1938 review - Rita Angus portraits "harsh and unpleasant", Cass "too plain altogether"

In a delightful twist to a well worn narrative from NZ's art history NZ Art Print News discovers that the first critic to review Rita Angus's "Cass" heartily disliked the artwork that would become "New Zealand's favourite painting".

 "most unpleasant spot", the painting is "too plain altogether"
The usual version of the Rita Angus story is that Angus's famous New Zealand painting Cass appears "exhibited in the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art [in 1940], signalling critical recognition for her work."*

However listed under her married name "Rita Cook" the exhibition two years earlier of "Cass" and "Mountains Cass" at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts annual exhibition was in fact recognised with a scornful critical review published on page 6 of Wellington's Evening Post newspaper 1 October 1938.**   

"Rita Cook gives two portraits. One is very harsh and unpleasant in colour, and the other is a plain statement with little to support it. The landscapes which have been taken from the most unpleasant spots are too plain altogether. They are so busy too, every mark on the hillside and railway station being given full prominence, and all backed by raging skies. Why should Nature be made to appear so unrelenting?"

What would become half a century later New Zealand's most popular painting was not even referred to by title. When the National Library kindly emailed this writer a copy of the exhibition catalogue so we could identify the actual titles of the paintings Rita "Cook" had submitted, we couldn't believe that of all Angus's landscape paintings to be condemned in such harsh terms it just happened to be the painting recently voted NZ's favourite.  The four paintings exhibited by Angus were "Cass", "Mountains Cass", a portrait of "Harvey Gresham esq" and one listed simply as "Portrait" that was not for sale, presumably a self-portrait.

The full review is fascinating reading, discussing significant mid twientieth century NZ artists who had submitted work that shows how their art was seen at the time by a reviewer who clearly saw themselves as part of the established order.  The reviewer struggles unsuccessfully to fit the work of the modern artists into the development of New Zealand art and decides that not only have the painters failed to acheive their alleged objective copying overseas trends but the experimentation has led to "in some cases the ability to use paint… to have unaccountably vanished."



When the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts was founded some fifty years ago, it was by men and women who, after battling with Nature, wished to devote some time and attention to the higher things of life. Theirs was a vigorous culture of a high standard, built on a sound British tradition, and the foundation of the Academy was with the object of enlarging and fostering this culture.

Art in New Zealand has largely remained traditional, as a visit to the academy's fiftieth annual exhibition which is now open will show. So far nothing new has evolved, and even that which is termed "modern" is not new. It is simply imitative of work being done abroad. But the fact that New Zealand art has hitherto been built up on tradition is no detriment. It is good to have been built up on a sound tradition brought first hand to this country by artists such as Petrus Van der Velden and James Nairn, but it would be pleasing to be able to point at the same time to signs of the beginning of a distinctive school of New Zealand art. That, however, cannot as yet be done, although by the time the academy has centennial celebrations perhaps a different story will be told.

In the meantime there are hundreds of young people attending classes in New Zealand's schools of art, but very few seem to emerge with distinction. Between the artists who have gained a standing in New Zealand and the younger painters there is a big gap. If there were more true amateurs in the realm of art in the Dominion, and not so many who endeavor to make a precarious living out of art, the best might develop more fully and continue the good work commenced so well in days gone by.

The annual exhibition of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts is representative of the work of artists right throughout the Dominion. Most of the artists who usually exhibit are doing so again this year, the two most noticeable exceptions being Sydney L. Thompson and H. Linley Richardson, both of whom are abroad at the present time. It is a pity that they were unable to send something for the jubilee exhibition so as to make it absolutely representative of the Dominion's art. The present exhibition reaches a high standard, and gives an impression of brightness and vitality. The grouping of the pictures in panels is a distinct aid to serious scrutiny, since the continuous line line usually adopted can become very monotonous.

The most important oils are hung in the main gallery and occupy the north wall. Groups of brilliant watercolors are arranged on the two south walls. The pictures in the smaller galleries have been grouped according to outlook, and some of the very fine drawings in No.5 gallery should not be overlooked.

The centre panel confronting the visitor on entering the main door is very rich in colour, with a dignified portrait of Professor J. Hight by Mrs Elizabeth Kelly, M.B.E., occupying the place of honour. This difficult subject has been treated with restraint; character is given to the sitter, and the scarlet academic gown is not allowed to detract from the portrait.

Mrs Elizabeth Kelly is a very consistent artist who has not been led astray by the many phases of experimentalism which has taken so many off the right track. She has gone on successfully doing her work and advancing year by year. Honour does not come easily to artists in this country and all New Zealand was gratified when the distinction of M.B.E. was granted this year to this well-known painter. No.65, "Miss Edith Maes", is another example of Mrs Kelly's work. It is simple in composition, fine in colour, and contains all that feminine charm which is essential to a portrait of a woman. This work has been hung in the Royal Academy Exhibition, and received a silver medal when hung in the Paris Salon. That versatility belongs to this painter is shown in No.68, "Autumn, Christchurch". The facade of the Museum provides a very picturesque subject, well handled. The colour is a delight, quiet greys with the bright tints of the autumn leaves as accents.

Cecil Kelly, of Christchurch, exhibits an oil painting of houses in sunlight which will be one of the really bright spots of the show. It is lovely in colour and carried through with consistency and charm. No.68, "Sunlit Headlands", by the same artist, is not quite so happy. The sea somehow refuses to fit in, but there is some good painting in the cliffs and foreground.

Nugent Walsh has on this occasion given more oils than watercolors, and very robust oils they are. No.63, "Land Breeze", is vigorous and fresh, with such moving, drifting clouds as one sees on a breezy day. The dark masses of trees are beautifully placed. "A Fordell Landscape" is very well designed and has grace and dignity. No.62, "A Bend in the Road", is well conceived and carried out. It has a definite quality and vitality. These oils bring out the truth of the countryside, and show distinctly that they have been produced by a true lover of nature.

Archibald F. Nicoll always has something to say, and although his works are not large, they are admirable. No.61, "Brown's Farmyard", is well composed, the dark masses of the hayricks forming a fine pattern. A luminous sky is a satisfactory background. No.53, "West Welton Road", an avenue of trees giving shade, makes a very pleasing picture. The whole picture has decorative quality and serenity. "September" has a very vigorous quality. The moving clouds throw shadows on the pasture and this happy arrangement of light and shade sets off the landscape to perfection.


A.H. O'Keefe does not often show in Wellington. His two figure subjects are among the most vital in the whole exhibition. No.35, "Charlie", is delightful in its truth. Here is a boy, quite natural, no attempt being made to dress up, clothes rather in a bundle, hair not carefully brushed. But is it full of life, it is flesh and blood. The colour is lovely, the background harmonizing with the pure greys used in the jumper. "Study in a Mirror" has the same fine sense of colour, but is not quite as successful as "Charlie". The artist knows how to handle paint and sees things in a less conventional manner than many portrait painters.

Basil Honour shows a versatility of subject and his work is always looked forward to in these exhibitions. He has a remarkable ability and tackles subjects which are not of an easy nature. The large canvas, "The Cockayne Icefall", is well carried out and rings true. It is a very fine effort, the feeling of depth in the abyss very telling. No.87, "Canterbury Hills", reveals careful observation on the part of the artist, and the picture is truly typical of New Zealand. No.88, "Evening, Routeburn Valley", charmingly depicts in colour that peaceful hour of the day, and "Puponga", with its colour scheme of blue and gold, will be a favourite.

Of the two portraits shown by Mrs M.E.R. Tripe, No.77, "The Corner Table", is the more complete. The colour scheme of warm browns is carried well through, the darker colour in the gown being brought out by by the marigolds, repeated again in the brass jug, and the gold stripe in the table  cloth. The background is quiet and helpful. No.45 seems to lack solidity, and the drawing of the eyes and mouth are not satisfactory. Three decorations of flowers by this artist have charm and distinction.

J. Cam Duncan shows three small canvases of delightful subjects. They are all carried out thoroughly, and possess a distinction of their own. The colour is restrained, but nothing is lost because of this.


Work which will be termed "modern" by many visitors to the exhibition has as far as possible been grouped together. The New Zealand Academy always encourages any work which it feels to be sincere, no matter what the artist's outlook or method of approach may be. Much of what is exhibited in this "modern" group is by artists who, until quite recently, painted in a more academic manner but who have now been influenced by certain artists who are experimenting in new phases of art. "Copyists" rather than "modernists" might be the term to apply to some of them. In some cases it would appear that the subject which has been chased has eluded them: and in some cases the ability to use paint seem to have unaccountably vanished.

John Weeks shows a group of work sufficient enough to show his advance into another school of thought. His work hangs together and is as a whole a very fine colour scheme. No.202, "Afternoon on the Seine", is a pleasing arrangement but lacks the necessary life. It is good in colour and tells its story quite plainly. No.200, "Pots and Paintrags", is very rich in colour, but too scattered. No.202, "Circus Camp, Avignon", and No.198, "Jewish Women Washing", are the two most successful efforts, with good colour and design in both. It does not matter much whether the subject is immediately apparent, the canvas as a whole pleases. In the landscape which has been treated in the same manner the whole truth is lost, it becomes simply a dark mass.

Evelyn Page, whose work in the past was eagerly looked forward to, has also embarked on an adventurous and exciting path. As most of the subjects are of scenes abroad, it would appear that during a recent sojourn outside New Zealand she has been directly under the influence of a painter who has imposed his outlook upon her. While under that influence all is fairly well, but when away from it the results are not so successful. "Charles Brasch", No.173, is quite a vigorous portrait. It is good in colour and well arranged and is painted freshly and courageously. No.174, "Outskirts of Exeter", has consistency, a sense of rhythm, and again good colour. No.172 is the most successful of all. It is full of sunlight, contains life and incident. But this is more of the type of work received from Evelyn Page in the past before she commenced to make Nature conform to her idea of what it should be.

Rita Cook [nee Rita Angus] gives two portraits. One is very harsh and unpleasant in colour, and the other is a plain statement with little to support it. The landscapes which have been taken from the most unpleasant spots are too plain altogether. They are so busy too, every mark on the hillside and railway station being given full prominence, and all backed by raging skies. Why should Nature be made to appear so unrelenting?

Russel Clark's work is disappointing. It would be better if this artist devoted more time to serious study than trying to adopt the outlook of other people. Every work is imitative, and unhappily crude in colour.

Louise Henderson is working out a way which is individual. She simplifies very well and uses the essentials to the best of their advantage. Her colour is good, delicate, but harmonious. Her work has some relation to the subject chosen, but is not too traditional.

Owen Lee depicts the clarity of the New Zealand atmosphere with truth. His work is sound and carefully considered. At the present time one can see the influence of certain mature painters in it, but with such sincerity he must develop along his own lines.


The watercolour section of the exhibition is particularly interesting. It is numerically stronger than the oils, and perhaps pictorially, too. This medium suits the New Zealand light, and gives a brilliance which other mediums often lack. There are works which surpass anything shown before and which will give great enjoyment and pleasure to the visitor.

It is good to see the works of one artist grouped together. This allows the onlooker to see whether it is consistent or not. Often one brilliant work appears and that shown later is disappointing. This is not the case with T.A.McCormack. All his watercolours have a fresh quality and sparkle, and each one can stand up to the other. The still life which is centered is a happy starting off for surrounding work. It is beautiful in colour, the lovely colour and shapes of the spiky flowers being well set off by the dark notes introduced by the fruit and leaves, and the delightfully freely-painted plate. On either side are a landscape, and a seascape, both quiet but rich in colour. No.11, "Across the Straits", is very complete and satisfying. The harmony of browns and greys is delightful, the green of the sea being a perfect complement. Distant hills bathed in atmosphere add a feeling of glamour. No.15, "The Poplars", is dignified and serene. It gains considerably through its restraint of colour. No.12, "Geraniums", is crisp and well conceived. The manner in which the foliage is treated is a good lesson to any student. The crystal vase shows quality of texture. Both the cloud subject and the seascape on either side of "Geraniums" have beautiful colour and are very carefully observed. There is great luminosity in the seascape.

James Cook has only two watercolours on exhibition, but No.103, "Les Angles", makes up for lack in numbers. It is a very fine drawing thoughtfully approached and well carried out. One would like to see more of this sort of work by the younger painters in New Zealand.

Nugent Welch shows three watercolors only, fresh and charming. His work is always looked forward to at these exhibitions,

Esther Hope is most successful in her works where the native nikau palms make the motif. They are both very low in tone, but give a feeling of the density and sombreness of our native bush. No.127, "My Garden", is lovely in colour, but rather scattered.

Jean McKay has several flower pieces on view. These are bright in colour and show skill in execution. A little more thought regarding composition would help them along.

Olivia Spenser Bower has used the ballet for subject, and is most successful in "Beau Danube". This has very rich colour and a good sense of rhythm.

Beatrice Seddon shows a bunch of vivid rhododendrons which enliven the end panel.

F.H. Coventry exhibits some scholarly drawings, and Eric Lee Johnston some excellent lithographs.
**This review is one of the many millions of treasures recently brought to light through the superb Paperspast digitisation project at the National Library. NZ Art Print News gratefully acknowledges Paperspast as the source for a scan of the Evening Post that we have transcribed for this article.

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