Whatever are they looking at? Was it shocking? Douglas MacDiarmid has no idea, he was “much more fascinated by the heads taking in something we can’t see”. As far as he is concerned “all that matters is that the painting speaks to the person looking at it. What it gives them is what is true.” So, the event is whatever you want it to be, a mystery or otherwise.
This work is one of a memorable series of drawings and paintings brought to New Zealand in 1999 for Ferner Galleries’ MacDiarmid 1948-1998 Retrospective Exhibitions in Auckland and Wellington. ‘Witnesses’ was displayed in Auckland as part of a selection of 23 drawings dating from the 1950s and 1960s in the show From the Artist’s Studio from 11 October to 6 November, 1999 and has been puzzling and bemusing viewers ever since.
In the catalogue, the gallery observed: “MacDiarmid’s painting is inherently evocative in character. These works are fleeting glimpses of multiple worlds of the artist’s imagination reflecting his acutely perceptive eye, his fascination with the human form and the ‘expressive riches of everyday activities’.”
Douglas was 77 years old at the time of these popular retrospective exhibitions, very much at the top of his game. Although, he had given up long-haul travel a year or two before, preferring to exhaust himself painting in his studio rather than journeying across the world. The shows were staged as a celebration of the diversity, vitality and inexhaustible creativity of his art, with guests at the Auckland preview included the Honorary French Consul M. Philippe Grelon.
The drawing has been in private hands ever since, much loved by a keen collector, and made a welcome appearance on 18th July 2018, at the Auckland launch of Douglas MacDiarmid’s biography, Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid written by his niece Anna Cahill, held at the James Wallace Arts Trust’s The Pah Homestead. The book is available to purchase here, at selected galleries or ask for it at all good bookstores throughout New Zealand