Oil on canvas
650 x 810mm
Technically untitled, this landscape was painted somewhere in the subalpine region of southern France—perhaps the hilly countryside of Aquitaine, or the Alpes-Maritimes behind the French Riviera. The peaceful scene belies the turmoil of the artist’s daily life in the period.
By 1959, Douglas MacDiarmid had been living and working in France for almost a decade. His relationship with his mercurial French fiancée, Jacqueline, was complicated and turbulent. It had developed a few years earlier, after she offered him patronage, including a live-in studio at her Paris property, in return for guidance on developing her own painting. The couple spent winters in the city, or skiing, and summers at her beach mansion at Pyla sur Mer, a resort on the Bay of Biscay, west of Bordeaux.
When on holiday, MacDiarmid and Jacqueline motored far and wide on leisurely adventures in search of picturesque, uncrowded places to explore and sketch, gathering ample subject matter to see him through the winter months back in Paris. Their affluent existence was marred by bouts of serious illness for them both, as well as the unpredictability of Jacqueline’s ‘volcanic’ nature and MacDiarmid’s anxiety and embarrassment at never earning enough from painting to contribute to their lifestyle. There were times when he was so downcast it was easier to write poetry and prose than to find inspiration in paint.
This landscape shows the palette knife technique favoured by MacDiarmid at the time. In a 3 July 1959 review of his solo show at André Brooke’s Gallery 91 in Christchurch, a critic for the Press noted, ‘Mr MacDiarmid works in floating patches of color and line. He applies the paint mainly with a knife, doing so with verve and unusual subtlety. He does not use the trowel-and-mortar method of knife painting commonly employed by New Zealand painters; he sweeps the paint on to the very smooth canvas which he uses with broad, sometimes semi-transparent strokes.’
Being insatiably inquisitive and acutely observant, MacDiarmid had always been drawn to landscapes as much as people. He saw the subjects in similar terms—always looking to tease out the underlying narrative, the essence of what lay before him. Landscapes were the first things he painted as a boy; throughout his career, he continued to produce them, even when they were considered deeply unfashionable. Showing or selling paintings was always less important to him than making them.
MacDiarmid had a productive year in 1959. In addition to presenting works from 1956 to 1958 at Gallery 91, he showed with the new John Leech Gallery in Auckland in November (unfortunately, catalogue lists for the two exhibitions, both brokered by Brooke, have not yet been found). Writing of the Auckland show, a reviewer observed: ‘At times MacDiarmid’s colour is jewel-like or almost part of the atmosphere. In other paintings one is hardly aware of the high key because the major hues are linked by insubordinate ones. Perhaps defect lies in the very perfection of technique.’
Landscape, Southern France was most likely sent to New Zealand for the exhibition at John Leech Gallery. MacDiarmid dispatched recent paintings to Brooke to supplement the few unsold pieces from the Gallery 91 show.
This text has been adapted from one by Anna Cahill, MacDiarmid’s biographer and director of the MacDiarmid Arts Trust.