Landscape, Southern France
1959, 650 x 810mm, Oil on canvas
Douglas Kerr MacDiarmid was born at Taihape in the centre of the North Island on 14 November 1922, the younger son of Mary MacDiarmid (née Tolme) and Dr Gordon MacDiarmid. He drew and painted from a young age, being enthralled by the beauty of the human form and of the land, and passionate about ancient world.
As a boy, he attended Taihape School and Huntley Preparatory School, before boarding at Timaru Boys High School. He graduated from university in Christchurch during World War II with an arts degree in Music, English Literature, Languages and Philosophy, studying around home military service. He ‘came alive’ there in an older circle of creative thinkers, his self-taught appetite for painting fired by mentors Evelyn Page, Rita Angus, Theo Schoon, and Leo Bensemann, and his view of the world increasingly shaped by exiled Jewish intellectuals from war-torn Europe.
Unsure whether he wanted to be a painter, writer, concert pianist, or perhaps all three, Douglas was certain only of the need to get away. Once the sea lanes reopened in 1946, he left New Zealand to ‘devour the world’, paying serious attention to master artists he admired: Giotto, El Greco, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh. He returned to Aotearoa for a year in 1949–50 before settling permanently in France to dedicate his life to paint. He would return sporadically.
Gradually, through hardship and tragedy, he forged an international reputation. Between 1949 and 2018, there were 41 solo exhibitions in New Zealand alone. Once established in France, he exhibited there at least every two years, also showing in London, Bristol, New York, Connecticut, Morocco, and Athens. From 1992, he preferred the intimacy of regular home exhibitions in his Montmartre apartment.
His paintings are owned by the French and New Zealand governments, the City of Paris, more than 20 public art galleries in Aotearoa, and are found in private collections across the world. In 1990, he was brought back to New Zealand as an official guest and a solo exhibiting artist for the nation’s Sesquicentennial celebrations at Wellington. He was declared a ‘New Zealand Living Cultural Treasure’ on that visit, and his portrait was one of the first five painted for the fledgling New Zealand Portrait Gallery.
The last of the extraordinarily creative post-war generation, he painted every day in his studio and exhibited well into his nineties.
This text has been adapted from one by Anna Cahill, MacDiarmid’s biographer and director of the MacDiarmid Arts Trust. She has also provided research on his 1959 work Landscape, Southern France.