The ultimate painterly tribute

Every now and then, a justly life-affirming moment comes along. This is one of them…

Art has a serendipitous knack of bridging generations and creative streams. For an aged, living painter such as Douglas MacDiarmid, being acknowledged as a contemporary inspiration in this out-of-sight, out-of-mind world comes as a glorious surprise. Simply mana for the spirit.

Delivered with a characteristic whimsy that matches his subject, Auckland painter Gavin Hurley’s ‘Carrying Douglas’ 2019 unmistakably channels MacDiarmid’s ‘Self Portrait 20 December 1944’…75 years on. No doubt about it, we recognised the ears!

The painting was part of his quirky ‘Painting Business’ exhibition at Bartley and Company Art, Ghuznee Street, Central Wellington, New Zealand in July-August 2019.

In this solo show, Hurley’s signature collage cut-out portraits of office men explored “the artist as worker”. A handful of canvasses show faceless businessmen carrying “recognisable and famous figures from the arts, history and popular culture, playing with notions of psychological baggage, status and anxiety”.

MacDiarmid’s inclusion in this statement is a personal one: “I’ve always loved Douglas’ painting,” Hurley said.

“It’s great now that there is more information about him than there was. (Art writer and reviewer) Richard Wolfe is a friend too so his Art New Zealand article a while ago was another reminder of some of his work. I was also looking for Wellington connections to him and Art Dealer Helen Hitching before making the current show. The Turnbull Library collection is another Wellington commonality.

“I made a version of the painting “Carrying Douglas” but turned the other way with his eyes visible. It was a disaster so I decided to reference Douglas in my style like this instead. I wish I could just fly over to Montmartre to meet him and hope he knows that he is still inspiring others.”

For Alison Bartley, director of the gallery, ‘Carrying Douglas’ signifies “all the historical knowledge that educated artists carry and the anxiety in measuring up to what has gone before”.

And the ears? MacDiarmid’s Self-portrait 20 December 1944 is part of the Alexander Turnbull Library Art Collection. Many years ago when he was revisiting the library, he was amused to hear one of the curators refer to the portrait as “the one with the wing-nut ears”. The moniker has sort of stuck.

‘Carrying Douglas’ 2019 by Gavin Hurley, oil on linen, 45 x 34 cm. Photo: Bartley & Company Art, Wellington, 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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Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
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