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Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life by Jill Trevelyan


It is good to see Rita Angus. An Artist’s Life by Jill Trevelyan, Wellington curator and art historian, has been updated and is back in print.


She won the Nonfiction Award at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 2009 for this excellent biography which is richly illustrated with more than 150 artworks and photographs of Rita Angus’s portraits and landscapes.


Rita Angus is one of New Zealand’s most important 20th century artists, but little was known about her as she was so intent on protecting her privacy and made very few artist’s statements. This meant that over the years people have often made wrong assumptions about her personal life.


Angus predicted that this would be so when she was 34 years old.


'From the grave I shall smile at the variations of the facts of my life.' she said.


So, it is fortunate that quite by chance Trevelyan discovered 400 letters from Rita Angus to composer Douglas Lilburn which he had bequeathed to the Alexander Turnbull Library after her death. This discovery motivated her to search for more information and led to this biography.


The unusually large numbers of self-portraits she created during her lifetime (more than 50 paintings and drawings), which she mostly squirreled away and had no intention of selling) were a way of trying on different identities and added to her mystique. One of her earliest self-portraits exemplifies this. Trevelyan points out that in this painting she looks considerably more poised and sophisticated than the rather gawky schoolgirl who appears in contemporary photographs.


The brief affair Rita Angus had with Douglas Lilburn resulted in a miscarriage, but their close friendship lasted a lifetime. In her often emotionally charged letters to him she poured out her deepest feelings and innermost thoughts. As I read excerpts from them, I felt that Rita Angus would have been mortified had she known that they would be published. But without them this insightful account of her life this could not have been written.


I especially enjoyed reading about the early part of her life in Christchurch, then on the cusp of becoming a vibrant city and the cultural capital of NZ. The popular perception of Rita Angus is that of an austere and intensely introspective artist. But Jill Trevelyan portrays Rita, at that time, as a vibrant, stylish, young woman who loved parties and had a wide circle of artistic friends and literary friends.


Amongst them was Betty Curnow. Angus’s portrait of her as a placid young mother surrounded by symbolism relating to her family history is a favourite of mine. Here she looks so different to the rather querulous old lady I used to visit occasionally when she was cocooned in her small apartment in the heart of Takapuna. Betty would invariably reminisce nostalgically about her beloved South Island landscape and sometimes grumble about her ex-husband, the poet Alan Curnow.


Rita Angus’s determination to be a fulltime artist at a time when there were no dealer galleries, and few New Zealanders were interested in buying art made her life a stressful financial struggle. Without the support of her family and generous and hospitable friends it would have been impossible. Her real patron was her father who provided her with an allowance and a home of her own so that she could devote her life to painting.


In the 1940’s she created her famous three goddess paintings. By this time, the Depression and World War had impacted greatly on her life. As one of a small group of committed pacifists she refused to do any work that supported the war effort and eventually had to go to court. Through these goddesses she was able to communicate her pacifist message and express her spiritual and cultural beliefs.


‘The goddess paintings stand for life, celebrating a mythical female world-creative, compassionate and peaceful-in opposition to what she perceived as the destructive and authoritarian male culture of wartime.’ writes Trevelyan.


In her letters to Lilburn, Trevelyan discovered that they also held another deeply personal significance for her. Rita Angus felt that their lost child’s soul lived on in his Allegro for strings, which he had composed at the time of her miscarriage. And the goddesses she painted were symbolic sisters of this boy child.


I found her life story fascinating. She was a much more complex person than I had imagined, but this deeply researched biography has brought us closer to the truth.


A Rita Angus exhibition will open in Te Papa’s Toi Art in autumn 2021 which I am greatly looking forward to. Having read Rita Angus. An Artist’s Life beforehand will make it a much richer experience.


Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Te Papa Press