Sometimes I forget to look hard at the art.
It feels like a daft thing to admit, but occasionally you look at a work, and you see what you expect to see. This is why I loved my best lecturers, and why I still enjoy a good public programme event: they force me to stay still, and look, and think.
The Rita Angus symposium last weekend reminded me of the joys of being made to look closely at art.* Two speakers in particular made me look at works all over again.
Wystan Curnow spoke about - I think - the importance of putting biographical knowledge aside and letting/making a painting account for itself. Going back to Portrait of Betty Curnow (1942) in the exhibition, I was struck by just how rock-solid Curnow is within the picture space. In a room full of portraits of women and self-portraits where the female subject slumps, curls, or angles away from the viewer, Curnow is by far the steadiest, strongest presence.
The longer and harder you look at the work, the more uncomfortable the relationship between the torso and the lower body become. You see how the artist's signature aligns with the book spines, which are otherwise undistinguished. You notice how common the picture-within-a-picture motif is in Angus's work, and how often she references her own work.
Richard Lummis achieved something more difficult - he made me stop and look at a work I've always dismissed.
Let's face it - with some notable exceptions**, Angus's images of children are scary. Honestly, you should see some of the stuff that's not in the show.
I've always walked past Fay and Jane Birkinshaw (1938), taking a quick look and going "urrghh - saccharine". Lummis might have relied a bit too much on Fay Weldon's account of the work (something Wystan Curnow has disputed) but he made me look in particular at the strange background to the work - more like a backdrop than a real space, where tea party accoutrements and toys float in flattened space.
Lummis also made me see how different the depictions of the two girls are; one ruffled, energised, and - yes - something of a Rita avatar, the other more passive, tidy, restrained. But Angus has forged a link between the two figures - the checked pattern of their skirts flow uninterrupted across the picture plane. I also have to admit I've never noticed the book in the bottom of the work - another instance on the picture/picture motif.
So yeah - a day well spent.
*It also gave me a new life ambition - to grow up into Robin White.
** The treatment of Curnow's eyes in this work remind me really strongly of the composition of Passion flower (1943) - the same intensity in the centre of the work.
Images, from Te Papa's Rita Angus exhibition website
Rita Angus, Portrait of Betty Curnow, 1942. Oil on canvas. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, purchased 1970.
Rita Angus, Fay and Jane Birkinshaw, 1938. Oil on canvas. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.