A singular genius, Andrew Wood

Colours of a Life: The Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid
Anna Cahill
Mary Egan Publishing, $80.00,
ISBN 9780473423834

Over the decades, New Zealand has lost a tragic amount of cultural talent overseas for many reasons: the old bashing machine drives them away, cultural cringe makes the appeal of Europe and North America irresistible, or politics, or unconventional sexuality. Some have gone on to become very famous indeed – Frances Hodgkins and Katherine Mansfield, for example. The phenomenon is even responsible for an entire genre of New Zealand literature, resulting in several novels and biographies and biographical sketches by James McNeish, and Martin Edmond’s excellent The Expatriates. Anna Cahill’s Colours of Life: The Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid is a wonderful addition to that body of work.

Douglas MacDiarmid (born in Taihape in 1922) is probably not a familiar name to most people outside the field of art history and, even then, it’s often as a footnote to someone else. That’s a terrible shame given how interesting he is, still very much alive at 96, still living in Paris. That alone gives him legitimate claim to having the longest career of any painter born in Aotearoa. It’s not slight work, either, not by any means, although his refusal of stylistic consistency kept him at the margins of the canon of modernism, and his distance kept him out of New Zealand art-historical discourse, even though he has never entirely been forgotten. Nonetheless, MacDiarmid won himself a respectable place in the European art world. Add to that, his bisexuality (as a child, Cahill writes, he had “an overwhelming feeling of being irresistibly drawn to sexuality and sensuality – of being attracted to both men and women”) makes him even more unusual and interesting. 

At age 17 and enrolled in a BA at Canterbury College, he fell in with the vibrant cultural community of 1930s Christchurch (Peter Simpson aptly calls it “Bloomsbury South” in his history of the same name). He fell in with The Group, that gathering of New Zealand luminaries that included Rita Angus, Evelyn Page, Leo Bensemann, Ngaio Marsh and the composer Douglas Lilburn. MacDiarmid and Lilburn became lovers in an often-rocky triangle with Angus. There is some speculation as to how much Angus knew about what was going on. As Cahill notes, Angus’s circa 1945 double portrait of MacDiarmid – a Bensemann-influenced confection replete with daggers, spiders, and MacDiarmid’s doppelganger as Mephistopheles – suggests she probably saw him as a threat; not that Angus was a stranger to bisexual love triangles (vide Bensemann and Lawrence Baigent). Disappointingly, the painting isn’t reproduced in the book, but can be found in Jill Trevelyan’s Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life and online.

It was in Christchurch that MacDiarmid connected with the local community of Nazi-fleeing European Jews, including future intellectual superstar Karl Popper, who taught in Canterbury’s philosophy department,  the literary critic Paul Binswanger and his no less important writer wife, Otti. MacDiarmid’s 1945 full-length portrait of Otti (sometimes called The Immigrant and in the collection of the Dowse in Lower Hutt) is an extraordinary thing, a figure in an interior that has more in common with Van Eyck and Piero della Francesca than anything in its day in New Zealand (Angus’s 1942 portrait of Betty Curnow doesn’t have anything like the spatial sense), or even internationally. Not until David Hockney in the 1960s will you see something similar.

These relationships kindled the desire for the richer cultural pastures of Europe. That dream was fulfilled in 1946, when MacDiarmid’s friend Blanche Harding asked him to accompany her to England. He travelled, visiting Egypt, Greece and Italy, places that had fascinated him as a child who had known them only through books. He returned to New Zealand in 1948, only to find Christchurch’s brief flowering had dispersed and felt unconvinced by what was going on elsewhere. He really didn’t hit it off with Frank Sargeson, recalling: “The little I’d been able to stomach of his writing had unfortunately convinced me that he was the worst writer in this world and the next.” MacDiarmid attributes some of the friction to “a chip on his shoulder. My parents’ house was a magnificent place and this probably worried Sargeson’s genes.” Well, perhaps, but one suspects it may have had as much to do with MacDiarmid’s own chip and Sargeson’s suspicion of (or inability to understand – John Newton correctly calls it an inability to “read”) what was happening overseas. In the end, it all got too much and, in 1950, MacDiarmid returned to Europe and never really looked back.

This is where the interesting stuff takes off, because writing about New Zealand cultural figures abroad is frequently where monographs and biographies fall down – either the writers simply don’t know enough about the milieu, or are far too cautious, or they overinflate every minute brush with big names to unrealistic importance. There is a bit of the latter here, but Cahill mostly plays it down the middle. Although, after a while, you do notice you’re probably not getting the juicier bits. Henceforth, MacDiarmid immerses himself in French life, all while sending work back to New Zealand to show with The Group in Christchurch and Helen Hitchings in Wellington. It was a life between relative poverty (despite a position teaching English at the Lycée Henri-IV in Paris) and generous French hospitality. 

Hitchings, apparently in love with MacDiarmid, though unrequitedly, would follow him to Europe. But, given she spent most of the time across the Channel promoting New Zealand artists, this may be an exaggeration. The French painter Maurice Utrillo makes an appearance at one of MacDiarmid’s exhibitions, though with little reason to be mentioned except that he’s famous and that he made an appearance. Actor Peter Ustinov accepts an invitation, but this is mere name-dropping. MacDiarmid meets the Queen and Prince Philip. Naturally, they don’t impress him any more than Sargeson did as they scan the room for regimental and old school ties (they may be the most middle class of monarchs, but really?). He meets the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; there is an anecdote. Again, there is little permitted to enter that is not from MacDiarmid himself, which can be frustrating in its biases. At times, we skit along over the surface of a life like a long-legged fly, though I can’t help but like him. 

The European story mainly revolves around two relationships. The first of these is “Jacqueline” – a wealthy, attractive, older French woman who more or less kept MacDiarmid until her death in a skiing accident in 1961. We are not permitted to really learn who she is, however, presumably at the family’s request, and yet, if one cared enough, based on the photographs and the fact she was obviously someone of note, one could probably find out, so why bother to be coy? The other is Patrick (no surname offered), MacDiarmid’s nine-years younger Guadeloupian partner of 60 years and since formalised in a civil union. The pages devoted to the meeting are heart-warming and initiate a happier phase in MacDiarmid’s life. The portraits MacDiarmid made of Patrick are charming, full of affection and love. A younger generation of critics might find them objectifying, but that would be to ignore the context they were painted in, and how else does one depict desire?

MacDiarmid retained a strong connection to Aotearoa; his work is in every major New Zealand public collection; there was a combination talking and exhibition tour in 1967; Jacqueline Fahey was commissioned by the New Zealand Portrait Gallery to paint his portrait in 1991; there was a French book in 2002 and a 2006 French documentary; there was a charity auction for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal fund in 2011; also illustrations for C K Stead’s poetry collection In the Mirror and Dancing in 2016; and a 2017 survey exhibition at the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland. Leonard Bell’s observation that MacDiarmid wasn’t written out of New Zealand art history, so much as never written in, may be overstating the case somewhat – there is always more than one art history. The New Zealand landscape of MacDiarmid’s youth returned to haunt his paintings in the 1990s, displacing the Mediterranean light and imagery, and then the paintings stopped coming altogether around 2014, arguably at their most interesting point, and since then MacDiarmid has devoted himself to his legacy, which will certainly be a thought-provoking one. 

Brisbane-based Cahill is a journalist and the artist’s niece, and Colours of Life is not the sort of book an art historian would have written (she addresses this in the acknowledgements and is profuse in thanking all the New Zealand curators and art historians who advised her), but that is beside the point, and it would be churlish to dwell on that too much. The book is also self-published (not that this carries the unfair stigma it used to), and one should be cautious about its objectivity. It’s an appealing read that gives us guided access (but so does a North Korean holiday) to a fascinating life. It’s not quite as successful in explaining his art and the influences on it. One feels, on occasion, as if one is at a timeshare seminar being pressured to buy something, when MacDiarmid is more than interesting enough, that the romantic mythologising and deference to more authoritative voices are redundant in an otherwise lively and engaging text. 

There are more serious flaws; perhaps it’s the family connection between author and artist, but the book is painfully subservient to its subject – it never calls MacDiarmid out on his bad behaviour, nothing gets in without his permission, and the avoidance seems somewhat redundant. “Jacqueline”, for example: for someone so pivotal to the story, we remain no wiser as to who she was. Likewise Patrick, who surely warrants better as MacDiarmid’s life partner, and whose existence is a matter of legal record, remains in the background. The effect is oddly mannered, like something out of an Evelyn Waugh novel. The legacy-building is less than nuanced, but deservedly earned. It’s good that it exists, it’s important, I’m glad it was written, and there is plenty of room for future monographs to concentrate more on the art. The paintings are so wonderful, and the book so lavishly illustrated, that I am prepared to forgive most of the eccentricities. One of the later paintings lingers with me, Self-Portrait on Wet Paving Stones (2013), in a private Christchurch collection. The artist paints his shadow – selfie-cum-memento mori – partly abstracted against a flat grid of stylised cobbles reminiscent of Philip Guston. There is simply no denying that Douglas MacDiarmid is a singular genius.

Andrew Wood is a Christchurch-based independent cultural researcher and commentator.

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