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Rita Angus “An Artist’s Life” reveals a New Zealand Modernist

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Rita Angus, An Artist’s Life

By Jill Trevelyan

Te Papa Press

RRP  $59.99

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

This  year the Royal Academy in London was due to have an exhibition of works by  Rita Angus but was cancelled due to the covid 19 pandemic. The Royal Academy was heavily promoting the exhibition which was titled “Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist”. She was described as an icon “inspiring generations of artists and admirers alike, her paintings broke away from the traditional art of the time, which was based on the European tradition and dominated by a nostalgic view of Britain. Instead, Angus developed a new visual style – with strong outlines and flat, unmodulated colour – that has come to symbolise the natural beauty and independent spirit of New Zealand.”

“Through over 70 vivid portraits, landscapes and still lifes, this long-overdue survey charts the remarkable career of a fiercely independent woman, who like many of her contemporaries across the world – Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel and Emily Carr among others – changed the artistic landscape of her country forever.”

The exhibition which may still go to London  will open at Te Papa in December is being co-curated by Jill Trevelyan and Te Papa’s Curator of Modern NZ Art Lizzie Bisley.

Trevelyan who is leading authority on the artist has  just published a revised edition of her book “Rita Angus, An Artist’s Life” which was originally published in 2008.

Rita Angus was part of the Modernist cultural wave which developed in New Zealand in the 1940’s and 50’s. It was out of this period that some of the formative and seminal works of modern New Zealand art emerged in Christchurch. As well as Angus there was Leo Bensemann, Colin McCahon, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, Ngaio Marsh and Douglas Lilburn

These young artists assimilated the developments in style and technique that were occurring in Europe and America combining them with a local flavour, giving the country a new sense of nationalism.

“Rita Angus, An Artist’s Life” helps in providing an understanding of those times as well as how Angus herself developed as a freethinking individual, pacifist, feminist  and artist. The book explores her unique approach to art and the various threads of that work from the landscapes to the portraits.

Rita Angus, Cass

Many of her works have become icons of New Zealand art – “Cass”, “Portrait of Betty Curnow” and” Fog Hawkes Bay”. Then there is  her group of extraordinary portraits where she presents herself in various roles as goddess in works such as “Rutu”.

Making use of a cache of 400 letters written by the artists and composer Douglas Lilburn as well as the many published writings, books films and personal accounts  Trevelyan has made the artist accessible with insights into her professional and personal life  which gives us an appreciation of how and why she produced her art.

There is also a lot of detail around her career, so we learn that “Cass” which she painted in 1936 was not purchased by the Robert McDougall Art Gallery until 1955. Also, as happens with many artists it was her friends and family who purchased a substantial number of her works throughout her career.

Rits Angus, Rutu

Angus always knew she was an artist and had a mission to portray the world about her , expressing the magic and the mystery of the landscape, the people and events she encountered, imbuing these images with a spiritual essence.

Note: The Royal Academy show was being co-curated by Jill Trevelyan and the R.A.’s Senior Curator Dr Adrian Locke who had been involved with the “Oceania” exhibition.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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