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Rare Rita Angus exhibition finds its way to Aratoi

A brilliant first-of-its-kind exhibition showcasing the life and evolution of esteemed painter Rita Angus is opening at Aratoi today.

Comprising 20 paintings, the exhibition has been selected from Te Papa’s summer exhibition and is in the middle of a nationwide tour.

It’s a chronological tour through Angus’s life and evolution as a painter, with pieces that Aratoi director Sarah McClintock said have been “extremely protected”.

“Many have been looked after for over 50 years in a museum environment,” she said.

“With conservators who have looked after them and made sure they’re stable and preserved with museum-grade acrylic.”

Works by Angus have been shared at Aratoi before, but this is the first time an exhibition of this scale will be spending time in Wairarapa.

Spanning the room in chronological order are a range of the esteemed New Zealand painter’s works from 1929 to 1969, a year before she died.

In looking at the earliest works – three portraits of women – McClintock said one could already observe Angus’ transition from a more traditionalist approach to painting, to her signature bold contrasts, shading and symbols.

“One of her earliest ones has a very old, master quality to it. It was when she was a student, so she was learning the tricks of what it meant to be an ‘artist’,” McClintock said.

“But you see how quickly it changes. The first one’s 1929 and the second’s 1933 so you start to see the progression of her discovering her own style.”

Portraits and landscapes hold a significant role in Angus’s work, and McClintock said they also provide insight into Angus’ world and relationships at the time of painting.

“Rita and the group she surrounded herself with, would paint portraits of themselves and each other as different people or in the style of different things,” McClintock said.

Aungus often used her own face in her painting for ‘symbolic power’, as seen in her well-known work Rutu.

“Her, Lawrence Baigent and Leo Bensemann [both New Zealand artists whose portraits are included in the exhibition], were always visiting each other and painting each other.

“You see that throughout the exhibition with the people she’s depicted, it means there’s something in that relationship which has inspired her to paint them.”

Another distinctive feature of Angus was to paint aspects of symbolism in her work, something McClintock said is evident in one of the most popular works Rutu.

“Rutu is a self-portrait, but she’s thinking of herself as existing within the Pacific, and about the identity and vision of what it is to be part of this environment,” McClintock said.

There have been discussions about Rutu and the idea of her depicting herself with brown skin.

There’s always going to be important discussions around the appropriateness of pakeha artists depicting themselves in a race that’s not their own.

“Rita used her own face because it was so familiar to her, and she used it for symbolic power, thinking ‘what can I infuse in this imaginary character?”

Symbolism continues to thread through Angus’ works, with the last painting in the exhibition – Flight – painted a year before she died in 1970.

It’s a landscape combining different Wellington coastlines, a dove and a grouping of cemetery headstones.

McClintock said at the time of the painting, Angus and many others were not happy with the relocation of Wellington’s Bolton St Cemetery, to prepare for the incoming motorway development.

“It’s portentous that she was so interested in graveyards,” McClintock said.

“There was a lot of tension over what was going to happen to these gravesites, and with her entering the last phase of her life it’s a symbolically rich thing for her to be researching and depicting before she died.”

Each painting in the exhibition has layers and themes of feminism, pacifism and nature, and all present aspects of Angus’ character, said McClintock.

“The story of strong females is really evident in this exhibition. You don’t become one of NZ’s greatest painters of the 20th century without being strong and unflinching.”

  • Aratoi has an opening for the exhibition today at 5.30pm, and paintings will be on show in Masterton until November 26.

Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age, originally hailing from Wellington. She is interested in social issues and writes about the local arts and culture scene.

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