Rita Angus

Rita Angus New Zealand Artist Hawkes Bay
Rita Angus, Storm, Hawkes Bay, c.1969. (Private Collection, copyright held by Rita Angus Estate)

Of all New Zealand’s early modernists, Rita Angus’ paintings are perhaps the easiest to love. It was her 1936 oil Cass, after all—that quintessential image of the lonely comings-and-goings of rural New Zealand, mundane, everyday journeys carried out amidst the unique transcendence of God’s Own peaks—that was voted to be this country’s most loved painting. But in a country looking for not just an art but an art history of its own, the art has never quite been enough; it was not just a New Zealand art we were looking for, but mythologies of New Zealand artists. That role was the one Rita Angus steadfastly refused to play. And so today New Zealanders find themselves in the position of having three great New Zealand artists, but not knowing what to make of the third. Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, and Rita Angus—Angus last in the list, separated by the Oxford comma, as if we didn’t quite know where she belonged.

Though her artworks were increasingly recognised and loved during her lifetime, Rita Angus herself remained to the end an enigmatic figure, sitting as solitary and isolated from the country’s burgeoning ‘art world’ as the figure in her Cass. She could be peevish, even to her closest friends and family. Douglas Lillburn, her one-time lover and long-time friend and neighbour, often found himself mediating on her behalf with those her brooding letters had left in disbelief. Art dealers and museum curators, far from being an exception, often bore the brunt of her fretful letters, and for this her reputation likely suffered. She never did have a dealer, but sold most of her early works through The Group, bastion of early modernism in Christchurch, and her later works mostly to select visitors to her Thorndon cottage in Wellington. When she died in 1970, aged 62, the bulk of her artistic output remained in her studio.

Perhaps some of the peevishness was personality. More likely, it was the result of the obstinateness that her choice of vocation forced upon her. For it has never been easy to be a woman painter—but to be a divorced woman painter intent upon modernism in what could then still be a conservative backwater was an altogether different challenge. Angus’ portraiture provides a fascinating record of the self-image required to proceed, let alone to succeed, in such an environment. Her Self-portrait of 1936-7 shows her standing strong and defiant, left arm raised as she clutches a cigarette in cool nonchalance as her right hand drapes a green beret over the opposite arm; but she may as well be holding Holofernes’ head by his hair, such is the strength of mind the picture conveys. A decade later and Angus painted A Goddess of Mercy, its central figure bearing distinctly ‘Rita’ features. This is an image of a woman at one with the world—deer nuzzle against her, birds swoop in harmony, mountains and farmland mirror themselves either side. This is a picture of strength, too, but strength borne from a unifying compassion. “As a woman painter”, Angus would write, “I work to represent love of humanity and faith in mankind in a world, which is to me, richly variable, infinitely beautiful”.

Angus was a modernist painter, one of the earliest this country can boast. But she was not by any stretch of the imagination an avant-gardist. Cubism, when it reached her work in the sixties, was diluted—a technique useful only for expressing the landscape as she experienced it while driving through on a bus, as in her late series of Hawkes Bay landscapes. A red barn, viewed frontally, but with what should be its two non-visible sides folded out either side to become visible; a gable-roofed house with both eaves represented simultaneously. Cubistic, more than Cubist—cubified at most. (Perhaps she picked this up from John Weeks who, despite studying under Andre Lhôte in Paris, always had what has been called “a wrong-headed idea of Cubism”). And whenever one senses, for a brief moment, something quite new in her work, there is always a reminder that Angus was looking far further back than us, or her twentieth century viewers: gridlines remain sometimes visible, as though her work were a preparatory drawing for a fifteenth century fresco, and always she worked in rich glazes of colour far more reminiscent of Renaissance Florence than Picasso’s and Braque’s muted, sepia, Cubist-era Paris. The Italian Primitives of the Quattrocento were as much a persistent influence than Picasso’s own dogged dominance of Angus’ century. She did reach abstraction, once or twice, but always she clung to the objective world with a title like Growth, suggesting shoots and seedlings in the springtime Thorndon she so loved.

Angus’ New Zealand landscape, by far her most frequent subject, is always the landscape seen from the metaphorical comfort of a cottage. In this her vision of New Zealand is starkly different from the raw, geomorphic, anti-materialist visions of her Nationalist contemporaries McCahon and Woollaston. Hers is a largely domesticated landscape: a stump of tree in the foreground, always a symbol of the land tamed, upon the quilted patchwork of farmland divided and registered by a District Council; or a road, a railway or perhaps powerlines running up between the quatre-acres. In another sense, too, Angus’ paintings are always domestic. She never painted a canvas or board larger than 900mm along any dimension, and her best works were significantly smaller (often they were watercolours, which, particularly during the first half of Angus’ career, frequently surpass her oils in their power and clarity.) Central Otago of 1940, her dynamic oil composition with a clarity she perhaps never captured again, surprises for how small it seems after one has seen reproductions, and her landscapes of the late 1960s never reach larger than a 600mm by 600mm square. There is something of Dalí’s approach to scale in Angus’ small, powerful and condensed images—even something of the icon in them—and again she demarcates herself from her contemporaries who painted ever-larger. McCahon and Woollaston stun the public into submission with eventually massive works. Angus enchants us. Her works are like small jewels, radiating human-scaled hope and warmth.

In 1958 the painter from Hawkes Bay who had always maintained that “N.Z. has more than enough to offer” made what was to be her only overseas trip, to London for a year, with just a three week grand tour of the continent. Where New Zealand’s other great female painter, Frances Hodgkins, saw in Europe the intellectual frontier and decided to stay forever so she could push against it, one gets the sense that for Rita Angus, a woman who lived a life of ascetic devotion to her art, to stay would have been too easy. “It is also easier overseas as it is traditional for a painter to devote their time to their work, & a liberal atmosphere to work in.” To have it easy was not the life she had chosen.

And so New Zealanders are left with a body of work astounding in its unity, an oeuvre unwavering in its commitment to what is ‘local and special’ about this country and its inhabitants at the point this painter picked up the traces. But the conflation of the subject of a work with its spirit has been the elementary mistake to have dogged the art historical reception of Rita Angus, leaving her out in the cold behind that Oxford comma. For hers was not the chauvinist vision of her nationalist contemporaries any more than we would say Picasso’s vision was jingoistic merely because he painted memento moris during the war. Angus stands in a relationship to New Zealand art history akin to how Edward Hopper stands to America’s: concerned deeply with the country and its people, its changing present and its potential futures, modestly moving beyond the art of old while incorporating its best traditions, yet all the while never once asserting an agenda at all limited by the borders of nationhood. And indeed these two came uncannily close to one another at times, in their unwavering realism, in their seascapes (Angus’ Boats at Island Bay to Hopper’s The Long Leg) and their cityscapes (Angus’ At Suzy’s Coffee Lounge to Hopper’s Nighthawks), and in their immutable—yet mute—resistance to their young countries’ insistence that in painting their landscapes they were painting their identities.

What Rita Angus leaves us is a minutely composed lesson in how by close observation of what is unique about ourselves we might move closer to seeing what is universal—how a love for one’s land, down to a solitary Passionflower, might reflect the passions that all humans have in common. It does not seem surprising that she viewed her 1951 Rutu as perhaps her most important work: this multi-ethnic goddess is at once unmistakeably Rita and undeniably everyone, set in at once the autumnal environment of her cottage at Clifton and the tropical paradise of a Tahitian Eden. Seen this way, the solitary, suited man on the station platform at Cass may not be waiting for the Midland Line train after all. He might just be waiting—as we all are, no matter what alps or oceans we wait amongst—for someone or something a bit like Godot.

 

Tutira: Herbert Guthrie-Smith and the Story of a Now-Toxic Lake

Tutira, Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station by William Herbert Guthrie SmithBrowsing grandparents’ bookshelves is always an experience of rediscovery. Books often seem to skip a generation, and then come back to teach the next. Finding William Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s book Tutira in my grandparents’ bookshelves left me embarrassed that I had not heard of it before—wondering, even, why I’d not been taught about it at school.

Tutira is, according to its subtitle, “The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station”. Its author came out to New Zealand as a young man of just 21, and set about finding a farm of his own. He first tried Canterbury, where he learned his skills, but soon moved to the norther climate of Hawkes Bay, finding the area north of Napier around Lake Tūtira to suit his purposes well. The book—large, heavy, and filled with maps and photos taken by Guthrie-Smith himself—is a record of 40 years spent farming the land, and was published in 1921, almost 100 years ago.

Lake Tutira photograph William Guthrie Herbert-Smith

No detail about the process of farming or the changes of the seasons and animals is too small for Guthrie-Smith. It’s a stunning work of patience and observation. We learn of the arrival of the willow tree in New Zealand direct from the seeds of the trees that planted Napoleon’s tomb on Saint Helena; we read descriptions of the floor of the lake as Guthrie-Smith plumbed it like Thoreau plumbed Walden pond. Spending a spring weekend reading Tutira is itself an exercise in patience; page after page of minute detail does not make for easy reading, but the whole picture built up is one of sensitivity and care for a natural environment that is changing beyond anyone’s understanding.

And that was Guthrie-Smith’s motivation for writing the book—to note what nature in early New Zealand was like, for those who may someday never see it. With great foresight Guthrie-Smith explains in his preface:

“So vast and rapid have been the alterations which have occurred in New Zealand during the past forty years, that even those who, like myself, have noted them day by day, find it difficult to connect past and present—the pleasant past so completely obliterated, the changeful present so full of possibility. These alterations are not traceable merely in the fauna, avifauna, and flora of the Dominion, nor are they only to be noted on the physical surface of the countryside: more profound, they permeate the whole outlook in regard to agriculture, stock-raising, and land tenure.

The story of Tutira is the record of such change noted on one sheep-station in one province. Should its pages be found to contain matter of any permanent interest, it will be owing to the fact that the life portrayed has for ever finished, the conditions sketched passed away beyond recall. A virgin countryside cannot be restocked; the vicissitudes of its pioneers cannot be re-enacted; its invasion by alien plants, animals, and birds cannot be repeated; its ancient vegetation cannot be resuscitated,—the words “terra incognito” have been expunged from the map of little New Zealand.”

And then I remembered, after reading about half the book, when I had last read the name Tutira—earlier this year, in a New Zealand Herald article titled simply, “Lake Tutira Turns Toxic.”

“Lake Tutira has an algal bloom likely to be toxic to people and animals… Warning signs were permanently in place at Lake Tutira but people were urged to avoid contact with the lake water and to keep animals away while the cyanobacteria were present.”

It seems too great an irony—too painful a one—that it is Guthrie-Smith’s lake (he gifted the land to the Crown after his death and it is now managed by the Department of Conservation) to be now a feature example of the state of New Zealand’s natural environment. Cleaning up rivers to make them once again swimmable was one of the few points of agreements by virtually all parties in New Zealand’s recent general election, which is at once a promising sign, but also a depressing one for how it came to needing to clean them up in the first place.

And though the decrepit state of Lake Tutira is recent, one of Guthrie-Smith’s central messages is that the environment is changing all the time—species of trees were dying in his day, rare birds disappearing frequently. Environmental change is itself perhaps the only constant in Tutira. Later in his life, while preparing the third edition of his book, Guthrie-Smith began to repent for so many of the changes he himself had caused on the land; Tutira Station itself had once been native bushed, burned down to make way for his farm. Though Guthrie-Smith seems resistant to any grand narratives or messages, one can sense a message of encouraging people to have care and compassion for the land and its species—to understand the necessity of change, but to be thoughtful and caring in it.

If New Zealand had a Henry David Thoreau, Herbert Guthrie-Smith would seem to be it—minus a political message but with a whole lot more conviction and example.


My family’s copy of the book belonged to my great-grandfather, Charles William Corner, who spent his life tending Napier’s parks and gardens. I don’t know if he ever met Guthrie-Smith, but in the small world of Hawkes Bay at that point—and the smaller world of naturalists and gardeners—I think it quite likely.

Note: After writing this I came across an article reviving Guthrie-Smith in the context of Hawkes Bay today. It’s a great read, with more detail than I’ve given here.

Herbert Guthrie Smith, Tutira 1926 William Blackwood