Arts Te Papa is changing…

We’re building a spectacular new art gallery and making changes online.

The Arts Te Papa website will be shutting down soon, but head to Collections Online to find your favourite works from New Zealand’s national art collection.

Find out more about the new art space

Keep up to date with news from Te Papa

Other Te Papa Sites

‘If she can do it, so can I’

Jill Trevelyan on Robin White and the legacy of Rita Angus


<P data-associrn="39645"></P> <P>In the <EM>Emblems of Identity</EM> exhibition at <EM>Ng&#257; Toi</EM> | <EM>Arts Te Papa</EM>, Rita Angus’s <EM>Rutu</EM> (1951) and Colin McCahon’s <EM>The valley of dry bones</EM> (1947) face each other across the gallery. Working in the late 1940s, both artists populated the New Zealand landscape with prophet-like figures who represented their own pacifist beliefs. Convinced that art had a key role to play in society, they offered a message of hope and redemption in the aftermath of World War II (1939-45).</P> <P data-associrn="39499"></P> <P>Some visitors might be surprised to also find works by Robin White in this current hang - images made much later, in the 1970s. But White’s artistic vision was forged, in part, by the example of the two older painters. Although she developed her own independent path, her early work, like theirs, is deeply autobiographical and embedded with allusions to identity and belief. It is these qualities that I want to explore in this essay, with special reference to Rita Angus.</P> <P>In 1947 - a year after White was born - Angus noted her aim: ‘To show to the present a peaceful way, and through devotion to visual art to sow some seeds for possible maturity in later generations.’<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> She felt her pacifist-feminist message was largely unappreciated. ‘[My] canvases … will not count much, if anything to an older or my own generation. I paint for the next two generations, a peace progression a continuation of races.’<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP></P> <P><STRONG>‘A certain kind of discipline and courage’</STRONG></P> <P>Twenty years later, Angus’s ‘seeds’ had found fertile soil. The young Robin White drew inspiration from her example: ‘I looked at her and thought, if she can do it, so can I.’<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> By the time she graduated from art school in 1967, White was aware of ‘the extra effort that’s involved in being female and trying to do something like paint. You’re up against problems which men don’t have to face; you have to confront inbuilt prejudices and preconceived ideas on what your role is to be. That requires a certain kind of discipline and courage. Rita Angus obviously had that; she battled on; she did it on her own. That was an inspiration.’<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP></P> <P>By temperament and upbringing, White felt an affinity with Angus’s pacifist-feminist values. Her father, Albert Tikitu White, had served as a soldier in the New Zealand Army in World War I, an experience which challenged his Christian faith. Listening to the German priests blessing their troops in the trenches in France, he came to see conventional religion as a divisive force, and returned to New Zealand with pacifist sympathies.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP> Back home, he was drawn to the Bahá’í religion, with its ideals of tolerance and world unity, and he and his wife were among the early members of the faith in this country. White, his youngest child, benefitted from the Bahá’í belief in the equality of the sexes, and received every encouragement in her desire to become an artist. She grew up with a keen interest in social justice and the role that art could play in the wider world. </P> <P><STRONG>‘Painting is fundamentally an abstract thing’</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="1379054"></P> <P>Because her art portrays recognisable landscapes and people, White’s early work, like that of Rita Angus, has often been described as ‘realist’. The term is misleading, however, for her art is much more than a mere transcription of what she sees. ‘I take great liberties with the environment, using it to my own ends,’ she commented in 1977. ‘I’ve always been conscious that painting is fundamentally an abstract thing.’<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> She often quotes the saying of her most influential teacher at Elam School of Art, Colin McCahon: ‘To paint is to contrast.’<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP></P> <P>White found her mature style within a few years of leaving art school. Living at Paremata, north of Wellington, in 1969, she began to paint the local landscape using crisp, rhythmic outlines, strong light, and flat blocks of colours. Settling in Dunedin in 1972, she bought a cottage near Portobello on the Otago Peninsula and turned her attention to her new environment. She has often spoken of the importance of her immediate surroundings: ‘I don’t go around just looking for beautiful hills - my work arises out of the situation I’m in.’<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP> </P> <P>Certain landscapes recur in White’s work, and, throughout the 1970s, the ‘imposing, sensuous and shapely’<SUP><FONT size=2>9</FONT></SUP> hills of Otago Peninsula were a constant subject. From her studio she could see Harbour Cone, the peninsula’s highest point, and this landform took on ‘a sort of spiritual significance’, appearing as a motif in at least 16 paintings, prints, and drawings. </P> <P>Place names are important in White’s art, just as they were to Rita Angus. Listen to the titles of her pictures: <EM>This is me at Kaitangata</EM> (1979), <EM>Florence and Harbour Cone</EM> (1974), <EM>Michael at Allan’s Beach</EM> (1975). These places are meaningful to White, but much of their resonance stems from their associations with family and friends, memory, and experience. ‘When people do appear in my paintings, they’re always people for whom I have a special feeling, feel close to, and like.’<SUP><FONT size=2>10</FONT></SUP></P> <P><STRONG>Two women, two self-portraits</STRONG></P> <P>As a young woman, White made a screenprint, <EM>This is me at Kaitangata</EM>, which provides an interesting comparison to Angus’s symbolic self-portrait <EM>Rutu</EM>. Both images offer a powerful expression of female identity and spiritual affiliation, and they also have a link, stylistically, in their simplified, crisply delineated forms, and tightly ordered design. </P> <P>The two portraits are clearly, however, from different generations. Rutu has the hauteur and poise of a 1940s movie star, aloof and unbending, while ‘Robin White’ is a child of the 1960s, and her self-portrait has the casual quality of a snapshot. White positions herself low in the image, in front of the wooden miner’s cottage that she was renovating at Kaitangata, South Otago. Her hair is scraped back from her face, and her simple T-shirt recalls the black singlet of the New Zealand working man. The ring on her hand - her only adornment - shows the Bahá’í symbol, signalling her commitment to her faith. </P> <P>White portrays herself as an assertive, independent woman, but she also acknowledges a debt to her father. Her very stance comes from a family photograph. ‘My father was a rower, a double-skulls champion, and I had a newspaper photo of him - he was standing there with his arms folded, just like that.’<SUP><FONT size=2>11</FONT></SUP> When White was a child, her father called her his ‘little lieutenant’<SUP><FONT size=2>12</FONT></SUP> and gave her outdoor jobs: tending the k&#363;mara patch, carting cockles from the beach, and mowing the lawns (‘That’ll give you strong arms and shoulders’).<SUP><FONT size=2>13</FONT></SUP> His constant injunction was ‘Never be afraid of hard work’,<SUP><FONT size=2>14</FONT></SUP> and his influence is evident in his daughter’s self-portrait. ‘I was never pink and fluffy …,’ White recalls. ‘I’ve always felt at home with a shovel in my hand.’<SUP><FONT size=2>15</FONT></SUP></P> <P><STRONG>Portrait of a generation</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="1384104"></P> <P>It was White’s mother, Florence, who introduced her to New Zealand art. White was taken to Auckland City Art Gallery as a child, where she was captivated by several paintings: ‘I used to stand in front of them and puzzle over them.’<SUP><FONT size=2>16</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Among them was Angus’s <EM>Portrait of Betty Curnow</EM> (1942), a commanding image of the painter’s friend, surrounded by objects and images that reflect her life as a mother, wife, and daughter. The young artist was struck by its presence - ‘the whole atmosphere it exudes, the solidity of the figure and the way it is seated’.<SUP><FONT size=2>17</FONT></SUP> Much later, when she came to paint her mother - ‘a quiet but fairly forceful person in her own way’<SUP><FONT size=2>18</FONT></SUP> - Angus’s <EM>Portrait of Betty Curnow</EM> was at the back of her mind. But White was also thinking of the early Renaissance portraits that had inspired Angus - highly structured, formal images, in which the subject is posed with symbols of their identity and status, often before a luminous, idyllic landscape.</P> <P>In <EM>Florence and Harbour Cone</EM>, White’s mother sits in her starched white apron, a Bahá’í brooch at her throat. She is a calm and monumental figure - the rock in her daughter’s life. ‘She came from a generation of women who expressed themselves through service to the family, that is what they lived for … Her job was us - her family.’<SUP><FONT size=2>19</FONT></SUP> The curves of Florence’s body are echoed in the cultivated hills behind her, a reference to her family’s background in farming in New Zealand. Every detail in this portrait is carefully orchestrated to show us her character and integrity. Like Angus’s <EM>Portrait of Betty Curnow</EM>, White’s painting could be described as ‘a portrait of a generation’.<SUP><FONT size=2>20</FONT></SUP></P> <P><STRONG>Mother and son </STRONG></P> <P>In 1973, White married and her first child, Michael, was born in the same year. After working as a full-time painter and printmaker, she now faced the conflicting demands of art and motherhood. ‘Giving up art was not an option, but it was hard, I felt I was really struggling. My mother would come and stay once or twice a year for a month or two, and that was when I could get some screenprinting done.’<SUP><FONT size=2>21</FONT></SUP></P> <P data-associrn="657486"></P> <P>When her son was two years old, White painted a portrait, <EM>Michael at Allan’s Beach</EM>, which links together motifs from his environment: his first toy, a buzzy bee (now a Kiwi icon), and the seaweed from Allan’s Beach nearby. Michael seems oblivious to the dead seagull at his feet, which gives the portrait a stark, unsentimental quality, and betrays his mother’s sense of exhaustion in trying to juggle the roles of mother and artist: ‘We lived right by the sea on a narrow winding road and there were often accidents - sometimes birds would get hit. I picked that seagull off the road and brought it in and drew it. Later, when I was working on Michael’s portrait, I put it in the screenprint. And in some ways, I felt that bird was me.’ </P> <P>White depicted her son again in 1978, just before a turning point in his life - and hers.&nbsp; ‘Michael was starting school, and I wanted to record the moment. I asked what he wanted to wear for his portrait, and he went off and dressed himself in his cowboy vest.’ She sat him in front of the television so he would keep still: ‘He has that thousand-yard stare … I think he was probably watching <EM>Sesame Street</EM>.’</P> <P data-associrn="44738"></P> <P><EM>Michael at home</EM> (1978) contains subtle echoes of Rita Angus’s <EM>Portrait of Betty Curnow</EM>. Betty sits in her grandfather’s antique chair; Michael sits on the chair that his grandfather, a carpenter, had made for White when she was a child. ‘It had travelled around with me all my life from place to place - it was my inheritance.’ Betty is flanked by a watercolour by Rita Angus; Michael sits beneath one of his mother’s pictures - a view of Harbour Cone. White’s early portraits, like those of her mentor, draw a web of connections back and forth across generations, in richly symbolic and compelling images.</P> <P><STRONG>Postscript - a change of direction</STRONG></P> <P>The early phase of White’s art came to an abrupt halt in 1982, when she and her family moved to Tarawa in Kiribati, answering an invitation to support the growing Bahá’í community there. To White, painting seemed out of place on the remote equatorial atoll, but she began a highly productive phase of printmaking, commencing with <EM>Beginners’ guide to Gilbertese</EM> (1983). Another turning point came in 1996, when a fire destroyed her home and studio, including all of her art supplies. Determined to work with the materials available on the atoll, she began a collaboration which led to the series <EM>New Angel</EM> (1998) - pandanus mats, made by local women to White’s design, that combine traditional weaving patterns with imagery from the outside world.<BR>&nbsp;<BR>White returned to New Zealand in 1998, and has since completed a number of groundbreaking cross-cultural art projects, which reflect her continuing interest in issues of identity and spirituality. Te Papa recently purchased a major work, <EM>Suka Siti (Sugar City)</EM> (2009-10), a masi (printed barkcloth) made in partnership with White’s Fijian Bahá’í friends Leba Toki and Bale Jione.</P> <P><FONT size=2><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></FONT></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>‘Rita Angus’, <EM>Year book of the arts in New Zealand</EM>, no. 3, 1947, pp. 67-68.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 7 July 1945, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, MS-Papers-7623-058.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Quoted in Gordon H Brown, ‘Criticism: A formal consideration’, in <EM>Robin White: New Zealand painter</EM>, compiled by Alister Taylor and Deborah Coddington, Alister Taylor, Martinborough, 1981, p. 31. </FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>‘Perspective: Robin White talks to Alister Taylor’, in <EM>Robin White: New Zealand painter</EM>, p. 19.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>See </FONT><A href="http://www.bahai.org.nz/new-zealand/our-first-maori-bahai-albert-tikitu-white/"><FONT size=2>http://www.bahai.org.nz/new-zealand/our-first-maori-bahai-albert-tikitu-white/</FONT></A><FONT size=2>, accessed 18 May 2013.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Robin White, ‘Art and conservation are synonymous’, <EM>Art New Zealand</EM>, no. 7, Spring 1977, p. 40. </FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Conversation with the artist, 14 May 2013.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Robin White, ‘Art and conservation are synonymous’, p. 40.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Claudia Pond Eyley, ‘Robin White in Kiribati’, <EM>Art New Zealand</EM>, no. 31, Winter 1984. p. 31.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>‘Perspective: Robin White talks to Alister Taylor’, p. 18.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Conversation with the artist, 14 May 2013.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Quoted in Claire Finlayson, <EM>This thing in the mirror: Self-portraits by New Zealand artists</EM>, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, 2004, p. 104.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Ibid.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>‘Robin White: Painter’, <EM>Broadsheet</EM>, no. 22, September 1974, p. 18.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Claire Finlayson, <EM>ibid.</EM>, p. 104.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>‘Perspective: Robin White talks to Alister Taylor’, p.19.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2><EM>ibid.</EM></FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2><EM>ibid.</EM></FONT></LI> <LI><A href="http://christchurchartgallery.org.nz/multimedia/audio/floor-talk/robin-white/"><FONT size=2>http://christchurchartgallery.org.nz/multimedia/audio/floor-talk/robin-white/</FONT></A><FONT size=2>, accessed 14 May 2013.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>The famous phrase is Peter Tomory’s; see PA Tomory, <EM>New Zealand art: Painting 1890-1950</EM>, AH &amp; AW Reed, Wellington, 1968, p. 23.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Conversation with the artist, 14 May 2013. All subsequent quotations are also from this conversation. <BR></LI></OL></FONT>
image

Robin White, This is me at Kaitangata, 1979, screenprint,
Purchased 1979.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Rita Angus, Rutu, 1951, oil on canvas,
Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Robin White, &lt;EM&gt;Florence and harbour cone&lt;/EM&gt;, 1974, oil on canvas, Collection: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

Robin White, Florence and harbour cone, 1974, oil on canvas, Collection: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

Rita Angus, &lt;EM&gt;Portrait of Betty Curnow&lt;/EM&gt;, 1942, oil on canvas, 775 x 647 mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki 1970/6 Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

Rita Angus, Portrait of Betty Curnow, 1942, oil on canvas, 775 x 647 mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki 1970/6 Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image ,
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus

image

Robin White, Michael at Allan's Beach, 1975, screenprint,
Purchased 2004.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Robin White, Michael at home, 1978, screenprint,
Purchased 1980 with Ellen Eames Collection funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz