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




Book Review: Strangers Arrive, by Leonard Bell

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

This book is longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Illustrated Non-fiction Prize

Strangers Arrive, a lavishly illustrated production written by Leonard Bell, reads like two books between one set of covers: on one hand, a series of often fascinating portraits of some of the European artists, writers, and intellectuals who fled Fascism and found themselves in the comparatively provincial mid-century New Zealand; on the other, book-ending polemics about our enduring close-mindedness about welcoming to New Zealand people displaced by conflicts neither of their nor of our making.

cv_strangers_arriveBell recounts the stories and presents the work of oddly-named people with strong accents ‘from Vienna, or Chemnitz, or Berlin…who knew the work of Schoenberg and Gropius’ who were welcomed as cultural saviours by a small clique of arty locals. The balance of opinion, however, spanned from ambivalence to outright hostility towards our quota of escapees from Nazism. Bell amply conveys the blinkered churlishness of the naysayers, whose chauvinism predated but was piqued by the bohemian newcomers. Although notice is given of the destruction and prejudice that set the refugees to flight and which they sometimes encountered again on arrival in New Zealand, generous space and strong emphasis are placed on the mutual creativity, restoration, and beneficence that sparked between the strangers and those who welcomed them.

Any reader with an interest in the arts in New Zealand, especially that of the mid-twentieth century, will surely be delighted by to encounter the extraordinarily rich and strange work produced by men and women such as Frank Hoffmann, Irene Koppel, Kees Hos, Jan Michels, Henry Kulka, and Tibor Donner, along with many others, even as they struggled with the inevitable difficulties refugees encounter in navigating everyday life in an alien environment. Modernism’s fundamental cosmopolitanism was given expression in their lives and labours alike, both of which played a crucial part in moving local artists and writers beyond the cultural nationalism that had begun to be more of a hindrance than a help for them by the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties.

It becomes clear that visual artists, architects, musicians, and taste-makers, who traded in an international lingua franca, had a better time translating their work into a New Zealand context than did refugee writers who came up hard against the language barrier. Amongst them was Karl Wolfskel, a Jewish-German poet whose work in his native tongue stands with the finest of the 20th century, whose poems and letters have been blessedly made available in two books published by Cold Hub Press. Even though his international reputation is probably greater than most of the men and women whom Bell treats at length, he only makes fleeting appearances in Strangers Arrive. Men and women of words, greeted with an incomprehensibility beyond which visual artists could move, faced difficulties much more in common with a cobbler from Munich or a seamstress from Prague. Nevertheless, my pleasure in encountering a number of artists hitherto unknown to me far outweighs what one might take as Bell’s omissions, most of which can be readily justified by the wealth of talent that landed on our shores.

And yet although all refugees share in the trauma of displacement and alienation, no matter how generous their welcome, Strangers Arrive reminds us that it is impossible to generalise about them, and not because of the exceptional cast of players presented by Bell. Although they share the brute fact of their dislocation, beyond their common bereavement of citizenship and human security, they are as diverse as any group is likely to be: war is indifferent to personality, vocation, talent, and goodness and badness alike. The humility required to place oneself at the good offices of an – at best – disinterested state is difficult to imagine from our privileged position, the very position, of course, that makes it possible for us to help.  Incomprehension matched with fair-mindedness can easily blind even the charitable to the myriad differences contained within a superficially homogenous mass. Individuals must be allowed to define themselves. So, too, despite the parade of brilliant people readers encounter in Strangers Arrive, most of whom hailed from the well-educated European bourgeoisie, it is worth remembering that welcoming refugees to New Zealand is not something we do for our benefit – it is an act of beneficence. As much as I admire many of the cultured and creative people who inestimably enriched New Zealand, potential benefits shouldn’t be our motivation to do, quite simply, the right thing.

And in such a light Strangers Arrive is a book that ought to give readers pause for thought, even as they revel in its moveable feast. A celebration of creativity and terrific object in its own right, it offers a vision of humanity at its finest and most terrible.

Reviewed by Robert McLean

Strangers Arrive: Emigres and the Arts in New Zealand, 1950 – 1980
by Leonard Bell
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408732