Otti Binswanger

Douglas MacDiarmid (New Zealander, b.1922, d.2020), Artist 1945 © All rights reserved See full details

Object Detail

Portraits have always been part of Douglas’ wide repertoire, particularly of people he loves. Here you have a strongly built woman, arms crossed defensively, head wrapped in a scarf, standing in a living room in her overcoat on. A very un-New Zealand looking scene, it is a strikingly modern take on portraiture and social commentary at a time when faces were usually painted in very traditionally style.

Otti and her scholarly husband Paul were highly educated German refugees who found sanctuary in Christchurch during World War II, part of an influential Jewish contingent who chose the city as the most liveable civilised community on the world map that was farthest from the Nazi juggernaut. Yet they struggled to find work and fit into the social confines of a colonial outpost.

With his penchant for older, erudite, interesting folk, Douglas embraced the Binswangers for their cultured outlook and thinking. Otti was not only Douglas’ good friend but a remarkable woman - a sculptor, author and rhythmic gymnast who introduced new forms of remedial exercise to sick and disabled people during her few years in this country.

Often referred to as ‘The Immigrant’, this painting has been celebrated as a statement on displacement. However, in his email response to Friedrich Voit of Auckland University in January 2009 as to what he recalled of the painting, Douglas replied: "The question is fascinating, and gives me the chance to give you details concerning this portrait of Otti which could be of interest.

“First, my mentality is that of a painter, and so photographic inquiry will always be a way of getting lost. Then its title "The Immigrant" is not what I'd have ever wished. I simply painted a portrait of Otti, as of most of my friends of that prolific moment of youth. By far the greater part of the work for a portrait is done from memory, at all periods, & some of my best have not benefitted from one single sitting. The person gets in the way, or goes "dead". This one of Otti was probably done from brief visits while she was out doing the shopping.”

The room in which Douglas set Otti looked deliberately foreign from the usual kiwi parlour of the day. It was loosely based on the local home of another friend Dr Otto Frankel, a Viennese plant breeder and early wheat geneticist, and his New Zealand wife Margaret. The Frankels commissioned refugee architect, furniture designer and town planner Ernst Plischke to create their ultra-modern house at Opawa, a southern suburb of Christchurch.

Douglas’ 2009 email to Friedrich Voit underscores his creative licence: “So I can guarantee that not one detail of this painting is photographically accurate. There was no such huge window, and the scene beyond came from a sketch of the Christchurch water supply reservoir quite a long way off.

“Poor Plischke must be turning over in his grave if he can hear people saying that he designed this very weird furniture. It was Otti who had all my attention and the other elements are merely props to get the most from her very typical, expressive stance.”

The Binswangers were not blessed with children but took in another of Douglas’ friends English botanist Marjorie Mitchell when she was stranded in New Zealand, pregnant, on a research trip when war broke out. The couple looked after mother and baby as their own and became godparents to the little girl, who grew up to be Dr Juliet Mitchell, celebrated British psychoanalyst, social feminist, author on sexuality, and Professor of Psychoanalysis and Gender Studies at Cambridge University.

When Otti and Paul left New Zealand after the war, they lived with the Mitchells in London for some years before re-establishing themselves in Europe.

Douglas kept in contact with Otti and Paul and noted in letters how much more at home they appeared in their customary refined European surroundings.

Otti wrote an engaging book “And how do you like this country? Stories of New Zealand”, while living here…and shrugged off churlish claims that she couldn’t possibly have penned such excellent English as a foreigner. It was republished in 2010 with a new preface by Professor Livia Käthe Wittmann (of Christchurch) to introduce the stories and the personality and life of its author.

In his 2009 reply, Douglas stated: “Otti Binswanger's stories are full of question, her stance in this life emanated question from every pore. Who needs more…? Do you not think that the title of this painting should now be rectified to simply: Otti Binswanger? I think we owe it to her."

The MacDiarmid Arts Trust also has a background blog on the painting on Douglas' dedicated website at

Anna Cahill, March 2020
Otti Binswanger
Production date
oil on canvas on board
Image 361 x 392 mm ( h x w )
Framed: 403 x 432 x 35 mm (h x w x d)
Credit line
Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, purchased 1978
Accession number