Track 4: ‘A world of colour’ gallery

I am still trying to express … the vast variations & endless possibilities in paint. 
Rita Angus

In her 50s and 60s, Rita continued to experiment with new ways of painting. She was alive to the world around her – capturing its colour and detail, revealing its strangeness and intensity.

Self-portrait, 1967–1968

This is a three-quarter-length portrait, oil on board, 40cm wide by 58cm high. It’s on loan from a private collection.

The artist faces us, dressed warmly, against sculpted trees and a chill grey sky. This is the last completed self-portrait of Rita Angus, painted in oils over two years as she was turning 60, and completed two years before she died. She wrote in her diary: ‘I was trying to paint age into it.’ 

A close-fitting black hat is set firmly on her head, its form dense and dark against the sky. It covers most of her short, grey hair.

Rita’s brown eyes look directly and steadily out of the painting. There’s a warm tone to her skin, and a calm air in her gaze towards us. Dark shades trace deepening creases, etching age between her brows, around her mouth and eyes, and puckering lightly across her neck.

Rita wears a red jacket warm in tone, and it seems like it would keep her warm too, with a curved-neck pink top showing between its angled lapels.

Behind her the trees, their foliage formed by green shapes that run into each other, grow up on solid trunks, up towards a pale, cloudless sky. 

A single, leafless brown tree limb curves in from high on the right edge of the frame. At first it echoes the line of her left shoulder. It arcs over and past the top of her black hat, then branches out as stark lines against the clear sky above her. 

Central Otago 

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’.

Scrub burning, northern Hawke’s Bay 

This oil on board painting is on loan from Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. It’s a square, around 60cm by 60cm. 

Rita painted this in 1965, after visiting her nephew’s family in Hawke’s Bay and watching him light a fire to burn off scrub, to clear the land for farming. There are no flames in the painting and no burning scrub. The fire is in a valley between richly dark-green, textured, bush-clad hills. There are no people either – no one travels the curves of a road that shows through the trees on the right.

But there is smoke. Smoke curves, curls, and billows, and holds the whole centre of the work. It rises in a column that starts low on the far left edge, from behind a green, grassy hillside. There’s a tiny blocky shape on that hillside, maybe a hut, the only thing with straight lines in the whole work. It casts a tiny shadow from sunlight over to our right. Sunlight clear of the smoke, shining on and through it, gives it a radiant glow.

The smoke swirls and expands as the fire – moving across to the right behind the bushy hills – seemingly eats up everything in its path. Sculptural forms of red and grey smoke tumble and surge high over the landscape, blotting out the sky, then turn back on themselves as if the wind direction is different higher up. Above the hot haze of the dense smoke, there are a few puffy white clouds in the loomy dark sky. 

If you were standing nearby, it might feel as if the world was on fire, the heat singeing and sucking at the air itself, while the ash caught in the smoke would fall across burned and unburned land alike.


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. 

The audio description of Flight, Rita’s last oil painting, was the last track in this introduction to the Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist exhibition. 

From the end of this gallery, you can walk through the art activity studio to the central space near the staircase. 

The exhibition will be open at Te Papa until 25 April 2022. 

You can find out more about Te Papa’s art collection on the Te Papa website, and search Collections Online for particular works.

Thank you for listening.