Book Review: Colours of a life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, by Anna Cahill

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_colours_of_a_life.jpgDouglas MacDiarmid – a remarkable painter, unsung in his home land for much of his career.

I had to do some research to find out that Anna Cahill is a niece of MacDiarmid, which explains the very insightful and empathetic nature of this book. MacDiarmid’s letters and diaries have provided many of the remarkable quotes and comments (or at least I am presuming this is so, as there is no provenance that I could find for them).

This is a fantastic book. First of all, it’s beautifully presented – quality paper, and good reproductions of many of MacDiarmid’s works, along with a few by other painters.  Anna Cahill has done a fantastic job in bringing her uncle to life – he does leap off the page at you rather – and this is aided by her careful and pertinent selections of quotes, comments and asides which give us a very good understanding of this hugely talented man. I kept wanting to find out where they came from, but a bit more research reveals that the Turnbull Library in Wellington has at least some of his notebooks.

From an early age, MacDiarmid was in search of adventure, inspired by beauty and colour, and clever not only on canvas but in words as well. (There are examples of his poetry throughout the book. )

His parents seem to have been very enlightened , encouraging and supportive of both their quite different sons. They were both full of character, and clearly encouraged their boys in all kinds of activities, and recognised early on that the boys were absolutely not two peas in a pod.

I enjoyed the way Cahill has written about the importance of the parents, and the connection between Douglas and his parents is drawn clearly and sympathetically. It felt as though these were observations from someone who knew the family well.  It’s fairly normal I think to see our parents only in the role of ‘parent’, and not to see them as individuals in their own right, but Douglas mentions specifically that he only really knew his parents in later life.  This was perhaps more obvious because he chose to live in France more than in NZ, so his trips home would have given him a different perspective from which to view his family, and NZ generally.

What leaps out of this book is the talent he has – remarkable paintings and drawings which are full of life, colour and emotion. He is hugely well-regarded in France, where he has lived most of his life, and this quote from Dr Nelly Finet, art historian, says it so well: ‘this man, a stranger everywhere, knows how to observe. He speaks with lucidity and indispensable distance of what we can’t see and hear anymore…’

I love the broad range of his artworks, and his great range of styles. Many artists are immediately recognisable by their particular style, or colour range, or a myriad of other things, but Douglas MacDiarmid is not bound by any particular convention. He can capture the moment in a line drawing, or fill a wall with colour. It’s very exciting to see so much of his work in this book.

He was of the opinion that you could not really learn to be an artist, you simply had to paint – and he was fortunate in having mentors in the NZ arts community  with whom to discuss painting, the universe and everything.

I was also fascinated by his relationship with Douglas Lilburn, a friend, lover, confidante, and so much more.

His life has been one of adventure, passion, lasting relationships and unconventional behaviour which have culminated in this gift to the world of a treasury of wonderful work.

As I read this excellent biography, I was struck by a lot of quasi-connections: as a teenager in Christchurch I regularly attended The Group exhibitions and most likely saw some of MacDiarmid’s work there.  I recognize several of the reproductions in the book. The people with whom he formed early, close friendships were influential in the development of the music, art and  literature of New Zealand. Clearly MacDiarmid was even then a force to be reckoned with.

If you want to learn more about Douglas MacDiarmid, buy this book! You could also take a look at Leonard Bell’s Strangers Arrive, and Bloomsbury South by Peter Simpson, both of which put context around this wonderful artist.

And there is an exhibition on in Wellington from July till the end of September. Here are the details. 

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Colours of a life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid
by Anna Cahill
Published by  Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473423834




WORD: Bloomsbury South, by Peter Simpson, interviewed by Paul Millar

cv_bloomsbury_southThe publication of Bloomsbury South is an important event for the arts community of Christchurch. It tied together the many artistic genres and people who were based in Christchurch from 1933-53.

Peter Millar led an interesting hour of questions and reflections with the author, Peter Simpson. Millar described the book as “a beautiful object in its own right”. This comment arose from the way that images, headings and original documents have been used to create a superb reading of this period in the artistic history of New Zealand. He described it as a book which gives equal weight to text and images.

Peter Simpson recalled the time 15 years ago when he first realised the connections between the creative blossoming in Bloomsbury, London post-WW1 and what happened in Christchurch. In the intervening years he has written about many of the artists as individuals, but it was a much grander idea to bring them together in this book. He talked us through the chapters and grouping these in pre-war, war, and post-war. Then the different genres became a focus within these chapters. “Once I settled on this plan, I stuck to it”.

Simpson talked to us about the importance of a physical space for these artists to meet. 97 Cambridge Terrace was owned by artist Sydney Lough Thompson, but he rented out studio rooms to the arts community. This provided an intellectual, political and artistic home for an ever widening group.

Institutions such as the Caxton Press and the University provided support for the group. The Depression also played a pivotal part in developing an awareness of the struggles many New Zealanders faced. While most of the artists came from middle class homes, it was as Special Constables, recruited from the university, that they met the desperate face of real people. Certainly, Denis Glover’s biographer felt that the experience had a profound effect on Glover. Paul Millar likened this to the creative response generated post-quake in Christchurch. As the depression was a catalyst for the Bloomsbury South group, so the Christchurch earthquakes have provided an urgency in artistic response.

Ursula  Bethell’s role as a Mother Superior to the young male writers was a discovery which surprised Simpson. The general thought was that she ceased writing in 1934 and her influence stopped. His meticulous reading of the private correspondence of the artists, allowed him to trace connections and influences. Some, like Angus to Lilburn, wrote 2 or 3 times a week across the same city. He found this an invaluable resource and one which still offers unfound insights.

There was so much to celebrate in this event. Peter Simpson was the right man to write this book with an already extensive knowledge of these artists as individuals. But it was his vision to draw them together in these pages, and engage us in this story. He gave credit to his publisher, Auckland University Press, and in particular to Katrina Duncan, who superbly married text and image.

I had my copy of Bloomsbury South to be signed and when asked by my seat mate what I thought, I replied that I loved every page. I found him with a copy at the after match. ” I was tossing up, but your comments convinced me”. I know he will not be disappointed.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Bloomsbury South, by Peter Simpson, interviewed by Paul Millar

Bloomsbury South: The arts in Christchurch 1933-53
by Peter Simpson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408480

Book Review: Bloomsbury South – The Arts in Christchurch 1933-53, by Peter Simpson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bloomsbury_southSomething happened in Christchurch between 1933-53. Here, in this southern city, far removed from the creative artistic spark which had spread across Europe and the Americas, there was a blossoming. Christchurch is my city, so the arrival of Bloomsbury South was like opening a door to a world I suspected  had existed, but had never properly explored.

Peter Simpson knows this world, as he lived in Christchurch for 25 years. He was a student, then a teacher at Canterbury University so knew and worked with many of those in this artistic community. His familiarity with running a publishing and printing company, Holloway Press, also enabled him to have an intimate understanding of the mechanics of this group.

The something that happened was the coming together of a group of creative artists: writers, painters, dramatists, sculptors, publishers, musicians, actors and dramatists. Together they supported, discussed and experimented in the wider arts. The title alludes to the Bloomsbury set who rose to fame in London. While some might say it is a bit pretentious to make this connection, Peter Simpson gives strong evidence to support the title.

His research is meticulous, and follows the individual stories of these creative leaders. Ursula Bethell was a founding member, and her support and encouragement is shown as an important factor in the establishment of the group. She supported rising poets, while Leo Bensemann provided a house for a studio, but also the venue for discussions and parties in which big ideas were freely debated. The founding of the Caxton Press played an important role in the printing and distribution of many new works. Each development is explained and its importance highlighted in this very readable book.

Having lived in Christchurch all my life, I have grown up with these names. I suppose I have struggled with the vacuum left as they departed for more supportive roles in other cities. Peter Simpson details this gradual decline and the desperate attempts by the remaining members to struggle on. The furore over the gift of Francis Hodgkins’s painting, Pleasure Garden, epitomises the conservative backlash in Christchurch. The establishment resented and excluded the members of the group, and so they left, taking their vision and passion to other shores.

This book is one of those benchmark writings, which every follower of the development of a distinctly New Zealand voice, must read. Peter Simpson has timed the release of his book well, coming 5 years after the earthquakes, which literally shook up the arts scene in Christchurch. I trust this publication will signal a new era in Christchurch creativity. It is time to move forward with the knowledge of past mistakes to enable us to build a community which allows and supports all forms of expressive art. This book is a wonderful gift to anyone who wonders, “What happened?”

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Bloomsbury South: The arts in Christchurch 1933-53
by Peter Simpson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408480