La Grande Dune, Le Pyla

Watercolour on paper
31 x 48 cm
Signed & dated ’56 lower right
Provenance: Exhibited in New Zealand at Centre Gallery, Wellington March 1961 & Canterbury Society of Arts Autumn Exhibition, Christchurch, 1961.

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A familiar Douglas MacDiarmid location of the mid-1950s, the huge sand dune – the tallest in Europe – is close to the seaside resort town of Le Pyla-sur-mer, where Douglas escaped Paris in the summer.

This dramatic French Basque landscape overlooks the Bay of Arcachon, 65 kilometres down the Atlantic Coast from Bordeaux. Many people think of the Basque Country as Spanish but three of its 10 provinces are in south-western France, with a distinct cultural and geographical character.

Le Pyla had special significance for Douglas, the place where he spent many holidays at his wealthy partner Jacqueline’s palatial summer house on the waterfront. Life at the beach was a relaxed routine of swimming, boating, water-skiing, fishing – and entertaining numerous house guests.

Theirs was a tumultuous relationship. Douglas struggled to find space to reflect and paint in this company but continued to sketch throughout these extended summer breaks.

He vented his frustration in his personal diary: “I am looking for something to live by – these folk search for amusement.” But there were moments of magic too: after a couple of days relaxing at Le Pyla, late July 1956, he wrote: “At night went down and paddled in the phosphorescence – it was like stirring up stars with our feet”.

And, another journal entry on 3 September 1956: “Last day in this (Le Pyla) paradise – a month of which has given me health and love in mind and body.”

Tragically, Jacqueline died after a snow skiing accident early in 1961, while Douglas was in New Zealand preparing for a solo March exhibition in Centre Gallery, Wellington, at which this painting was first shown. Soon after, it was one of 11 MacDiarmid paintings to appear in the Canterbury Society of Art Autumn Exhibition from 12 April to 16 May in Christchurch, where catalogue No 298 ‘Landscape Le Grande Dune au Pyla’ 1956 sold for £75.00.

After her death, Douglas’ possessions including painting materials and completed canvases were locked up in bitter family estate proceedings for years before he was able to reclaim them for exhibition and sale.

Being insatiably inquisitive and acutely observant, landscapes always appealed to Douglas as much as people. He saw them in similar terms – always looking for the underlying narrative of what was before him, the essence rather than mere description. Landscapes were the first things he painted as a boy; he continued to paint landscapes throughout his career, even when they were considered deeply unfashionable, because it pleased him, and showing or selling paintings was always less important than making them.

However, there is no one MacDiarmid painting mode, in landscapes or any other genre. His creative signature, if he had such a thing, was diversity…“I neither live nor work to formula, responding mostly to stimuli inner or outer, which have the effect of command. Mood evolves as the painting proceeds and decides the degree of abstraction or figuration, in general a blend of both, give the liberty and elusiveness of vision,” he explained in 2013.

Douglas was in the habit of making rapid sketches of things that took his eye, often returning to these notebooks of drawings and observations years and sometimes decades later. Many of his favourite landscapes were as familiar as old friends. Generally, he painted watercolour or pastel versions of his work, in the process of capturing the vision, before working those that demanded more in acrylic or (originally) oil.

An oil coastscape of this series is in the permanent collection of Te Manawa Art Gallery, Palmerstone North.