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'Rutu', 1951

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'Rutu', 1951


This is a self-portrait made in 1951 by Rita Angus (born Henrietta Catherine Angus) titled 'Rutu'. Painted in oils on canvas, 'Rutu' features a female figure with blonde hair and dark skin who is wearing a red-and-blue top with a yellow fish motif around the neckband and a blue skirt. She is sitting on a patterned chair against a background of white-tipped waves, flat blue sea and tropical foliage. She is gazing serenely away from the viewer, with the yellow Sun framing her head like a halo. She is holding a white lotus flower delicately in her fingers. The painting measures 70.7 cm x 56.0 cm.

Source Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Educational value:
  • 'Rutu' is about the artist's cultural and spiritual identity - it is rich with imagery, personal symbols and spiritual references that make it open to many interpretations; the artist has depicted herself as a multicultural goddess combining Polynesian and European characteristics (dark skin and blonde hair), surrounded by symbols from a variety of cultures, religions and histories.
  • Pacific and Christian emblems have been mixed together in this work - the name 'Rutu' is a hybrid Polynesian equivalent of Rita; this title may allude to the view, held by a number of NZ artists at the time this painting was made, that it was possible for the two main elements of NZ culture, Polynesian and European, to come together to form one culture; along with other artists, Angus (1908-70) 'visualised an idealistic state ... where the two races ... would all end up somehow half Pakeha and half Polynesian ...' ( http://tpo.tepapa.govt.nz ); Rutu also means Ruth, which is a biblical name meaning compassion.
  • 'Rutu' is full of symbolism - the fish around the dress's neckband is a reference to the artist's birth sign, Pisces, regarded by astrologers as the most sensitive and receptive sign of the Zodiac; fish have also been a symbol of Christ since early Christian times; the lotus blossom in the artist's hand is an important symbol of rebirth and creation in Oriental religions; the lush subtropical vegetation and the images of sea and sky also suggest the theme of regeneration.
  • The painting was completed after a period of emotional and physical upheaval in the artist's life that has clearly influenced its composition - she has portrayed herself as serene, sensitive and goddess-like; this style of portrayal may be directly connected to Eastern art and philosophy, particularly Kwan Yin who is the Chinese goddess of Mercy; Kwan Yin's role is similar to that of the Virgin Mary, as she pays attention to sounds and hears prayers; Anthony Mackle, of the former National Art Gallery in Wellington, has said of this aspect of Angus' self-portrait: 'In identifying herself with the goddess in this way, Angus gives some notion of the sensitivity which she attempted to bring to the world around her' (Mackle, 'Rita Angus portraiture', in 'Rita Angus', National Art Gallery, 1982).
  • 'Rutu' shows evidence of the artistic styles that influenced Angus' work - her use of bright flat colours and linear forms are reflective of Japanese art; other stylistic influences include those from the work of Dutch artist Jan Vermeer (1632-75) who specialised in interior scenes of everyday life, and the Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca (1420-92) whose work is characterised by its serene human figures and use of geometric forms, particularly in relation to perspective and foreshortening.
  • Rita Angus is considered to be one of NZ's most important 20th-century painters - she combined a feeling for NZ with an awareness of the main movements of painting in Europe and North America and developed an individual style; she was a versatile artist who worked in pencil, ink, watercolour and oil and is well known for both her landscapes and portraits, including self-portraits.

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