Artwork is always viewed in the present, regardless of the year it was made.
When seen today, Hawke's Bay Summer by Rita Angus, despite it being painted 75 years ago, brings to mind the drought conditions presently putting local farmers under so much pressure.
With no decent rainfall in Hawke's Bay during the last 18 months, save for the unmanageable floods in February, just keeping stock fed is a huge challenge for our farmers.
Acting like time travellers, artworks also bring to the fore issues of the time in which they were produced.
In 1946 when Angus painted this work, environmental and climatic conditions were also putting Hawke's Bay farmers under considerable pressure.
During this decade, the New Zealand Government had identified land deterioration due to erosion as a threat to the agricultural economy. Serious flooding in Hawke's Bay also highlighted the situation in the late 30s.
Seen as being in the national interest, agricultural irrigation was the responsibility of the government in the 1940s. Today, government policy may be empathetic, but is not as proactive or protective, appearing perhaps to reflect an ominous sense that drought may be the 'new norm'.
In Hawke's Bay Summer, Angus' dry heat and bright light create a disturbing picture. The sky is a bit too blue, the paddocks too dry and the clouds seem to move speedily across the sky. Is there a sense of urgency in the work, or am I just seeing the work in the context of today's climate emergency?
Obviously, Angus was not talking about today's environmental crisis. Like Doris Lusk and others, Angus was attentive to the impact human industry had on the landscape and this became a significant aspect of her work. This is visible in her handling of light which is so sharp and clear it seems to expose the hills to the elements, giving the landscape a vulnerability that reads as cautionary.
Born in Hastings and buried in the Park Island Cemetery, Napier, Angus is a leading figure in New Zealand art, having brought something unique and important to landscape painting.
In the 1940s, artists were grappling with international modernism. Looking to carve out a national identity for Aotearoa, artists saw landscape painting as the key.
Angus was interested in this idea, but also wanted to be more than a landscape painter. In her lifetime, she worked with many other subjects, particularly portraiture. However, it was her landscapes that received the most critical acclaim.
Angus' talent with watercolour is on show here in this summer landscape. With little paint on the brush to draw in the hills, she has let the liquidness of the paint spread to form shapes of clouds in the sky. It seems miraculous that a work made with such a fluid medium can communicate such an arid scene.
More interesting though, through her astute design-eye and passion for visual truth, Angus is able to pare land back to its essential structure. This is what put her into our national pictorial history and this is what she continually pursued.
Saying of her watercolour Cass, on seeing it years after she painted it, "I was knocked out - by the clear admission of truth."
Hawke's Bay Summer and other works by Angus are held in the Hawke's Bay Museums Trust Collection in which you can view on MTG's online collection.
Toni MacKinnon is Art Curator at MTG