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Knowing Rita

1 April 2022
‘Cleopatra’, Rita Angus, 1938, oil on canvas. Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (1998-0028-2).
“Rita used self-portraiture to present an identify of herself to the world – as an artist and as a woman. In this instance, an image of a modern-day Cleopatra,” says Te Papa curator Lizzie Bisley. “Rita saw Cleopatra as an icon of feminist history – an example of a woman leader working for peace.” This spoke to the artist’s ideals of feminism and pacifism. ‘Cleopatra’, Rita Angus, 1938, oil on canvas. Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (1998-0028-2).

From illustrating for Ballantynes and picking tobacco in Nelson to a decade by the beach in Sumner and a spell at Sunnyside – Style takes a look at celebrated artist Rita Angus’ time spent, and art created, in the South Island. Words Anna Wallace

Most Kiwis know of Rita Angus, one of our greatest painters. Her iconic landscapes put New Zealand modernism on the map in the mid-20th century, and Rita’s portraits have jewel-like, symbolic qualities of mass appeal. She spent nearly half of her life in Christchurch and indulged in an ongoing love affair with Otago. Over the years, Rita’s conviction in her calling and world view was a compass.

Girl about town

Hastings-born, Rita attended the Canterbury College School of Art from 1927 – 1932. It was, at the time, one of the country’s top training schools for artists and is where she met fellow painter, Alfred Cook. They married in 1930, and after a few short stints in the North Island, resided in Woolston, Christchurch where their home was a base for local artists.

“The pair used to drive around Canterbury, sketching in the weekend; some of her early works include beautiful watercolours from Duvauchelle,” says Lizzie Bisley, curator of modern art at Te Papa Tongarewa and editor of the catalogue that accompanies the museum’s current exhibition 'Rita Angus, New Zealand Modernist | He Ringatoi Hou o Aotearoa'.

Christchurch in the 1930s was a “buzzy, exciting place to be” says Lizzie – musicians and dancers toured, international exhibitions were held, artists travelled for work. The arrival of émigrés, with their cosmopolitan backgrounds and new ideas, connected local artists to the wider world.

A collective called The Group was formed in 1927, in opposition to the local Canterbury Society of Arts. In Rita’s time, fellow members included artists Colin McCahon and Evelyn Page, writers Allen Curnow and Ngaio Marsh, musicians and composers Douglas Lilburn and Frederick Page, and Caxton Press’ Dennis Glover.

“They reacted against what they saw as the conservatism of Christchurch’s fine arts society, and tried to give modern art a bigger profile,” Lizzie says.

Rita and friends were part of this bohemian lifestyle. She lived in a house on Cambridge Terrace with artist Leo Bensemann and the writer Lawrence Baigent, with an adjoining studio that Leo and Rita shared. The pair would paint portraits of each other, share models and hold exhibition parties.

To support her life as an artist, Rita contributed to The Press Junior and did graphic illustrations for Ballantynes, although she gave this up in 1938 so that she could focus full-time on painting.

The late ‘30s was a happy, productive time for Rita – she took up ballet, studied Buddhism; her and Leo were so into Ancient Egypt they dressed up as Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

‘Cass,’ Rita Angus, 1936, oil on canvas on board. Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Purchased 1955.
In 1936, Rita and fellow painters Louise Henderson and Julia Scarvell, travelled by train to Cass, at the base of the Southern Alps. After 10 days’ sketching and tramping, Rita returned and produced some of her most famous scenes. “The way Rita reduced the landscape down to geometric forms was powerful. ‘Cass’ is a good example of how, in the ‘30s, most cutting-edge New Zealand artists were interested in making contemporary art specific to place,” says Lizzie. ‘Cass,’ Rita Angus, 1936, oil on canvas on board. Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Purchased 1955.

Pacifist feminist

In the late ‘30s Rita was involved with feminist publications, such as Women To-day.

In 1939, her divorce from Alfred was finalised (they’d separated five years earlier). She hung out with pacifist friends and spent time picking tobacco in Nelson.

Upon quitting her Ballantynes job, Rita had to give up her flat and stayed with friends and family for two years.

In the end, Mr and Mrs Angus bought their daughter a house – on Aranoni Track in Clifton, Sumner – where she lived for 10 years. Rita was very lucky; unlike a lot of other female artists of her generation, her family believed in the artist’s vision, accepted her lifestyle – and, crucially, supported her financially.

“Rita just didn’t want to lead a conventional life,” says Lizzie.

‘Douglas Lilburn’, Rita Angus, 1945, watercolour. Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. Purchased 2022 with assistance from the Te Papa Foundation. Te Papa (2022-0002-2)
“Rita talked about this as a very intimate portrait, an expression of her devotion to Lilburn,” says Lizzie. In the background is Sumner beach. The artist often used objects, images and symbols to reflect her sitter’s identity or background. ‘Douglas Lilburn’, Rita Angus, 1945, watercolour. Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. Purchased 2022 with assistance from the Te Papa Foundation. Te Papa (2022-0002-2)

A relationship with the composer Douglas Lilburn played a major role in her life from the early 1940s.

“She loved him dearly and saw him as her creative soulmate, as well as a close friend. His music inspired her,” Lizzie notes.

In 1941 she became pregnant to Douglas but miscarried in early 1942. She was devastated. Much of her work in the ‘40s featured women with children.

In total, Rita did over 50 self-portraits – charting her progress through life.

She joined the local Peace Pledge Union that renounced war. In 1944, Rita appeared before the Industrial Man-power Appeal Committee in Christchurch for refusing to undertake war work.

Lizzie describes Rita’s iconic Goddess series of paintings, which she began in 1946, as imagining “a peaceful future – led by women – in the Pacific”.

“She believed paintings could bring people a sense of joy, help people to see the world differently and connect with others.”

‘Self-portrait (with moth and caterpillar)’, Rita Angus, 1943, pencil and watercolour. Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. Gift of the Rita Angus Estate, 2022. Te Papa (2022-0001-2).
During WWII, Rita used her paintings to express her pacifist ideas. She used symbols of nature’s renewal and regrowth (like the caterpillar-into-moth transformation in this unfinished work). A common personification of spring was of a woman with a spade. “This painting showed she wanted to look ahead – to hope beyond the war,” Lizzie explains. ‘Self-portrait (with moth and caterpillar)’, Rita Angus, 1943, pencil and watercolour. Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. Gift of the Rita Angus Estate, 2022. Te Papa (2022-0001-2).

Devotion to painting

Rita used colour very cleanly, straight from the tube and with little blending. This is what created the jewel-like quality of some of her work. Even when she had no money, Rita still bought high-quality paint, although during the war she had to switch from her preferred Winsor & Newton.

Extremely loath to sell her works, Rita kept most of the important ones. She believed in their significance and didn’t worship the god of money.

“Painting had almost a spiritual place in her life,” Lizzie explains. “It was a core part of her way of looking at the world.”

Regrouping

This “almost monastic” devotion to painting took its toll. Neighbours and friends reported she was suffering from malnutrition and had become solitary. In 1949 she had a breakdown and collapsed.

“She spent so much time by herself painting, but the grief of her miscarriage and the stress of being charged with resisting war work made for a very stressful time,” says Lizzie.

At Sunnyside Mental Hospital she was initially diagnosed with ‘toxic exhaustive psychosis’ and received shock treatment. Rita took up crafting as part of her recovery; the exhibition at Te Papa has an example of a crocheted rug that she made during this time.

Later, her recuperation took place at her parents’ residence in Waikanae on the Kapiti Coast.

Finally, she flies

From early on, Otago was a significant spiritual place for the artist. Lizzie says Rita thought it a “dramatic landscape that was the essence of New Zealand”.

In the late ‘30s she stayed with her old art school friend, Marjorie Marshall, in Wānaka, where they spent time sketching the landscape. Rita produced a number of watercolours as a result. Rita’s ’38-39 painting of Marjorie combines both her portrait and landscape skills.

In early 1953, Douglas Lilburn commissioned Rita to travel around Central Otago. She produced different landscape watercolours, and on her return to Christchurch painted an incredible oil painting for him. ‘Central Otago’ was a composite of different views – from places such as Naseby, Arrowtown, Lake Wānaka – stitched together to make an ambitious work. This is honoured in a large, multi-media feature at the Te Papa exhibition.

By 1954, Rita had moved to the North Island. She finally had her own solo exhibition in Wellington three years later, and travelled to London the year after.

Right up until the months before she died of ovarian cancer in 1970, aged 61, Rita kept painting.

See Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist at Te Papa until April 25. Thereafter, a selection of the works will travel around regional galleries.

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