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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Rita Angus

Black, White, and Brown, Rita Angus painting Rita Angus
In checking back over the archives of the past five or six years, I was a little surprised to find that I'd never before written about even one artist from New Zealand. I'm sure they must have artists in New Zealand...don't they? In any case, that's all in the past. Let me introduce you to Rita Angus, one of the leading figures in 20th-century New Zealand art. She worked primarily in oil and watercolor, and is known mostly for her portraits and landscapes. Maybe I should make that "self" portraits. Damned if she didn't paint some 55 of them over the course of her sixty-one year lifespan, as seen in her Black, White, and Brown (above). The earliest I could find was from about 1929; the last from 1967. She died of ovarian cancer in 1970--a career of around forty years. I've posted some sixteen of her self-portraits (below) plus a photo and a portrait of her by her neighbor, the artist, Leo Bensemann. What's interesting is that most of these portraits are dated.
Sixteen self-portraits. You want to see the other thirty-nine?
Rita Angus was born in 1908 near Hastings on the eastern coast of the north island of New Zealand, the eldest of seven children. In 1921, her family moved inland to Palmerston North where Rita finished high school and began her study of art at the Canterbury College School of Art. Although she never completed her degree in fine arts, Rita continued to study until 1933, including classes at the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland. It was during this time that she was introduced to Renaissance and Medieval art while also receiving traditional training in life drawing, still life, and landscape painting.

Mountain Biological Station, Cass, Rita Angus
During this same time also, in 1930, Rita married another artist named Alfred Cook; but in 1934 they separated due to incompatibility. They divorced in 1939. Angus signed many of her paintings as Rita Cook between 1930 and 1946. But once she discovered that Alfred Cook had remarried, she changed her surname to McKenzie, her paternal grandmother's name. As a result, some of her paintings are also signed "R. McKenzie," though the majority are signed "Rita Angus." After a short period teaching art in Napier, Angus lived mostly in Christchurch during the 1930s and 1940s. In the late 1940s she suffered from mental illness and entered a mental hospital. In 1950 she moved to Waikanae to convalesce, then settled in Wellington in 1955.

Cass, 1936,  Rita Angus, considered her most outstanding work.
Rita Angus had two major, widely divergent influences, Byzantine art and Cubism. Her landscapes came at a time when many New Zealanders were concerned with establishing a distinctly New Zealand style. However, Angus was not much interested in defining a national style but in establishing her own style. Her paintings are clear, hard-edged and sharply-defined. In the 1930s and 1940s she painted scenes of Canterbury and Otago (below). One of the most famous of these is Cass (above), from 1936, in which she portrays the bare emptiness of the Canterbury landscape using simplified forms and mostly unblended colors arranged in sections in a style similar to poster art. In 2006, Cass was voted New Zealand's most beloved painting.

Central Otago, 1940s, Rita Angus
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Angus spent time travelling around New Zealand. One of her trips was to Central Otago, where she painted her well-known piece Central Otago (above). In 1955 Angus moved to Wellington and from this time on her landscapes focused on Wellington and the Hawke's Bay. Boats, Island Bay (below) from 1968, is one such painting from the latter years of her life.

Boats, Island Bay, 1968, Rita Angus
Tombstones from the Bolton
Street Cemetery, 1969, Rita Angus
One of Rita Angus’s favorite places in Wellington was the tranquil Bolton Street cemetery (left), close to her home in Thorndon. In the late 1960s, she was horrified to learn that the cemetery would be demolished to allow for a new highway. As the bulldozers moved in, Angus visited the cemetery every weekend with her sketchbook. She was fascinated by the shapes made by the uprooted tombstones and began a series of paintings. "This is subject matter not likely to be repeated in my lifetime," she wrote. She was right. She died about a year later.

At Suzy’s Coffee Lounge, 1967, Rita Angus, another of the artist's favorite places.
Woman Sketching, AD 1965, Rita Angus--
sketch like an Egyptian.


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