created is somewhere in New Zealand, its whereabouts having faded into the mists of time. One day perhaps it will reappear.

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
Plaster cast of Dambrin’s Head of Douglas, location unknown

Douglas’ great friend and fellow painter Piera McArthur has portrayed him several times in her customary explosions of colour, wit, humour and gentle satire. The pair met in Paris, where Piera juggled life as diplomatic wife and mother to a large family with a calling to paint, and forged a lasting creative bond. Their conversation and exchange of ideas has never stopped, even hemispheres apart.

Much as he admires her energy, robust intellect and artistry, Douglas grumbled that one of the portraits he encountered in Piera’s studio made him look like a “wet curate”.

Douglas MacDiarmid c.1985 by Piera McArthur Acrylic on canvas, Painter’s personal collection, Wellington.

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)

Further portraits of Douglas by John Drawbridge, Theo Schoon, Jacqueline Fahey and most recently by Gavin Hurley can be found in the following blog articles…

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Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
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