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Rita Angus - New Zealand Modernist, edited by Lizzie Bisley

At the end of ‘Considering Rita’, the first of many essays within the new publication Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist, edited by Lizzie Bisley, is written, 'Angus saw her paintings as a form of praise, honouring the beauty and mystery she perceived in the world around her, but she also longed to communicate a message of peace which would reach far beyond her own time.' And, indeed, it doesn’t take much to stand in front of a Rita Angus painting on show across the country to feel that same sense of peace. The strong lines with vivid colourations becoming symptomatic of the modernist painter.

The book contains writings from fellow artists, friends, subject matter experts, and subjects of the paintings themselves describing the selection of paintings in detail. Some are written in a personal and warm tone, others are letters directed at Rita, while still others take a more academic approach to the painter’s ability and creativity.

It is a celebration of arguably New Zealand’s seminal painter in the modernist style, and her distinct style creates such a universal feeling of New Zealand-ness while still maintaining that quintessential evocation that modernism is so renowned for. Each of the self portraits capture the painter in both flattering, but also poignant detail - particularly the painting ‘Cleopatra’, where Angus presents herself in profile and that characteristic pout of the Egyptian Pharaoh herself.

Each of the essays discusses both the professional and personal struggles that Angus faced over the course of her life. From her upbringing in Napier through the formative painting years and connection with composer Douglas Lilburn, through to the tragic death from ovarian cancer.

As a pioneer of female art both in New Zealand and in the international modernist movement, Angus’s work is a highly referenced oeuvre in the medium - and often with reverential language - and her influence is seen so prominently in art from the US through to the later twentieth century painters from Western Europe.

Contributing to the piece entitled Self-Portrait (1947), Jennifer Ward-Lealand writes of her interpretation of Angus in the Armstrong play Rita and Douglas (which - by and by - is a work of artistry of its own, blending the work of Lilburn and the imagery of Angus) and the inspiration she drew from the presentation of herself that Angus embodies through the artworks based on her own image. She writes that the ‘complexity and strength and uncompromising self-examination is evident in the portrait, a kind of "Look at me. No, really look at me" quality to it.’

Much of Angus’s work has that really look at me quality to it. As New Zealanders we are privileged to have the opportunity to really look at these works and appreciate the majesty that Angus left for us in her body of extraordinary work.

Overall, the book is a celebration of the person as much as it is of the artist. Fascinating insights into her story and struggle with obstacles including her gender and mental health pave the way to a glorious and irrevocable place in art history in New Zealand.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

Te Papa Press


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