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Rita Angus exhibition opens at Te Papa next month

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Rita Angus, New Zealand Modernist

Edited by Lizzie Bisley

Te Papa Press

RRP  $35.00

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

This year the Royal Academy in London was due to mount a major exhibition of works by Rita Angus but this was cancelled due to the Covid 19 pandemic. The 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.”

The show will now open next month  at Te Papa (December 18 – April 25, 2022) with over one hundred portraits, landscapes and still life works.

Accompanying the show is an extensive catalogue edited by Lizzie Bisley, the Curator of Modern Art at Te Papa which is fully illustrated showing the range of her work and tracing the artists development in terms of subjects and techniques over a thirty-year period.

Rita Angus, Portrait of Betty Curnow

Many of the works in the show 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 with such works  as “Rutu.”

She 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, literature and music emerged in Christchurch. As well as Angus there were artists such as  Leo Bensemann and Colin McCahon along with poets, writers and musicians including  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.

There are several essays backgrounding the show with an introduction by Lizzie Bisley discussing Angus as a New Zealand modernist, a comprehensive outline of the artists life by Jill Trevelyan and a chapter placing the artist in an international context by Adrian Locke, the Chief Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.  

His chapter is of  particular interest as he references a range of woman artists from the early and mid-twentieth century such as  the Brazilian artist Anita Malfatti, the Indian artist  Amrita Sher-Gil, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo and Emily Carr.

He makes a number of interesting points about Angus’s art from aesthetic,  political and social perspectives.

Rita Angus, Cass

He notes that in Angus’s work “it is not the imagery of the indigenous communities that is central to the work but rather the tell-tale signs of a landscape inhabited and altered by European settlers. The key point here is that this new nationalist art, be it from Mexico, New Zealand, south Africa or the united States celebrated countries that no longer belonged to their indigenous inhabitants but rather to the descendants of colonisers.”

As well as the three major chapters there are several short personal reflections by a range of artists including Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Robin White, Fay Weldon and Gaylene Preston.

The catalogue and exhibition provide 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.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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