Making an impression

CUTTING EDGE: Self Portrait, 1966, by Rita Angus.
CUTTING EDGE: Self Portrait, 1966, by Rita Angus.

The legacies left by pioneer New Zealand artists such as Rita Angus and James Nairn are to be examined in the Suter Gallery's upcoming shows.

Nairn led the New Zealand movement towards impressionism in the 1890s, uniting modern artists to redefine New Zealand painting.

He and his cronies frequented one of the country's most famous artists' retreats – the Pumpkin Cottage at Silverstream – and rebelled against the romantic landscape imagery popularised by artists like John Gully.

Nairn and his bohemian peers were the young hipsters going against the establishment and while contemporary audiences might consider his paintings benign, they were edgy for their era.

Bohemians of the Brush: Pumpkin Cottage Impressionists, which opens at the Suter Gallery this Saturday, has been on the road since 2010 and Nelson is its final stop.

"It has lumbered its way around the country from Whangarei to Gore," says curator Jane Vial, who put the exhibition together for the publicly-funded Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre in Upper Hutt.

Ms Vial says Expressions was so proud of its Pumpkin Cottage collection that it wanted to share it with as many others as it could.

The art historian already knew about Nairn from the thesis she wrote on the Australasian impressionist movement during her university days.

She says he and his impressionist peers moved around the country a lot and Nelson was a popular destination. Nairn fell ill with peritonitis while staying at a friend's bach in the Abel Tasman National Park in 1904 and died on his return to Wellington.

Ms Vial says a lot of New Zealanders are well aware of Angus, but have little knowledge of the Pumpkin Cottage artists and their contributions to the impressionist movement here.

She says Kiwis tend to lunge forward to the modernist period, sidelining some of the important forebears.

Angus and Nairn did, however, have something in common.

"They were innovative artists, who were working at the cutting edge ... and of course the cutting edge keeps changing," she says.

Rita Angus: Selected Works, which also opens at the Suter Gallery this Saturday, is a selection of 40 works by the popular 20th-century artist developed by Te Papa to tour regional galleries.

"We are thrilled to be able to show Angus's work in Nelson," says Suter Gallery director Julie Catchpole.

"It's a rare opportunity to see a selection of works covering the span of her career from 1929 to 1969. There are paintings, watercolours, drawings and unfinished studies, so you can gain an impression of her motivations and how she developed her observations and ideas into finished works," she says.

The show draws on similar themes to Te Papa's 2009 exhibition, Rita Angus: Life and Vision, showing her strong feminist views, her spiritual beliefs, love of nature and affinity for the New Zealand landscape.

The artist even spent two months at the Riverside Community in Upper Moutere in 1944, picking apples with pacifist friends.

Jill Trevelyan, an author, art historian and the co-curator of Rita Angus: Life and Vision, will give an illustrated lecture about Angus on May 12.

Ms Trevelyan, who wrote the biography Rita Angus: An Artist's Life, says the Te Papa exhibition was a fantastic project to work on.

Angus' works are usually scattered around New Zealand and overseas in public and private collections and the last time such a large collection was presented together was in the 1980s.

Says Ms Trevelyan: "We wanted to show her at her best as an artist and we wanted to show the breadth of her work. It was hard tracking down some of the works.

"They turned up in some funny places."

Ms Trevelyan says Angus was a fiercely determined, courageous and dedicated woman and she was also modest, having her first solo show at age 45.

"She had a great sense of vocation. I think people really relate to the work and really connect with [Angus] and her stories," she says.

Rita Angus: Selected Works and Bohemians of the Brush: Pumpkin Cottage Impressionists will be joined by a show curated by Ms Catchpole on The Christchurch Group, which Angus was a member of for many years.

The Group, which opens on May 12, will include paintings by her contemporaries, Leo Bensemann, Olivia Spencer Bower and Evelyn Page.

All three curators, Ms Vial, Ms Catchpole and Ms Trevelyan, are University of Canterbury art history graduates.

Suter Gallery events:

Bohemians of the Brush: Pumpkin Cottage Impressionists, opens this Saturday, runs until June 17. Floortalk by exhibition curator Jane Vial at 3pm on May 12.

Rita Angus: Selected Works, opens this Saturday, runs until June 17. Floortalk by author and art historian Jill Trevelyan, co-curator of Rita Angus: Life and Vision at 1.30pm on May 12.

The Group, opens May 12, runs until June 24. Floortalk with exhibition curator Julie Catchpole at 12.10pm on May 30. Lecture with writer, publisher and art historian Peter Simpson at 2pm on June 9.