The artist and poet who refused to play by the narrow rules of NZ art

by Sally Blundell / 17 August, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Douglas Macdiarmid

Self-Portrait (1949-50), by Douglas MacDiarmid.

His many decades in France have made Taihape-born Douglas MacDiarmid an elusive figure in the annals of NZ art. A new biography delivers a vital portrait of the 96-year-old’s intriguing career. 

He was the one who went away. The one who sailed to England, came home briefly, then moved to France. Now 96, artist Douglas MacDiarmid lives with his partner in a 19th-century Paris apartment. Following Milan Mrkusich’s death last month, MacDiarmid became our longest-established living artist, the last man standing from the days of Christchurch’s company of avant-garde artists, writers and musicians, The Group.

Although his exhibition history spans hemispheres and nearly eight decades, he remains a bit player in our historical texts. He appears in Peter Simpson’s 2016 record of The Group, Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953; in Leonard Bell’s 2017 Strangers Arrive: Emigrés and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930-1980; and in biographies of Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn. But his name is missing in overviews of this country’s painting history.

“It is not that he has been written out,” writes Bell in his foreword to Colours of a Life, the new biography of MacDiarmid by his niece, Anna Cahill. “Rather, he hasn’t been written in.”

Brisbane-based Cahill has put this right, compiling a personal biography of a self-taught artist and poet who refused to play by the narrow rules of New Zealand art.

MacDiarmid was born in Taihape in 1922, the loved but unruly younger son of Dr Gordon MacDiarmid and his wife, Mary. At the heart of his “naughtiness”, writes Cahill, was a confused child, struggling with “an overwhelming feeling of being irresistibly drawn to sexuality and sensuality – of being attracted to both men and women”.

Christchurch (1945).

Christchurch (1945).

At 17, newly enrolled in a BA course at Canterbury College, MacDiarmid fell in with The Group, a dynamic collection of older writers, artists and musicians, including Angus, Evelyn Page, Leo Bensemann, Ngaio Marsh and Lilburn, all working to create a distinctively New Zealand art and cultural form. There were also newly arrived European artists and intellectuals fleeing the spread of Nazism.

“He was drawn to them because they were different,” says Cahill. “They had grown up in Venice, Berlin, Paris – places with astonishing histories, where culture was appreciated in the street … in daily life, which it wasn’t in New Zealand.”

It was in Lilburn that he found a shared love for nature, music, literature and art. By mid-1944, writes Cahill, “they were in the throes of a passionate but anguished relationship, the first great love of MacDiarmid’s life”. Lilburn was reluctant to make their relationship public, but it created “great confusion” for MacDiarmid.

Portrait of Theo Schoon (1944).

The painter’s early portraits and landscapes were well received. Hills from Annat, done during a romantic horse and cart trip, is a gently layered portrayal of the Canterbury Plains. But his heightened colour, expressive composition and sheer diversity were at odds with prevailing practice and he wasn’t interested in the focus on national identity. As poet Louis Johnson wrote in 1950, “MacDiarmid is one New Zealand painter whose vision is not restricted to the patterns of flaxbush or fern.”

In 1946, his close friend Blanche Harding asked him to accompany her to England. The invitation couldn’t have come at a better time.

“He was desperate to leave,” says Cahill. “He was frustrated he couldn’t find the connection to landscape that he wanted or the continuity of history he had grown up with in books. He found the landscape empty. He was fascinated by the Mediterranean, by Egypt, by all those sources of language and culture.”

He taught, he travelled, he painted.

Portrait of Rita Cook (1945).

In 1949, after news that his father had had a heart attack, he returned home to a positive reception. An exhibition of French paintings revealed a “poetic vision”, wrote Johnson, far from “the pretty impressions of an observant traveller”. This exhibition also attracted the attention of Helen Hitchings, who gave him a solo show in her Wellington gallery.

It is comforting, historian JC Beaglehole wrote in 1949, “that some of our artists who go away come back”. But MacDiarmid was not content; he missed the stimulus of Europe. “The expectation was that he would find a job,” says Cahill, “but he couldn’t settle. He was getting good reviews, but he was confused about where he wanted to be. The only way of living a life that was free and reasonably rewarding was to go back. If he had stayed, he never would have reached his potential as a painter.”

So, in 1950, MacDiarmid returned to Europe. Life in a squalid Paris apartment was hard, but the move, he said, was worthwhile. “Curiosity is unlimited here and sharpened by the necessity to live. Tension is at a higher pitch than in New Zealand, and the mass of artistic work so great that you can test and compare standards just walking down the streets.”

His paintings were winning accolades. A canvas by MacDiarmid, wrote a reviewer in France, is an “explosion, irresistible, buoyant, an ardent enjoyment of colour”.

Portrait of Constance, wife of Maurice Sochachewsky (1948).

He continued to send paintings for exhibitions in his homeland, and in 1952, Hitchings included six of his works in a London exhibition of New Zealand painters; a year later, she staged a solo show of his European landscapes.

In 1955, he met Jacqueline (some names have been omitted or changed at the request of MacDiarmid and family members). She offered him a studio and they soon became lovers. The relationship was not smooth, but her death in 1961, while he was in New Zealand, pitched him into what Cahill calls “the grief years”.

By that time, the New Zealand media were taking note. His life as an artist in Paris and in the country house of French fashion designer Frédéric Castet appeared glamorous and exotic. Although privately he worried about finding a decent place to live, in print the tall, angular expat was the poster boy, writes Cahill, “for successful expatriate painting”.

In 1967, a sponsored lecture tour filled seats around the country, but an exhibition at the John Leech Gallery received mixed reactions. Herald critic TJ McNamara applauded the combination of taste, elegance and colour sense, but his Auckland Star counterpart described it as “bad art – painted in a tasteful manner”.

Patrick Dancing at the Beach (1973).

His “manner” was hard to pin down. Defying critical expectations, he refused to follow any one school, moving from oil to watercolour to acrylic; from expressive cityscapes and portraits to abstract interiors and illustrative line drawings. “I have no style,” he said in an undated interview, “and have often been criticised for this. Latterly, instead of quarrelling with me, people remark on my diversity, which is such a beautiful word.”

In 1968, he met Patrick André Stéphane, who was nine years younger and born on Guadeloupe, a poor Caribbean island. Their relationship, since recognised in a civil union, has remained strong.

But his ties to his homeland remain unbroken. As well as the European landscapes and city scenes, his work continued to feature the landscapes and coastlines of home. In a 1991 portrait of MacDiarmid by Jacqueline Fahey, he has two faces, one looking forward, the other back. It’s inscribed: “He had to leave the country to understand what he had left.”

“The New Zealand landscapes of my youth,” he says through an email intermediary, “are now clearer than Paris and France, ever more dim and confused since I can no longer get out to renew.”

In 2011, he organised a fundraising exhibition for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal. In 2017, the Gus Fisher Gallery hosted a one-man show of works owned by the University of Auckland. Last year, too, a selection of his drawings appeared in CK Stead’s book of verse In the mirror and dancing.

Oedipus and the Sphinx (Eternal Ambiguity) (1979).

As Gregory O’Brien wrote, “There’s a Mediterranean feeling to Douglas’ work – as to Karl’s: an Horatian love of the everyday, an embrace of the physical world, and a trembling awareness of the life (and also the death) of the body. Despite the combined age of the book’s contributors … there is something irresistibly youthful about the work of both.”

MacDiarmid’s voice is now fading. His last painting, a portrait of close friend Bridget Gee, was completed in December 2014. Since then, he has focused on this book, unravelling the people, places and art practices that have kept him moored to two worlds.

In a 2006 documentary on his work, A Stranger Everywhere, MacDiarmid tries to explain his identity. “I’m not completely French,” he muses, “and never will be. I can never forget I am a New Zealander, but I quite often forget I am not French.”

COLOURS OF A LIFE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DOUGLAS MACDIARMID, by Anna Cahill (Mary Egan Publishing, $80)

Images provided by Wells family collection; Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu; Hocken Collections; Museum Of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

This article was first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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