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Te Manawa hosts Te Papa Rita Angus Modernist

Lizzie Bisley, Back Issues: Rita Angus – a Palmerston North painter returns home for the summer, 13 January 2024

Lizzie Bisley is Te Papa’s curator of modern art.

This summer an exhibition of Rita Angus’s work is being shown at Te Manawa.

Angus was one of New Zealand’s most important 20th-century painters.

An artist of intense technical skill, she used her work to imagine different ways of being – in New Zealand society, as a woman, and as a human in the natural world.

Place was important to Angus throughout her life. She often returned to the same landscapes to paint, and always used the places where she lived as a subject.

It is fitting to have her paintings on display in Palmerston North, as this is where Angus spent her childhood, and where her life as an artist began.

Rita Angus, Rutu, 1951, oil on canvas. THE ESTATE OF RITA ANGUS / TE PAPA.

Angus was born in Hastings in 1908 to Ethel and William Angus.

Her parents had met and married in Palmerston North the year before – at the time William was working as a carpenter and Ethel was visiting from Tasmania.

After a short period in Hawke’s Bay, the young family returned to Palmerston North when Angus was 3 weeks old. She spent the rest of her childhood there, the oldest of seven siblings.

As Angus’ biographer Jill Trevelyan has described, Palmerston North was the place where her artistic talent began to flourish.

As a child at Terrace End Primary School, she showed a natural skill for drawing.

Rita Angus, The Aviatrix, 1933, oil on canvas. COURTESY OF ESTATE OF RITA ANGUS / TE PAPA
Her parents quickly recognised this and arranged for Angus to have lessons from George Elliott – a British painter who taught at the Palmerston North Technical School.

Angus later wrote: “About this time I knew I was going to be a painter of people … my Father had taught me as a child, that whatever I wanted to make of my life, I must do so, and not waste time talking about it”.

This remarkable drive and ambition stood the young artist in good stead, and Angus’ artistic training continued in 1922 when she enrolled at the newly-established Palmerston North Girls’ High School.

The school gave her an excellent education, including strong grounding in music and dance. Her teachers encouraged her artistic work and Angus began to win local prizes for drawing.

After she finished high school in 1926, Angus moved south to study at the Canterbury College School of Art.

Rita Angus, self-portrait, 1929, oil on canvas. ESTATE OF RITA ANGUS / TE PAPA

In the 1930s and 1940s Ōtautahi Christchurch was Aotearoa’s leading cultural centre – full of musicians, writers, publishers and painters who were exploring new ideas about contemporary art.

Angus enthusiastically joined this world, exhibiting with an influential co-operative of young Christchurch artists called The Group.

Edna Angus was the first woman in the East Coast Aero Club to hold a pilot’s licence, and The Aviatrix shows her in a leather flying cap and goggles.

The choice of subject is significant – by 1933 Angus was a committed feminist, and she wanted to make paintings that reflected this.

In Angus’ portrait, the aviatrix meets the viewer’s gaze straight on, conveying the power and possibility of life as a modern woman.

Palmerston North Girls’ High School in 1923. MANAWATÅ« HERITAGE / MANAWATU-STANDARD

The late 1930s were a heightened time for Angus and her friends, many of whom were pacifists horrified by the growing threat of war in Europe (World War II began in 1939).

In this period, Angus increasingly used her paintings to spread a message of peace.

Her 1938 self-portrait Cleopatra is a wonderful, sharp example of self-portrait, in which she presented herself as a contemporary version of the Ancient Egyptian queen.

For Angus, Cleopatra symbolised the intertwined ideals of feminism and pacifism.

The years immediately after the end of war were a particularly prolific period for Angus.

During this time she produced her ‘Goddess’ paintings – works that imagined the possibility of a peaceful future, led by women, in the Pacific.

All Saints Anglican Church, where Ethel and William Angus got married in May 1907. MANAWATÅ« HERITAGE / MANAWATU-STANDARD

All three of these works show women in communion with the natural world.

In Rutu, the goddess figure is haloed by the sun, surrounded by verdant plants, with the Pacific Ocean stretching out behind her.

Angus was staying with her parents on the Kāpiti Coast when she began this painting – the sea and plant life are inspired by the landscapes of the West Coast, which would have been deeply familiar from childhood summers spent on Foxton Beach.

Angus had a remarkable, single-minded dedication to the craft and work of painting. Throughout her life she continued to hone her technical skill, while constantly exploring new subjects and ideas.

After spending the first part of her adult life in the South Island, she moved north to Te-Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington in 1955.
Rita Angus, Cleopatra, 1938, oil on canvas. THE ESTATE OF RITA ANGUS / TE PAPA

Angus continued to experiment boldly with her work, often turning to the city’s landscapes as subjects for her painting.

In the last years of her life, Angus was living in a cottage in Wellington’s inner-city suburb of Thorndon.

The new motorway was being built almost in her backyard, and Angus was horrified to see graves in the historic Bolton Street Cemetery being disinterred to make way for the road.

She began to sketch and paint the gravestones, in protest at this act of destruction.

The last painting Angus finished, titled Flight, shows a group of gravestones sitting on Wellington’s Mākara Beach.

The work is a composite of many of the places Angus had been painting over the previous years – fishing boats from Island Bay bob in the sea, and a stone dove from the cemetery flies through the sky.

Flight expresses Angus’ deep connections to place and nature, as well as her ongoing and constant need to make paintings that would speak to the world she lived in.

It highlights her unique vision within 20th century New Zealand art.

The paintings referenced in this article are on display at Te Manawa Museum as part of the exhibition Rita Angus: He Ringatoi Hou o Aotearoa / New Zealand Modernist. On until February 6, free entry.

– Stuff