What Makes Rita Angus Different?


What makes Rita Angus different? More talent? Greater application? A unique vision? Certainly her abilities were early evident and could be said to have fleshed out that definition, so dear to Presbyterian mentors, of genius as 'an infinite capacity for taking pains'. All her life Rita Angus was capable of consistent, regular, detailed work. But this capacity is the hallmark of the serious and the scholarly; the application, if not the detail, was equally true of Margaret Stoddart, Frances Hodgkins, Barc - other New Zealand born women, dedicated professionals who also made painting the source and reason for their lives. All were childless - a necessary condition for uninterrupted time in a society without servants.

RITA ANGUS Selfportrait 1966
oil on board, 755 x 451 mm.
(Collection of The National Art Gallery, Wellington)

Perhaps the main difference lies in the range of Rita Angus's subject matter and her assured handling of different media from her earliest work. She drew people and plants as though seeing them for the first time and discovered the essential forms of familiar landscape. She studied the history, and was scrupulous in the craft, of painting - preparing grounds, underpainting and painting in a disciplined, daily sequence.

She was able to use pencil, ink, watercolour and oil paint with equal assurance where many of her contemporaries confined themselves to one medium and a narrower range of subject, being landscape or portrait painters or, specifically, watercolourists.

Her unique difference lies in the number and quality of her self-portraits. They are extraordinarily faithful records of physical and emotional change. They reflect a developing self through forty years. Essays in the understanding of the self, they are also meditation and technical exploration. Some of the early self-portraits have an element of quotation: of Vermeer in the self-portrait (1930) in an orange beret; or of Egyptian wall painting in one which combines profile and frontal views. In the middle portraits she records the subtle changes of ageing with a vigorous honesty. The late self-portraits declare her profession; she wears the painter's traditional blue smock, holds brush or palette, or has one of her own paintings set on a background easel. Others show her interests, her moods, her beliefs.

Several contemporaries - Evelyn Page, Olivia Spencer Bower, Lois White, John Weeks - made one or two self-portraits, mostly art school exercises, records of their young selves. Joan Fanning has painted more frequent self studies: but I know of no other painter here who has painted a lifetime's record. One has to make comparisons with Cézanne or Edvard Munch, Bonnard and, above all, with Rembrandt. And only the latter has equalled her unequivocal truth or bettered her exploration of mood and character.

RITA ANGUS Tree 1950
(Collection National Art Gallery)

Rita Angus's character was formed from an ancestral pattern recognisably Scottish: that sober, responsible, self-critical, proudly independent mould, saved from a graceless rigidity by delight in the absurd and love of the diminutive. She had what the Scot calls 'a pawky sense of humour', a comic deflation which refuses pretension of any kind. Sometimes it made her prickly, defensive. Why should you suddenly want to build me up? she asked the gallery director or young art historian in the late 'sixties. She implied, 'you and your kind have been quite prepared in the past to ignore my work, or dismiss it for one or other element in it (flower paintings or 'hard' portraits or symbols) which you didn't like, and now I have become a bandwagon to climb on.' 'Why', she asked, at the end of her life, 'do you always mention me with McCahon and Woollaston? We are not, and never were, a trio.' She knew her work was different.

She was frequently defensive. If she thought something foolish or dishonest or unkind she took out her pen and made a direct slash. She opened her door reluctantly, or not at all, to men. ('They are so bloody patronising with every word they say - and don't even know it' was the comment of her friend Olivia Spencer-Bower).

RITA ANGUS Coronet Peak front Speargrass Flat, 1954-1956
(Collection National Art Gallery)

Rita Angus was a feminist before it was popular to be one. She was prepared to battle, also, for artists' rights when few others had considered the need for permission to reproduce work. She went further. She insisted that reproduction fees be paid, that the artist should control the quality of reproduction, that copyright be observed.

As artist, Rita Angus was respected by her fellow painters in the Group in Christchurch and she had had a small following of people who bought and cherished her work: but she received little critical recognition during most of her working life. in this, her position was only a little different from her older contemporaries. Retrospective shows of John Weeks, or T.A. McCormack came late or followed death. Lois White had her first one person show when she was over seventy - Flora Scales was a decade older. Rita Angus had her first one person show at the Centre Gallery, Wellington, in 1957 when she was forty-nine.

RITA ANGUS Sketchbook (Day 634), p.13
(Rita Angus Loan Collection)

She did differ from many painters in having an active social conscience. She was a pacifist when it was extremely unpopular to be one. She was against violence of any kind, and, from 1939, refused to help the war effort. She carried her objection to court when she appealed against a Manpower directive to work in a rubber factory in Christchurch. She refused as an artist and a pacifist whose conviction was both political and religious. She was different then from most women in her time. A small minority were pacifist in sympathy but few put their principles to the test.

All this is a preamble to the proposition that a work is only as interesting as the person who makes it. Rita Angus's first work was herself. In learning to balance emotional difficulty, physical poverty and critical neglect she developed a sparse, controlled style of living and a religious philosophy. She did not want to accumulate possessions, preferring to 'travel light'. It was the consistency of her thought, the simplicity of her life, her insistence on making-well, which made the character of her work. She was influenced by Eastern thought - by Zen Buddhism and Chinese Taoism.
Zen is not some fancy, special art of living, Our teaching is just to live, always in reality, in its exact sense. To make our effort, moment after moment, is our way. In an exact sense, the only thing we actually can study in our life is that on which we are working at each moment ... But the best way to communicate may be just to sit without saying anything!
Shunryu Suzuki Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1970) p.89

RITA ANGUS Sketchbook (Day 626), p.7
(Rita Angus Loan Collection)

Because she understood the thought behind the image of a Buddha, or the luminous compassion reflected in the smile of the goddess Kuanyin, she was able to use intelligently the influence of Eastern art in her own choice of images, in her use of colour and line, in her own sense of space. Because she looked for the essence in a person her portraits hold remarkably the essential character of the sitter, as individual and archetype. Much has been written about the portrait of Betty Curnow now in the Auckland City Art Gallery. The Douglas Lilburn portrait is a telling likeness of a young, robust, thoughtful man. In its quietness, its wide setting, Rita Angus also conveys an intense, wise concentration and the spirit of a man in tune with nature. One feels it a true portrait of the composer.

Look at her portraits of children. Again there is the truth to particular features and that sense of the nature of youth itself; the attention, the excitement, the diffidence. Rita Angus drew her symbols from a fusion of European and Asian art and also from a direct study of the plants, fruit, buildings, activities in her daily life. She took careful note of detail. Look, for instance, at some drawings taken from her sketchbooks - the analysis of an apple, the form of leaves, of fungi. She painted the mystery in the ordinary - the lighted window or doorway, the halo of sunlight, the penumbra of the moon, the pattern of insect perforations on a leaf, the anthropomorphic images suggested in rocks and driftwood. She made her images more telling by unexpected conjunctions or displacements: a difference too great for the Academy of Fine Arts Selection Committee in 1964.

 RITA ANGUS Shed, Hawkes Bay II, 1965-1966
oil 254 x 446 mm
(Collection of the Rita Angus Estate )

Rita Angus was eclectic and persistently self-educating. She looked back to Egyptian geometric composition, to the pre-Renaissance painters; she learned from Vermeer and Cézanne; studied in her own time Picasso, Wyndham Lewis, Morandi, Bacon. In her letters to Doris Lusk she praised quality when she saw it in Wellington exhibitions from Melvin Day, Brent Wong, Collette Rands and other young painters shown by Elva Bett. She was generous in appreciation and quick to express it.

One of the ways in which she most differed from her contemporaries was that she had no concern for art fashion. She knew what was going on in painting overseas but, at no time, trimmed her sails to the winds of Art International. Though no servitor of fashion she was, in fact, quicker to pick up contemporary ideas that were useful to her; colour theories, cubist flattening of form in drawing, simultaneous views of the same object (splayed out two ends of a shed) or composite views of the same landscape. Her technical range was wider and more susceptible to change than that shown by either Evelyn Page or W.A. Sutton: although she described her own work as coming 'somewhere between' these two. Nor did she become 'abstractionist' or 'realist' or 'surrealist': but something from these modes can be found in her work. The notes she made of exhibitions seen and works studied in her early year overseas (1958-59) show that she was well aware of contemporary art movements. Her difference lay in her ability to absorb or reject the contemporary, and also to return to the traditional by careful study, even in the final decade of her life, of such a treatise as Eastlake's Methods and Materials of the Old Masters.

RITA ANGUS Central Otago 1940
oil on board, 350 x 548 mm.

Understanding, vision, integrity these qualities make her work unique and allow us to think of the finest of her paintings as master works. I have purposely not laced this discussion with footnotes. Interested readers will find the source of all references in the full catalogue to Rita Angus's Retrospective Exhibition, opened at the National Art Gallery, Wellington on 9 December 1982.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 26 Autumn 1983