Robyn Maree Pickens
Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (Mary Egan Publishing in association with MacDiarmid Arts Trust, 2018), 444 pp., $80
Before I settle in to a book I like to examine its paratextual material: features such as foreword, acknowledgments and endorsements. By examining the way in which a book is framed I get a sense of how its author, subject and producers would like the book to be received. Every book embodies an agenda, and I like to see how this intersects with my reading experience. With this in mind it is worth noting that the artist Douglas MacDiarmid – the subject of Colours of a Life – is Anna Cahill’s uncle. This familial investment is underscored by the publishing relationship between Mary Egan Publishing ‘in association with MacDiarmid Arts Trust’. In other words, the book is not an independent or disinterested production. It is undoubtedly a tribute to kin by kin. This bond between subject and author has the distinct advantage of providing Cahill exceptional closeness to her subject, and has resulted in a highly detailed, intimate and warm biography of MacDiarmid. After a brief glimpse of MacDiarmid as a struggling artist in an actual garret (!) in Paris, 1953, the book assumes a chronological trajectory from the artist’s birth in Taihape, 1922, to the recent present of his long-lived life in Paris, 2017. (At the time of writing this review MacDiarmid is approaching his 96th birthday.)
The flesh-and-blood narration of MacDiarmid’s life is the book’s strength, which is another way of saying that Colours of a Life is not a specialist art historical text. The reader will encounter vivid descriptions of the situations in which his paintings arose, and in some instances the evocation of a broader art historical moment (when the account of MacDiarmid’s life opens outwards), such as his involvement with The Group (artists, writers and musicians who flourished in 1940s Christchurch). Yet for the most part, MacDiarmid’s art is contextualised in terms of biography, not art history. This is not necessarily a negative attribute but it may run counter to the book’s agenda of manoeuvring MacDiarmid into ‘the annals’ of New Zealand art history, which does appear to be one of its intentions. The strongest indication of this can be found in the foreword, which is written by respected art historian and associate professor of art history at the University of Auckland, Leonard Bell. Bell writes that MacDiarmid ‘has rated barely a mention in the standard histories of New Zealand art that have been written from the late 1960s to the present. It is not that he has been written out. Rather he hasn’t been written in, and has remained on the extreme margins of New Zealand art narratives’. The book’s bibliography reveals that it is Bell himself who has written most extensively on MacDiarmid between 2007–17. Whether Bell’s earlier efforts and this foreword succeed in changing art historical reception to MacDiarmid remains to be seen.
Cahill echoes Bell’s position on MacDiarmid’s lack of critical, art historical recognition, writing, ‘[f]or most of his prolific career MacDiarmid has been simply ignored by the New Zealand art establishment’ (p17). Yet by Chapter 11 Cahill writes, ‘[t]he 1990s inadvertently became MacDiarmid’s New Zealand decade’ (p333); and in Chapter 12 she states,‘[t]his period [early 2000s] was the beginning of Douglas finally being acknowledged as a significant New Zealand art world figure, instead of being disregarded as a product from somewhere else’ (p386). So by Cahill’s own admission it would appear that MacDiarmid had achieved a measure of recognition in New Zealand by the early 2000s. Indeed, MacDiarmid had been described as a ‘living cultural treasure’ as early as 1990 by Minister of Arts and Culture Margaret Austin at a sesquicentennial exhibition of MacDiarmid’s work in Wellington (p335). Perhaps, then, it is a type of recognition that MacDiarmid’s champions are concerned with: a critical, art historical recognition. This makes the selection of Cahill as author an interesting choice, if not a double-edged sword. For while Cahill’s familial proximity to MacDiarmid results in a close, anecdotally rich and affectionate account of her uncle’s biography, Colours of a Life does not perform the work of a critical, art historical text. Cahill herself may be the first to admit this, as she thanks various ‘art world figures’ (including Bell) in the acknowledgments and states that she was ‘starting with zero [art] knowledge’ (p456). Perhaps a jointly authored text that combined Cahill’s intimate knowledge of MacDiarmid with the abilities of an art historian to contextualise MacDiarmid’s practice may have produced the critical recognition seemingly desired by Cahill and Bell.
Whether this desire is one shared by MacDiarmid himself is another question entirely. For a self-taught artist who is dismissive of trends and art historical movements throughout the book, critical art historical recognition is perhaps not his central focus. The word ‘trends’ (on my part) may not be the best choice here, however, as it implies a kind of empty flippancy. A better word may be ‘conversation’. Apart from MacDiarmid’s involvement with The Group in 1940s Christchurch, his art practice did not develop in direct conversation with other visual artists working over his long life. If an artist’s work did not actively contribute to a conversation or movement and was in turn not sustained and influenced, then it is difficult to retroactively assign MacDiarmid a role in New Zealand art history.
Such an assessment immediately makes me consider the grounds on which artists are able to enter into a conversation with one another. Currently there is a noticeable upsurge of older female artists in art galleries and art journals: women who were not granted entry to the conversation during their most productive years and who are now, somewhat belatedly, the subject of major exhibitions and retrospectives. The relationship between marginalised, invisibilised female artists and MacDiarmid is sexuality, which to various extents has also functioned as a means of gatekeeping. A bisexual man before the term was in common usage, MacDiarmid has been in a continuous relationship with a man – Patrick André Stéphane – since 1968. Aware of his attraction to both men and women from a young age, MacDiarmid undoubtedly suffered from the strict heteronormativity of New Zealand during his lifetime. It is little wonder that he left New Zealand with landlord, friend and confidante Blanche Harding for London in 1946, only to settle subsequently in Paris. His life there was interspersed with many trips to the Mediterranean and to Stéphane’s homeland Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. Despite the erudition and creative experimentation of his friends in The Group (Rita Angus, Fredrick and Evelyn Page, Leo Bensemann, Ngaio Marsh, Douglas Lilburn), and the Jewish émigrés who made Christchurch their home post-1945, they were mostly older, and apart from Lilburn (MacDiarmid’s first love) could not have offered MacDiarmid what he needed. So it may be that predujices against MacDiarmid’s bisexuality made it difficult for the artist to speak as himself and contribute to particular art conversations.
Much is also made of MacDiarmid’s use of bright, vibrant colour, which the book’s title Colours of a Life itself suggests; this may have distanced the artist from the celebrated duns of a Colin McCahon palette, for example. In fact the word ‘colour’ in the title goes in at least three directions, referring directly to MacDiarmid’s love and use of bright colour, but also to his bisexuality, and to the incredible breadth of experiences the artist has had over his long life. Cahill does an excellent job of taking the reader into the centre of these experiences. MacDiarmid was fortunate to have the painter Evelyn Page as an early mentor; to be in Christchurch during the 1940s when it was the creative place to be; to visit London post-blitz; to arrive in Spain just after the Civil War ended, when the country’s borders were open for the first time in twelve years; to visit the caves of Lascaux before they were closed due to the damage done to the paintings by human breath; and to find love with Stéphane and regularly visit Guadeloupe.
MacDiarmid has followed a unique artistic path. His paintings are primarily affective and visual responses to places visited and people met. One of my favourite paintings in this abundantly illustrated book is of Stéphane, titled ‘Patrick Dancing at the Beach’ (1973, p250). It is possible that MacDiarmid captured the essence of this moment with a quick watercolour sketch that he later painted in oil (subsequently using acyrlics as well). Cahill’s biography captures MacDiarmid’s exceptional and extraordinary life.
ROBYN MAREE PICKENS is a writer, art critic, curator and PhD candidate in ecological aesthetics at Otago. Her art writing has appeared in Art New Zealand, Art + Australia Online, Art Asia Pacific online, ANZJA, and she is a regular contributor to Art News and the Otago Daily Times.