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Colours of a Life

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid

By Anna Cahill

Mary Egan Publishing, 2018

Reviewed by Janet Hughes

This substantial volume succeeds very readably as a ‘life and times’. It is full of the kind of detail that makes the person come to life and illuminates the environments they lived in, beyond the necessities of explaining their personal and professional history. It catches the excitement of the twentieth-century arts scene both here and in Europe, the constraints of New Zealand, the privations of postwar bohemian Europe.

Anna Cahill was lucky to have an engaging subject, whose colourful life is extensively documented and not yet over – he could speak, wittily, for himself. He also lived abroad while people still wrote letters; and he mixed with fascinating people, involved in the arts in a time of innovation and optimism, in both hemispheres. Often a biography of a painter or writer, say, whose work you admire can leave you wishing you hadn’t read it. No danger of that here. Without apparently minimising his flaws, Cahill’s account and especially her judicious use of quotations gives us someone easy to like, and fundamentally interesting. The facts of the life – a very successful artist largely neglected in his country of origin having spent his working life mostly in Europe, where his sexual preferences were more readily accommodated and his work better appreciated – could so easily have furnished a conventional tale of exile. Cahill scrupulously avoids this trap, helped by MacDiarmid’s buoyant good humour through his fluctuating fortunes.

The volume is well presented and generously illustrated, giving a sense of the artist’s range and development. The illustrations are well reproduced, and nicely incorporated into the design, with full-page reproductions facing the opening of each chapter. The images are clearly chosen to fit the biographical contours of the compelling, lucidly organised narrative, with the emphasis on the subject’s personal and emotional life. The selection principle limits its art-historical value – fair enough, it is not basically a picture-book. I would have still appreciated a little more about the technical and stylistic aspects of MacDiarmid’s prolific and diverse output, and especially his response to influences; though judicious quotation from contemporary reviews helps, and minimal commentary is preferable to inexpert commentary.

Men hauling a line (1957) by Douglas MacDiarmid

Photographs of people are used very sparingly, though tellingly, for example often showing people whose portraits by MacDiarmid are also reproduced. I can get impatient with pages of minimally pertinent portraits and snapshots in biographies. This one, for a change, sometimes left me wanting more.

A couple of reservations. The captions of the reproduced artworks are minimal, providing only the title, the date, and the current location of the work. For the dimensions and medium of works – crucial if the reader is to interpret the image confidently – you have to flip to a table at the end of the book. I would have liked to see this information, which can be expressed very briefly, given priority.

Ideally both writer and editor should always revisit the beginning of a work once they reach the end. It takes a while for the writer to find their voice and the editor to get their eye in, and for both of them to tune their ear for style and tone. But I often come across books where one or both failed to perform this crucial adjustment, so the opening part reads appreciably less well than the rest. Perhaps the author at first resists editorial advice, or the editor is initially timid about intervening – and very probably everyone concerned runs out of time, because that’s publishing. It may seem carping to mention this, but this book is a striking example, with so many infelicities of expression and frequent clichés and awkward punctuation in the first few chapters that I wondered whether they had been edited at all. They fade out rapidly, pretty well gone by chapter 3, and the tone settles nicely; but if I had not been reviewing the book, I might have put it down in exasperation by then.

It would be a great shame if readers were deterred by the rather shaky beginning, because the biography as a whole is lively, shapely, and informative. It vividly illuminates the subject, who emerges as a remarkable person, and a fascinating aspect of New Zealand’s place in the art of the last century, in thoroughly absorbing account.

First published ArtZone #76


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