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