Friday, April 5, 2013

Landscape Values

In 1936, artist Rita Angus travelled from Christchurch to Cass with two fellow artists, Louise Henderson and Julia Scarvell, for ten days' painting and sketching in the mountains. Presumably they took the train, disembarking at the tiny rural station which Angus was to turn into a national icon with her painting Cass, now in the collection of the Christchurch Art Gallery. (I photographed the station in 2009; it is little changed from Angus's view.)

Rita Angus, Cass, 1936, collection of Christchurch Art Gallery, via Te Ara.

In 2007 Angus's Cass was voted New Zealand's favourite painting in a television poll. It was in the news again a couple of weeks ago, when the painting was cited as one of the factors in a decision to decline an application to intensively irrigate the surrounding landscape for dairying. The iconic work of art had served in turn to make the landscape it depicted itself iconic. The view which Angus had captured in the high country seven decades ago could not now be altered.

Angus, Henderson and Scarvell stayed at the Mountain Biological Station at Cass, a field hut owned by Canterbury College (later the University of Canterbury). An ecologist who helped to establish the station, Leonard Cockayne, viewed the area as a "natural laboratory"; generations of biology, forestry, engineering, zoology, botany, and agriculture students have carried out field work at Cass. Although a bathroom, a stove, and pipes for hot water were added to the hut in the early 1930s, accommodation at the field station was still fairly primitive in 1936. Electricity, courtesy of the Railways Department, was not supplied to the hut until the following year. Angus and her friends would have lit kerosene lamps as the evenings drew in.

A page from the Visitors' Book at Cass Hut from 1936, showing the names of the three artists.
Via Christchurch Art Gallery

Angus painted the field station from the back, in a view which took in the browned-off grasslands of the river basin and looked towards the mountains folded in purple shadows, while the steam train passed through on its way up to Arthur's Pass. The stylised curlicues of smoke from the train curl protectively over the hut; they terminate in a series of flattened half-moons which echo the lines of sunlight on the ridges of the hills in the middle distance. The landscape is dry, harsh, uncompromising. In the foreground, angular waves of grey and brown tussock appear to break against the back wall of the hut.

Rita Cook (Angus), Cass Field Station, 1936, University of Canterbury Art Collection

Between them, Angus and Henderson produced ten or twelve paintings from the trip; little is known about Julia Scarvell's companion works. Henderson exhibited her Cass paintings at The Group show at the Canterbury Society of Arts Gallery later in 1936. (The Christchurch Art Gallery wants to locate Henderson's view of the railway station, and exhibit it alongside Angus's work: Henderson also painted her own view of the 'Canterbury College Hut'. [PDF])

Over intervening years, Angus's Cass has become not only a much-loved and frequently reproduced painting, but an emblem of a certain kind of historical New Zealandness: rural, unpretentious, lonely.

Louise Henderson, Plains and Hills, 1936, Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery

Back to 2013, and the new economic imperative to irrigate New Zealand's rural hinterland for dairying, which threatens to alter the distinctive character of our national landscapes. In making his decision not to allow irrigation at Cass, the Environment Commissioner, Robert Nixon, noted that the proposal would not serve to change the actual landscape painted by Rita Angus. But he agreed that the painting had "powerful symbolism", and that the proposed land-use associated with irrigation could have a significant adverse visual impact on views from State Highway 73, around the area of the painting. Nixon cited the high landscape values of the area -- variously shared, historic and recognised "significant natural science, aesthetic, and Tangata Whenua landscape values" -- and declined the application to industrialise the landscape.

Art history 1: industrial irrigators 0, you might think. A rare decision. But it might equally be recognised that there is something of an irony to this. One of Angus's purposes in painting the burned-off vistas at Cass was, like many of the more progressive artists of her generation, to depict the effects of modernity and economic progress on the landscape. Speed, transportation, telecommunications, industry: all are present in Angus's modernist depiction of Cass. Her inclusion of telegraph poles and railway tracks reveals a landscape in the process of being altered -- made modern -- by its inhabitants.

A generation or two previously, European settler artists were not yet at home in the landscape; their depictions of it were either topographical (sending information about the new land 'home' to Britain) or were concerned with the sublimity of the wildly unfamiliar landforms. Petrus van der Velden for example, travelling by stagecoach a few miles further into the mountains at Otira in the 1890s, painted torrents of rushing water in stormy, wild, rain-tossed surroundings: nature at its most elemental. (I think it was artist Ann Shelton, while researching her Once More With Feeling series which retraced works by van der Velden at Otira, who discovered that his vantage point for many of the works was actually under a bridge, snugly in the dry. But then I'd imagine it's almost impossible to paint in a storm.)

For Pakeha New Zealand artists of Angus's generation, Britain and Europe were no longer home. There had been six generations of Angus's own family resident in New Zealand by mid-century. Home was New Zealand; and images like Cass were a way of making oneself at home in the changing landscape. "It expresses joy in living here,' said Angus of the painting.

In citing Angus's painting as a factor in the decision not to allow industrial-scale irrigation in the Cass landscape, there is clearly a gentle irony in a work of art concerned with the effects of modernity stalling contemporary economic "progress". It is as if the restless sea of tussock, the light along the ridges of the mountains, even the train steaming through the landscape, are to be frozen in time, captured by Angus's brush in 1936 and remaining unchanged into the future. Angus's view of the landscape is the view which will prevail. There is a cost to this. As economist Eric Crampton tweeted:

There were more factors taken into consideration, of course, beyond the painting, which led to the decision not to irrigate the environs of Cass. But I think the presence of Angus's painting in the deliberations makes the decision remarkable. (I'm unaware of a precedent.) Rita Angus's personal expression of "joy in living here" has come to stand for a common pleasure: it has become one of the emblems of contemporary New Zealand identity. Eighty years ago, Angus saw and communicated the cultural value of the Canterbury high-country landscape; the price put on her vision in 2013 is considered, with this decision, to exceed the potential economic returns of the landscape itself.