The first assignment is writing an essay on two lanscape works by one artist. I have chosen Rita Angus because she is an iconic NZ landscape painter whose work I really admire.
"Thinking About Art " Cultural Studies Assessment
"Explore the differences and similarities, contrast and compare the two works using the four topic areas"
- Cultural Context
A comparison of Cass (1936) and Flight (1968-69)
This essay explores the differences and similarities between Cass and Flight by considering the paintings' cultural contexts, their function/symbolism, style and identity.
Rita Angus painted these two artworks thirty-three years apart. Although Angus does not appear to have altered her painting style over these years, the symbolism in the later work reflects how politically and socially aware she had become towards the later years of her life and how her views were reflected in her artworks. The earlier work is Cass, an oil on canvas on board measuring 370 x 460mm, painted in 1936. This artwork is an iconic New Zealand painting. McAloon and Trevelyan note that it was “voted New Zealand’s greatest painting” in a television poll in 2006. They also point out that it “reflects the developments that occurred in the New Zealand art world in the latter half of the last century.”  The later work is Flight, a larger oil on hardboard measuring 602 x 607mm, painted in 1968-69 just before she died. Both paintings depict landscapes, one of the subject matter passions throughout her life.
The earlier painting, Cass, belongs to an era in New Zealand painting when artists focused on the uniqueness of different landscapes and strove to capture, with new-found intensity, the real features of that landscape. The romanticized artworks of early New Zealand painters were replaced by hard-edged landscape paintings celebrating light, form (mountains and man-made features imposing on the landscape) cloud formations, and native and exotic vegetation. Painters such as Rata Lovell-Smith and Christopher Perkins were contemporaries who would have influenced Angus. Angus would have aware of Cubism, originating in Paris in 1908, and she would have been aware of other modern art movements.
Cass is considered a ground-breaking work of art with its “hard-edged form, stark light, rhythmic patterning and decorative colour” deriving from modernism. The artist uses dancing lines to capture native grasses blowing in the wind, and air moving. The use of line, colour and form is striking. The painting depicts the impact of human activity on the land in a very direct and unromanticised way. A faceless traveller waits for the next train at the railway station; power poles without wires demand the viewer’s attention. Cass was considered sufficiently significant to be in the 1940 National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art that featured other ground-breaking artists forging what was to be considered a national school of painting – including Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon.
Stylistically Flight is similarly hard-edged and has a strong composition broken into horizontal thirds of the canvas. The composition in Cass, by comparison, features vertical thirds with the intersection of the mountains drawing the viewer’s eyes to the exotic pine trees – interlopers in the natural landscape. Neither paintings are naturalistic; Flight is more abstract with the sea in the middle of the painting being quite flat and lifeless. The gravestones are reduced to simple shapes behind a jumble of rocks on the shoreline. Trees and vegetation, featuring so prominently in Cass, are absent.
When Angus painted Cass it was exhibited with a price tag of 8 guineas. It did not sell and the market for selling paintings did not improve until the 1960s. It is amazing that Angus continued to work with expensive oil paints all of her life although she sold very few paintings. Flight was the last finished work of art she painted before she died. She was living in Thorndon, Wellington, and she sketched many of the headstones in Bolton St cemetery before it was demolished to make way for a motorway. In many ways this painting is a protest painting.
Personal protests feature in much of Angus’s work. She spent much of her life breaking away from conservative notions of the role of women. She anguished when married to Alfred Cook, another painter, as she was expected to be a home-maker in the usual traditional role. Even when her husband relented and allowed her to paint, he stipulated that it had to be in his own “style”. The marriage did not last long - happily to the benefit of New Zealand art. Angus was also a pacifist who endured social opprobrium for her views and she even appeared before the Industrial Manpower Appeal Committee in 1944 for refusing to work in a factory for the war effort.
Given this history of strong personal sentiments against the prevailing views of the time, after the First World War and during the Second World War, and the difficulties of being taken seriously as a professional female artist in conservative New Zealand, the strong emotion in Flight is not surprising. Her health was failing and she may well have been feeling her own mortality. Perhaps the stone dove which forms the centerpiece of the painting is also there as her own epitaph? It was one of the stone carvings at the cemetery she lovingly sketched. The painting protests the destruction of an historical site, a flagrant disregard for a memorial place. The colours are more sombre than in Cass which has vibrant lines and breathtaking chromatic palette capturing the atmospherics of Central Otago. Given the association of doves with “peace, freedom, departure, [and] consolation”, this remarkable painting may serve dual purposes: a record of municipal vandalism and a final comment on the artist’s courageous personal convictions and determination to succeed, – a legacy as she departs this life. The painting shows that life does indeed go on – in the gorse fires lit in the background, the boats on the sea, and the lone seagull.
In conclusion, Rita Angus has been considered as one of the finest and iconic New Zealand landscape painters. She had a passion for landscape painting throughout her life and both paintings reflect this. Her life was difficult for various reasons: her struggle to earn a living through art when women found themselves locked into a stereotypical role, her modern hard-edged style of painting which often was not understood and appreciated by the public at large, and her strong pacifist ideals and principles which are poignantly emphasized in the more abstract Flight. Both artworks contain personal messages about the impact of people on the land. The landscape in Cass is a recognizable location although buildings have disappeared over time. Flight is a deeper, more serious, personally constructed ‘amalgamated’ landscape rather than the true depiction of one recognizable place. The paintings show the artist’s shift from exterior landscapes to an interior landscape, rich with symbolism – a testament to Angus’s personal beliefs and concerns.
 Ibid., p.10.
 Ibid., p.11.
 Lovely Rita – A Painter’s Life, DVD, Gaylene Preston, 2007.
 William McAloon & Jill Trevelyan (eds), Rita Angus: Life and Vision, Te Papa Press, 2008, p. 217.
 Ibid., p.195.