Review: Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist | He Ringatoi Hou o Aotearoa

Reviewed by Peter Simpson

Well-edited, well-produced and excellent value for money, this companion catalogue to the major Rita Angus show at Te Papa is also an excellent introduction to the artist and her work.

It is more than half a century since Rita Angus died in 1970 but her reputation as this country’s greatest woman painter (alongside Frances Hodgkins who lived most of her life abroad) is unassailed and likely to be further enhanced by this book and the exhibition which it accompanies.

Curated jointly by Jill Trevelyan (New Zealand) and Adrian Locke (United Kingdom) – both of whom contribute essays to Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist – the exhibition was originally scheduled to be shown last year at the prestigious Royal Academy in London. Sadly, it was cancelled because of the Covid pandemic thus Angus lost her first opportunity for prominent international exposure; fortunately, the exhibition has been able to open at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (this had always been intended) where it runs until April 25.

This book, while serving as a catalogue in that it reproduces in colour all 72 works in the exhibition, is also an excellent introduction to the artist and her work. It is well-edited, well-produced and excellent value for money.

In addition to essays – both copiously illustrated - by Trevelyan (Angus’ biographer and curator of two previous exhibitions of her work) and Locke (chief curator at the Royal Academy), there is a section called Rita and Me where 10 people write briefly about a work in the exhibition which has personal meaning for them. There is also a lively introduction by Te Papa’s Lizzie Bisley, editor of the book.

Appropriately, given the original plans for the exhibition, Angus is presented in the book both as a regional or national artist, dedicated to luminous landscapes of Hawkes Bay, Wellington, Northland, Canterbury and Central Otago – places where she lived at various stages of her life – and as an international modernist, sharing painterly and social preoccupations (identity, modernity, feminism, peace) with many other women artists of her generation around the world.

Bisley’s introduction, drawing on fresh research, identifies several international tendencies present in the Christchurch culture of the 1930s where Angus studied and formed her style and aesthetic. For example, she participated in the International Picture Library, an art loan scheme which ambitiously (if unsuccessfully) sought paintings from Russia, Mexico and Spain to accompany New Zealand works, the choice of countries reflecting the socialist perspective dominant in that era.

Equally internationalist was the peace movement to which Angus ardently subscribed, as manifested most explicitly in Dona Nobis Pacem (1944) her complex portrait of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Bisley also shows how Angus participated in the worldwide veneration of Cleopatra in the 1930s as a strong, independent-minded woman, an identification explicit in her 1938 self-portrait, Cleopatra (illustrated on the cover), presenting herself as a stylish modern woman, posed Egyptian-style in profile.

Trevelyan picks up the internationalist theme in parts of her densely informative essay, Live to Paint where she shows, for instance, how Angus’s internationally-inflected feminism and pacifism combined in her famous ‘goddess’ paintings A Goddess of Mercy (1946-47) and Rutu (1951) which are consciously multi-ethnic in their connotations, revealing her identification with Oriental and Pacific cultures (present and past) as well as European.

A mostly stay-at-home painter, Angus travelled abroad only once, in 1958 to the UK and (briefly) Europe, an experience reflected in such paintings as At Sea, a deck-life study of three women passengers, and a water-colour, Seamen’s Chapel at St. Ives (both 1959). She found the atmosphere of London liberating, commenting “there’s not the opposition to a woman painter as in N.Z,” though her work does not seem to have been profoundly affected by travel. Nevertheless, her outlook remained universal. Back in 1947 she wrote: “My paintings express a desire to unite with a great many individual artists everywhere…’

This theme is the unifying thread in Locke’s innovative essay, The Other Side of the Easel, sub-titled Rita Angus and Other Women Artists on the Edge. Locke, a specialist in Mexican and Brazilian art, situates Angus among a bevy of women artists from around the non-European world who “helped forge new visual languages that reflected their places of origin, celebrated their national identities and rejected local conventional academic art practice and teaching…”

Some artists he discusses are familiar including Emily Carr from Canada, Frida Kahlo from Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alice Neel from the United States of America but others are likely to be new to most of us: Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral from Brazil, Amrita Sher-Gil from India, Irma Stern from South Africa, Maria Izquierdo from Mexico and Henrietta Shore from the USA.  It is exhilarating and enlightening to be shown Angus’ work within such an unfamiliar but highly relevant context: “When once they would have looked overseas for inspiration, now often equipped with vibrant modernist visual languages, they looked inland.”

Of these artists, only Emily Carr, who once studied in France with Frances Hodgkins, had been seen by Angus as her painting Loggers’ Culls (1935) was exhibited in New Zealand with other Canadian painters in an exhibition admired by local artists such as Angus and Leo Bensemann.

The brief statements in Rita and Me are accompanied by reproductions of the works chosen. English novelist Fay Weldon addresses Rita’s 1938 portrait of her and her sister as children; painter Robin White finds that Rita’s Portrait of Betty Curnow (1942) “reveals to me my own self;” actress Jennifer Ward-Lealand reveals that Rita’s Self-Portrait (1947) assisted her dramatic impersonation of the artist in the play Rita and Douglas; Māori historian and writer Matariki Williams offers a somewhat conflicted and grudging appraisal of Rutu, and film-maker Gaylene Preston writes about Rita’s last Self-Portrait (1967-68) featured in her documentary film about the artist. There are five other contributors, all women except for sculptor Glen Hayward who writes about the still life/landscape combination, Seascape, Heatwave (1949).

A final note about the selection of works. All Angus’s old favourites (plus some already mentioned above) are included: Cass (1936), Leo Bensemann (1938), Central Otago (1940), Douglas Lilburn (1945), Central Otago (1953-56), Boats, Island Bay (1962-63), Fog, Hawkes Bay (1966-68), Sheds, Hawkes Bay (1967), Flight (1968) and no fewer than 14 Self-Portraits (1929-1969). Some of these have been reproduced so often as to be almost over-exposed. For this reason, it is good that the exhibition (and book) includes some less well-known but strong and characteristic works which have the benefit of comparative freshness, such as The Aviatrix (1933), Gasworks (1933), Marjorie Marshall (1938-43), St Luke (1953-55), Taradale, Hawkes Bay (1963-64) and Tombstones from the Bolton Street Cemetery (1969).

Reviewed by Peter Simpson