A Painter’s Journey: Rita Angus’s Central Otago

This film celebrates Rita Angus’s artistic practice – diving into her painting Central Otago (1953–56/1969).

It was the same country I remembered but so much more, colourful, strange & exhilarating. 

–  Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 1953

Angus travelled around the region in the summer of 1953, recording what she saw in watercolour studies and sketches. She then pieced these together to create a single oil painting. 

Here, we imagine her process. See the landscapes through Angus’s eyes. Explore her vivid colour palette. Trace the evolution of the work – from fluid watercolour study to crisp oil painting.

Central Otago was commissioned by composer Douglas Lilburn, Angus’s close friend. Two of Lilburn’s compositions are used in the film’s soundtrack.

A Painter’s Journey was filmed in Central Otago and Te Papa’s paintings conservation studio in 2021 for the exhibition Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist (Te Papa, December 2021–April 2022). A smaller exhibition of Angus’s work, including this film, is currently touring regional galleries around Aotearoa New Zealand.;

Audio description of A Painter’s Journey

Transcript of audio description

Judith Jones: “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 OtagoCentral 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 (1937–1940) 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.

Prue Donald: 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.