I’ve tried through the medium of paint to express … how simple and wonderful living is … Rita Angus, 1944
This short film, made by Te Papa, celebrates Rita’s artistic practice – diving into her painting Central Otago. Central Otago has colour and vitality that capture Rita’s deep feeling for and close observation of this wild, dramatic landscape.
She spent two weeks travelling through the area in the summer of 1953, recording what she saw, what she experienced, in watercolour studies and sketches. She then pieced these together to create a single oil painting.
Rita captured the multiple landscapes, light, moods, movement, and textures of an entire region in one composite picture, from the high alps to a lake with the wind ruffling its waters, the foothills and farmlands, mounds of earth left by gold dredges, farm buildings, and the tiny wooden church at Naseby.
She painted Central Otago through 1953 to 1956 and reworked the painting in 1969. In this film, we imagine her process. Explore the landscapes Rita captures in paint, and her vivid palette of colour. Trace the evolution of the work – from fluid watercolour study to crisp oil painting.
A Painter’s Journey takes us on an immersive journey into the rich, vivid details of the work and the artist’s practice. The soundscape includes Douglas Lilburn’s work Four Canzonas for String Orchestra) and natural sounds recorded in Central Otago in 2021.
I asked the filmmaker, Prue Donald, Te Papa’s Digital Producer, to tell us about her journey making this film.
Following Rita’s travels, we ventured south to Central Otago in October 2021, armed with copies of her watercolours, stopping to seek local knowledge about where a particular bend in the river might be. Some landscapes she captured in a few sharply observed lines, but enough for locals to recognise the shape of a ridge.
Rita travelled through Central by bus, so she would have explored these places on foot – we know she was a great walker. We imagined her arriving, say, in Arrowtown, maybe heading for a friend’s crib to stay a few nights, and finding a nearby lookout point to sketch landscapes in detail. We’re certain she would have climbed Tobins Track, for instance, to get a spectacular panorama of the Wakatipu basin – which maybe inspired her bird’s-eye view of the region that you sense in the oil painting.
At the places that drew her attention, we heard the wind through the tussocks on the barren hills, the chorus of birds in the still morning air, the sound of water rushing through shallow riverbeds – and imagined Rita might have experienced the same sense of thrilling isolation, of being in the world of the wild back country, feeling the deep momentum at the banks of the Clutha River, or admiring the simplicity of a tiny wooden church in the forest. And picking up her brushes to paint.
This oil painting on canvas is 38cm wide by 47cm high. It’s on loan to Te Papa from the Rita Angus Estate.
Rita painted this when she was 21 years old, a third-year art student in Christchurch.
It’s a three-quarter-length work. She stands with her left shoulder nearer us and her head turned our way. The background is a light brown. The paint has slightly cracked on the canvas over time.
She’s casually clad in her artist’s working clothes, and gazes out with quiet confidence. Her mouth is closed, lips warmed with soft red colour.
Her orange beret is a splash of bright colour. The beret’s thin little stalk sticks jauntily upwards.
Her hair has been tucked up inside the beret at the back, and at the front held clear of her fair-skinned forehead. Some blonde curls escape alongside her ears.
She wears an open, blue, long-sleeved working shirt with a soft collar. Rita uses blue tones with whiter patches to capture the light along her left side and show the loose form of the shirt as it drapes around her. Underneath she wears a green, round-necked top.
There is a forthright independence to this portrait of herself as an artist, which captures something of what makes Rita distinctively modern, and a woman of her age.
is an oil painting on canvas, painted in 1938. It’s part of Te Papa’s art collection. It’s 38cm wide and 46cm high.
Rita once wrote that she had been born at the time the Egyptian tombs were opened. She was fascinated by the ancient Egyptian civilisation, and intrigued by Cleopatra specifically as a woman wielding power.
In this three-quarter-length portrait, painted when she was 30 years old, Rita is a Cleopatra for the modern age. She takes the Egyptian queen’s name, and theatrically positions herself as if she is a flat figure on an Egyptian mural. Her body is almost front-on to us, but her head is in profile, facing to her right.
Rather than painting herself exactly as we would see her in person, this portrait is very crisp and sharp. Rita’s figure is flat, almost outlined, with distinctive clear colours. This is a very modern style of portrait – it feels fresh and powerful.
The background is a bright, fresh green, showing something of the texture of the canvas.
Rita glances our way with a somewhat quizzical, amused expression. Her eye looks both out at us and straight ahead. Her mouth is closed, darkened by bold red lipstick, and emphasised by a slight shimmer of lighter green in the background close by.
In another nod to the classical Egyptian pose, her right arm bends up at the elbow and back at the wrist, holding her hand out towards the edge of the frame, palm upwards. Her little finger and one other curve back in over her palm, but that’s all. The others are cropped off at the edge of the canvas. Our Te Papa conservators noted the paint in this area, usually so smooth in Rita’s oil paintings, looked a bit rougher. They examined the painting under infrared light and saw her initial drawing in charcoal or pencil, in which Rita’s hand seems to be holding a smoking cigarette. The artist had painted this part over.
Rita’s browny hair hangs to neck length. Paint in darker and lighter tones shapes and sculpts its wavy texture. One curl flicks high over her fair forehead to her left brow. A narrow, lighter green glow in the background sweeps around and accentuates the shape of her head and the colours in her hair.
She wears a pale green, sleeveless dress that’s cut sharply back from the underarm to the high collar line. The crescent curves of her bare shoulders stand out against the background, and darker skin tones create light shadows that highlight her clavicles.
The collar falls in long, thin triangles. It’s fastened with one of three large white buttons, evenly spaced down the front of the dress
is an oil painting on canvas, painted in 1938. It’s part of Te Papa’s art collection. It’s 69cm wide and 53cm high.
The two girls of the title – young, fair-skinned, bright-eyed, and fresh-faced, hair off their foreheads – sit side by side, elbows almost touching, against plumped blue cushions on a high-backed cane sofa.
Fay, who’s around 7 years old, on our left, has blue eyes and short, bouncy fair hair, tied with a thin red ribbon high across her brow. Jane, about 9, has brown eyes and short, straight brown hair, tied in the same way with a green ribbon.
A pale flush lights the sisters’ faces, as if someone has given them a quick dab with a warm facecloth. Their closed mouths are smiling enough to dimple their cheeks.
The sisters wear identical red and white checked dresses, with wide, soft, curved white collars. Their skirts flare out across their laps and the sofa – there’s no line to show where one starts and the other ends between them.
Each wears a green cardigan. These are really similar, though not exactly the same in shade or style.
Together, the girls support an open book across their laps, each holding it with her outer hand. Most of the book is out of frame, but there’s a bit of a picture low on one page.
Three dolls are displayed on a shelf up behind the sofa – evenly spaced, one seated at either side, and one standing between the girls’ heads. They’re all quite different. Rita dressed and draped them in dolls’ clothes and material.
The doll to the left seems to be a hard plastic. Her arms and a foot that sticks out under her skirt reach forward in a fixed position. She has black skin, and white dots for eyes. There’s a piece of blue material over her head, tied in a bow below her chin, and she wears a white apron over a red dress.
The middle doll is standing. Its head could be porcelain – it’s very white, its features and edges uneven, maybe chipped. Seams on the arms reveal its body as fabric. It’s got wide eyes with something of a surprised expression. A yellow, flat hat lies angled over the top of its head, with black and red detail at the centre. A piece of blue material draped across its shoulders is held in place at the front by a long silver pin. Its lower clothing is green.
The doll to the right is sitting. Her brown skin is fabric. Her bare arms stick out from her sides. She wears a tight blue cap with red tassel trim, a blue and white top, and green and red lower clothes. Her red shoes stick out towards us.
Arranged at the top of the painting, a few pieces of a green tea set seem to hover in the air against a light-brown wall. There’s an angular-style jug at each side, and two cups and a plate holding a layered iced biscuit float across the centre.
is an oil painting on canvas. It’s part of Te Papa’s art collection. It’s 48cm wide and 56cm high.
This is a mid-length portrait of a friend of Rita’s, who she met at art school. The portrait is set in Central Otago, near Lake Wānaka, where Rita and Marjorie sketched together. It was painted over two years when Marjorie was in her late 20s – in 1938 and 1939 – and then parts of it were repainted in 1943.
The painting combines the two main strands of Rita’s work – portraiture and landscape – with particular boldness and intensity. It has a warmth of colour and tone that reflects Rita’s affection for her two subjects: her friend and the landscape.
Marjorie, with fair skin and brown hair, stands in the centre of the frame. Her body is almost full-on to us, her head is slightly turned to her right, and her bright brown eyes look away in that direction as if she’s seen something interesting. She’s smiling – her lips turn up though her mouth is closed.
A soft yellow scarf with thick fringes sticking out along its sides, almost with a life of their own, drapes over her head and ties in a wide knot under her chin. She wears a tailored green jacket. Underneath there’s a richly warm-orange top, almost blazing in the centre of the painting. Marjorie’s warm clothes, the brightness of the colours, and the jaunty angle of her scarf suggest that a stiff spring wind might be blowing through the valley where she stands.
The landscape that frames her stretches from narrow strips of tilled field at the bottom of the work, across bare land with bare trees, to a line of low hills and two sets of higher ranges.
At the top of the painting, the artist signalling their distance with shades of soft blue, the angular shapes of bare, rocky mountain peaks stand against the blue sky with high, scudding clouds. It’s hard to tell where the mountains end and the sky begins.
In front of these, a line of ranges in a rich brown, with dark shadows outlining their steep faces, stands strong and sharp in a triangular block behind Marjorie’s scarf-wrapped head. Softer, lighter brown hills curve across in front of these on the far side of icy blue water, which crosses the painting just below halfway, its lightness framing the line of her shoulders. The shoreline, on her side of it, is fenced off with a line of battens and wire.
On either side of Marjorie, a tree grows from the brown earth and stretches out bare branches.
This is an oil painting on canvas, 56cm wide by 71cm high. It’s part of Te Papa’s art collection. Planned and painted over about five years, it was finished in 1951.
This is one of Rita’s three goddess works, which bring life to her vision for a pacifist, multicultural future in New Zealand. She believed these three goddesses to be among the major works of her lifetime and often described Rutu as her child.
Rutu is a painting of a woman in a coastal Pacific setting. She sits at ease on a chair, surrounded by lush foliage, on a rise with her back to the ocean. Behind her shoulders, the light-blue sky meets the dark-blue sea along a featureless horizon. A large, deep-yellow circle with a strong, dark outline – the sun, or a halo perhaps – frames her head against the sky. She’s almost life-size. Her body turns a little to her right. She cradles a waterlily just above her lap where the painting ends.
Although the figure in Rutu does look like Rita, in her letters to her friend Douglas Lilburn, she wrote that she thought about the painting as an imaginary portrait rather than a self-portrait.
Rutu, this woman of Rita’s imagination, has smooth, quite dark-brown skin, and strikingly – almost artificially bright – yellow hair. It sits high above her forehead and falls in long, wide strands over her shoulders, where it spreads out. Unlike her other portraits, it doesn’t have the texture of hair. It falls instead as flat lengths – almost like cut-out fabric.
She seems serene. Perhaps it is her steady gaze from blue-grey eyes, looking out to her right, and her gently closed mouth. She wears a red, close-fitting, short-sleeved top. It has a deep scoop neck trimmed with a dark panel decorated with three little golden fish swimming across it to our left. The top is tucked into the waistband of a rich blue-purple skirt.
The tips of her long, fine index fingers, and thumbs behind, gently hold the outer petals of a large, creamy-white waterlily flower above her lap, with its long, green stem stretching below.
Lines of white, curling breakers meet the shore behind her shoulders. From here on either side, there’s a line of spiky vegetation, then tall palm trees. Red-leafed shrubs frame either side of the seat she’s on. She sits up straight but at ease on a wide wooden chair painted with red and black stripes, and brown rounded shapes.
This is an oil on canvas painting, 63cm wide by 52cm high. It’s part of Te Papa’s art collection.
Central Otago is a vibrant, detailed painting that layers together multiple landscapes and different perspectives to create a wide, sweeping panorama of the region, as if we can experience everything, everywhere at once.
It all spreads out before us, from the high, craggy alps under a cloudy sky, to the eroded hillsides and gentler foothills, and wide, cultivated land scattered with a few trees and buildings. The myriad forms, lines, and textures of the land are bathed in a golden light, as if Rita has washed summer sunlight across the scene.
As she began this work, Rita wrote to her friend Douglas Lilburn, ‘It’s all there, the strangeness, colour, exhilaration.’ He’d supported her to take a sketching tour through the area in the summer of 1953. She recorded the journey in pencil notes, and detailed watercolour studies and sketches.
Central Otago is almost like a painted journal of the experiences and sensations Rita absorbed through that time. She worked on it through 1953 to 1956, and again off and on until 1969, the year before she died.
Rita settles the finely observed and delicately captured landscapes of her watercolour studies, sometimes almost unchanged, within a whole new landscape, capturing the spirit of the land, the movement of weather and light and wind.
The painting is made up of multiple layers of landscape. The lower part of the work is a complete landscape in itself, almost a painting within a painting. It starts with a green hill that gives way to the flat bed of a valley surrounded by several retreating lines of lumpy hills. To the left, the little wooden church from Naseby stands tall on a plateau. Where we would expect skyline along the top of the view, above the distant hills, it blends instead into another landscape above it.
Through the middle plane of the work, there’s a softness of gently rolling open land, a small, rugged rock formation sitting solid in its centre. This central area is almost luminous with golden red colour. There’s evidence of cultivation, and tiny houses are scattered within this central zone. To the left, mounds of earth dredged by gold diggers lie across the land like miniature versions of a higher, naturally mounded hill beside them. To the right sit some small, blocky, windowless farm buildings. There’s a line of trees at the very edge, with a faint outline of buildings behind them. Perhaps this is one of Arrowtown’s tree-lined streets.
The top of the painting takes us slowly up into the high country. There’s a sculptural nature to the painted contours and outlines of these lands – the hills, raw-sided and soft-sided, covered in grass or scrub or tussock, and the craggy, sweeping faces of the mountains. A chilled lake lies in a valley towards top left. The wind is whipping up white-capped waves, and blustering through a few green trees on the shoreline.
This scene, with the mountain flanks behind the water, is lifted almost exactly from a watercolour study. When she painted the watercolour, Rita would have been close to the trees, so they are quite big compared to the mountains away behind them. She’s kept that proportion in the oil painting, so these moving trees loom large here, their branches almost reaching out of the vast landscape and into the sky.
The painting combines Rita’s views, experiences, and memories of different parts of Central Otago. It is a portrait of a place, not an exact single view or a geological replica of the area.
Douglas Lilburn donated the painting and the studies to the National Art Gallery (now Te Papa) in 1972, saying, ‘so that the record of her journey and her vision would be preserved intact’.
This oil painting, painted in 1969, would be Rita’s last oil painting. It’s part of Te Papa’s art collection. It’s 61cm wide by 60cm high.
A graveyard monument dove is mid-flight above a coastal bay, where tombstones lie seemingly abandoned on the shore on a bright, sunny day. The dark-blue waters are framed by a hilly headland that juts into the ocean, leaving a brief stretch of horizon line on the left, and craggy rocks and a grassy strip in the foreground. A bank of white clouds moves in from the sea towards the highest edge of the headland. To the right, grey smoke billows up from a valley, rising as a twisting column into the sky.
Three small, white fishing boats lie at anchor in the bay, facing out to the sea. The water is so still that sunlight on each casts a light reflection on the water. Another fishing boat chugs in from the open ocean, breaking a line of white caps in its wake, while someone in wet weather gear stands sentinel in the bow.
A few sharp brown rocks break the waters close by shore, outliers from the rocky coastline that takes up about the lower third of the painting. A lone red-billed, red-legged seagull perches on its chosen rock above a small, placid pool to the right.
On the grassy foreshore, there’s a roughly formed pile of tombstones – perhaps 20. Two upright crosses stand amongst them. The others are solid shapes, hewn from concrete and marble, worn and weathered, most rectangles with angled or curved tops. Some stand upright while others lie cast or stacked sideways. None have inscriptions on the sides that face us.
Above the bay, the huge stone dove holds steady in the air, its beak to our left, its head against the clouds, its large feet angled forward as if to land. The dove is in flight, wings spread, but there’s a sense of heaviness about it. It’s coloured like the grey gravestones, as if it too has been wrenched from a cemetery. Its beak holds the stalk of a wide, drooping piece of foliage, or perhaps a drift of fabric, also sculpted in solid stone.
You can find out more about Te Papa’s art collection on the Te Papa website, and search Collections Online for particular works.
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