Although dated 1973, Mangaweka had its origins in 1971, when Robin White, a recent Elam School of Fine Arts graduate, was living in a tiny cottage at Bottle Creek on Pāuatahanui Inlet, near Porirua. That year she and her fellow Bottle Creek resident, the poet Sam Hunt, made a road trip to visit friends who lived near the small rural settlement of Mangaweka, near Taihape.
When they stopped in the main street, White immediately noticed the truck parked in front of an old wooden building. ‘The truck belonged there,’ she recalled. She admired the ‘Mangaweka’ on the door and how it ‘blended with the lines of the building and the curves of the hills beyond’. She took a series of photographs — close-up views and shots incorporating the background: ‘I saw the painting before I ever painted it.’
Back at Bottle Creek, White was busy with other projects. Late in 1971 she left for Dunedin, bought a cottage at Portobello, and became acquainted with the Otago Peninsula landscape. It was not until 1973, now married and expecting her first child, that she had the chance to develop the painting she had earlier envisaged.
Mangaweka shows the influence of Rita Angus, an artist White greatly admired, in its stylised linear forms, flattened space and brilliant light. It is structured according to a taut, irregular grid, and bisected by the dramatic line of the veranda. White suppresses unnecessary detail, focusing on the crisp geometric form of the building sandwiched between the truck and hills. She signs her name on the door, inscribing herself in the picture and alluding to the painter’s role in transforming the way we see the world.
Like much of White’s early work, Mangaweka takes a small slice of small-town New Zealand and transforms it into an archetypal image — a painterly parallel to Sam Hunt’s poetry. The same year as that memorable visit with White, Hunt wrote ‘A Mangaweka road song’, where he tells us the following:
No place more I’d like to bring you than
this one-pub town
approached in low gear down
the gorges through the hills.
Print size: 500 x 508 mm
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