Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington
Gate 3, Kelburn Parade
Wellington 6140
New Zealand

Rita Angus, Mother Watching TV, Napier (1969)

Christina Barton

02 October 2022

In 2017, in the sixteenth annual Gordon H. Brown Art History Lecture, I boldly proposed that Rita Angus’s painting Mother Watching TV, Napier (1969) was as much a ‘portrait of the nation’ as her famous Portrait of Betty Curnow (1942).

Most in the audience would have been surprised at my suggestion, given that the painting was virtually unknown. Only shown once in her lifetime, at the Christchurch Group’s annual Exhibition in November 1969, and never illustrated, this small, seemingly straightforward portrait of Angus’s elderly mother hardly performs in the iconic fashion of her better known-images of friends and associates, let alone her mythic self portraits.

Notwithstanding its obscurity, I made a case for its significance based on my sense that it was prophetic. It was worked on until a few months before Angus went into hospital with her final illness, after visiting the family home in Napier. She has depicted this steely woman – mother of seven, rock of the family, shaken by the recent passing of her husband- propped up by an array of coloured cushions, gazing intently out of the Picture. She is watching TV, a fact confirmed by the glow of the cathode ray that had tinted her eyebrows Green.

Angus shows her ageing mother confronting that harbinger of the electronic era. Angus seems to understand that something more than a lifetime is passing. The New Zealand she once described as ‘in essence, medieval’ was – through the arrival of television (among other things)- becoming other; opening itself to the world and all the horrors and enticements. In a letter to Doris Lusk a year earlier. Angus had described herself as ‘becoming ... old’, a ‘race apart’ from the new generation.

First published in ‘Rita Angus: Seven Writers, Seven Works’, Art News New Zealand, September 2021, pp. 87–88.

Rita Angus painting 'Mother Watching TV, Napier' (1969)

Rita Angus, Mother Watching T.V., 1969, oil on board, 537 x 526mm, Ngā Puhipuhi o Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, purchased through the Victoria University Foundation with funds from the Beaglehole Bequest

Rita Angus

Rita Angus painting Self portrait, 1936-1937, by Jean Bertram. Te Papa (CA000242/001/0003)