Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cass and the colour of New Zealand history

Rita Angus, Cass, 1936, oil on board, Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

On the way back from the West Coast, we took the turn-off to Cass. In the Craigieburn Ranges between Arthur's Pass and Castle Hill, Cass is about 120 kilometres from Christchurch and feels utterly remote. You take a turn-off from State Highway 73 and drive along a shingle road for nearly a kilometre until you reach the tiny settlement which has grown up around the railway stop Rita Angus made famous. You can't hear the main road: the place is quiet and still. The sun is hot on your back, and the air is cold. You feel like you're walking into the pages of a Frank Sargeson story.

More than seventy years on, the young macrocarpa trees Angus painted are now enormous and venerable, casting long shadows over the tussock. The station platform is long gone, as are the stacks of timber and the open shed pictured to the left of Angus's work. The small house in the background is still there.

The view along the tracks towards Arthur's Pass and the Coast.

Looking towards Christchurch.

The station building is much the same as Angus pictured it. The door to the right is still locked: the waiting room to the left is still open. The lettering on the sign has slightly altered from that Angus depicted: the contemporary version of standard railway signage is fatter and more squat than the more airy and elegant 1930s style.

The station building is in good repair, painted a glossy brownish red, as are several of the sheds and houses in the settlement. It is much the same colour that Maori carvings and architectural members were painted by museum staff in the first half of the 20th century: a colour known in the sector as 'museum red'. It's the reddish-brown colour of dried blood and freshly-turned fertile soil and of rust in the rain. Museum red: the colour of history in New Zealand.

The waiting room at Cass Station.

'Kiss the ground you walk on', exhorts the graffitti scratched into the wooden walls inside the waiting room.

The view out to the railway line from the waiting room: looking at the place Angus stood to make her painting in 1936.


Artandmylife said...

Excellent!!! The roginal sign was missing for quite a time I believe. Thanks fro this. I haven't been to Cass for 20 years!

Karen said...

Mmmm. I want a little museum-red shed of my own.

Megan Clayton said...

Ned and I came through the same route on the train just a few days before you last week. The station was on the opposite side of the rail to what I had imagined. In my mind, to Angus's right as she painted would have been east, when in fact it was west. I can offer no reason as to why I was so certain it was the other way.

Quite a section of the train journey passes through the Cragieburn Station (if I have the name correct). It was a strange feeling, passing through someone else's property, especially when the property was on such a large scale.

wheely said...

Lovely - thanks

megan said...

I was just discussing this painting on the weekend, as it is one my favourites.

I don't know that I've ever even been to Cass, although the odds are good that I have. To me the painting evokes summers in Canterbury. That harsh light, and the scorching heat and how it feels to get out of a car and stretch your legs somewhere remote and deserted.

I must go and look at it at the gallery again.

gnute said...

Just finished reading Jill Trevelyan's book on Rita. Thanks for the contemporary image of Cass station - I passed by it on the train back in 2004, on what must be the most beautiful rail journey in the world.

Ron Brownson said...

I really enjoyed your blog about visiting the Cass station. Your photographs of the interior are terrific and very moving.
Ron Brownson

Cheryl Bernstein said...

Thanks for that, Ron. It's one of New Zealand's special places, I think.