Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Here's a look at the new Rita Angus book, from Peter Dornauf in Hamilton

Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life
Jill Trevelyan
Te Papa Press
RRP $69.99

The lives of those in the creative arena can be as fascinating and compelling as the work of their imaginative output. Byron is a cause celebre; mad bad and dangerous to know.

Rita Angus could never rival that tripartite tag, yet as Jill Trevelyan reveals in her recent book, there are idiosyncrasies at work here which make this life one that matches in intensity that of the poet.

The author had already traversed a little of that life in an earlier slim volume (2001) but seven years on and with newly available archives and letters (400 in total) Trevelyan has returned to her subject and written a substantial biography (420 pages) courtesy of Te Papa to mark the 100th anniversary of Angus’s birth.

Angus lived, by the standards of the time, an unconventional life, although as Trevelyan points out, some of this was foisted on her by the very nature of those conservative times. An uncompromising woman, strong willed and single minded, she carved out a space for herself in a predominantly male preserve, sacrificing all for the cause of her art. Shades of Frances Hodgkins.

An idealist with pacifist, feminist and socialist sympathies, a divorcee from an unconsummated marriage of four years, who remained single all her subsequent life, took lovers but later, following a miscarriage, assumed a vow of chastity; these are some of the charged elements that wove in and out of a fraught life which faced a censorious world as the artist struggle to forge a modernist aesthetic.

One of the interesting facets of Angus’s life that Trevelyan examines is how seriously the artist took her role as painter. It was a calling, not a career option, which today would be regarded as overly romantic. She regarded it as her destiny. Along with that vision, came a strong sense of duty to fulfil the special role she would play in society. Regarding art as a moral and spiritual force and in the context of the nineteen forties in New Zealand with its imperative to build a national identity, Angus unreservedly accepted the role.

What made this problematic was the indifference, even hostility New Zealand society at the time visited upon its practitioners, especially if one was a woman. The burden exacted a high price. Isolation, poverty, paranoia, and final mental collapse brought on partly by her own severe ascetic philosophy, saw her admitted to the same psychiatric hospital Janet Frame would enter a few years later, with the same ECT results.

Trevelyan takes us on a fascinating personal journey, through art, through loves, friendships, feuds, quarrels, conflicts, government confrontations at the same time revealing how much of this motivated, invigorated and played itself out in her paintings.

An Artist’s Life is a major contribution not only to the history of New Zealand art but also a telling insight into the evolution of New Zealand society as it grew up in the first half of the twentieth century.


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