Audio description of Rita Angus’s ‘Central Otago’, 1943-36/1969

Rita Angus, Central Otago, 1953–56/1969, oil on canvas. Gift of Douglas Lilburn, 1972. Te Papa (1972-0030-1)


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’.