Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life
Te Papa Press, $69.99,
Reading Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life, it’s difficult not to be periodically overcome by frustration at Angus’ exasperating personality. The picture that emerges is of a woman who could be prickly, argumentative, bossy, tortured, paranoid and infuriating in almost every respect: why, you mutter, did anyone bother with her? Then you turn the page, and see a painting of such astonishing freshness and vitality that any such questions become redundant.
Rita Angus was that tricky beast: a genius who knew she was a genius. It has never been easy to carry this off in a country that, until relatively recently, insisted its geniuses be gruff and self-deprecating. In Angus’ time, it was made doubly difficult by the fact that she was creating an entirely new field in which to be a genius: that of the New Zealand woman artist.
As Trevelyan says in her riveting and tautly-written biography:
In New Zealand, as in other Western countries at a distance from Europe, there was a widespread perception that art was something that happened elsewhere. As the pioneer American modernist Stuart Davis observed wryly, “Over in Europe they had art for years. Over here they hadn’t.”
Angus and her contemporaries, argues Trevelyan, were the first generation to believe they were not just artists, but New Zealand artists. They knew their work was rooted in the singular landscape and people around them, rather than in any cultural legacy awaiting them in Europe.
In a world where the great artistic models were men, and women were validated largely by their roles as wives and mothers, Angus was obsessed with carving out a place for herself. Her work, her letters and her conversations repeatedly turn to the need to find acceptance of the way she chose to define herself: as an artist, a woman, a feminist, a New Zealander of Scottish descent, and a pacifist.
While Angus was in no doubt that her work was of lasting social and cultural significance, she had a compelling need for external validation – along with an equally compelling need to maintain her privacy. Her friend, the painter Douglas MacDiarmid, warned Trevelyan that “when writing or talking, Rita proceeded with the utmost sibylline earnestness, which only a priest skilled in the cult would be able to interpret.”
This makes Angus a challenging subject for a biographer, but Trevelyan has done a magnificent job of teasing out the strands of the painter’s complex personality. She uses the words of Angus’ friends and family to bring her character to life, and makes illuminating connections between Angus’ sometimes eccentric ideas and her richly symbolic artworks.
Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life began with an expected treasure trove of some 400 letters from Angus to her close friend, the composer Douglas Lilburn. Trevelyan discovered the new listing on the database of the Alexander Turnbull Library in 2002. Having been previously struck by how few of Angus’ letters and diaries had survived, Trevelyan was captivated by this new insight into the personality of one of New Zealand’s most significant painters. “Although paintings such as Cass have become instantly recognisable, illustrated in books and on postcards and posters, the story of Rita’s life remains little known and often poorly understood,” writes Trevelyan.
As I read this book I was constantly surprised by the assumptions people made about her – her relationship with her family, the critical reception of her work, and even her sanity and her sexuality. She would not have been surprised that her life has sparked such speculation. Even at the age of 34 she made a prediction: “From the grave I shall smile at the variations of the facts of my life.”
According to Trevelyan’s research, Angus spent much of her childhood “dreaming and drawing”. Her family were supportive of her love of art, and accepting of her uncompromising personality.
She left Palmerston North Girls’ High School in 1926 (in the five years I was at this school, I never once heard her name mentioned – a measure, perhaps, of how the details of her life have been forgotten). She flourished at Canterbury College School of Art until, in 1930, she made the curious decision to marry fellow artist Alfred Cook. There is one known surviving photo of Angus and Cook, and their demeanour in this shot suggests it was taken on the day they decided to separate. In fact, it was taken on their wedding day. Both are 22, but look in their 40s; the jug-eared, prematurely balding Cook is wearing a tweedy jacket and a knitted tank top – never an encouraging sign in a man – while Angus is huddled up in an oversized winter coat and looking bleakly away to one side.
This is the same coat Angus wears with such sass in Self-portrait, 1936-7. Of Angus’ many self-portraits, it is perhaps this picture that has fixed her image in our collective consciousness: with arms folded against her chest and a lit cigarette jutting from one gloved hand, Angus gazes unflinchingly into the eyes of the viewer, strong and bold and unsmiling. Looking at these two very different images, it’s tempting to suspect something happened in the years between 1930 and 1936 to radically change the way Angus saw herself.
Trevelyan suggests Angus may have married Cook for the “protection” – Angus’ word – she’d have as a married woman to pursue her art without interruption. In the event, the marriage left her even less protected than before. In 1934, she fell seriously ill with a heart problem. Coming so close to death – and being too ill to paint, which was a kind of death for Angus – prompted her to leave Cook, despite the stigma attached to being a divorced woman. She later claimed, not entirely convincingly, that Cook was a bully who stopped her from painting.
Angus spent the rest of the 1930s struggling to survive as a freelance artist, frequently travelling into the countryside to paint. She took a lover, Harvey Gresham, who helped support her financially, but when he left her after four years she was once again alone.
By 1941 Angus was working for Woodkraft, a Wellington pacifist co-operative set up to help conscientious objectors and their families. It seems a curious sort of outfit, printing clandestine anti-war posters by night and making toys for sale by day, but through Woodkraft Angus met Douglas Lilburn. She followed Lilburn back to Christchurch, where they became lovers. “Your greatest handicap is your strong Puritan element. Accept your virility,” she wrote to him. Alas, Lilburn was struggling to accept not his virility, but his homosexuality. Their physical relationship was soon over, but Angus conceived a baby that she miscarried at three months: her Mother and Child, begun before the miscarriage, is a heartbreaking work of great clarity and tenderness.
Angus never earned more than a pittance for her work, and, unlike contemporaries Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston, never had an influential critic or patron to champion her painting. Like Katherine Mansfield, Angus’ real patron was her father, whose decision to give her a modest allowance and a house enabled her to continue devoting her life to painting. Even so, money was tight. Angus never owned a fridge, vacuum cleaner, car or washing machine, and lived exceptionally frugally; one friend was appalled to be served a single baked kumara for dinner at Angus’ house in Wellington.
Angus couldn’t have been worse at self-promotion, discouraging visitors and telling Marti Friedlander she didn’t like exhibiting “because she was actually more interested in people who couldn’t afford her paintings”. In fact she rarely sold her paintings, and by the time of her death she had accumulated a collection of more than 600 of her own works. Admirers weren’t safe even when they’d managed to prise a work off her: Trevelyan diplomatically notes that Angus “tended to blur the categories of ‘sale’, ‘loan’ and ‘gift’, and her habit of requesting works back for exhibitions or further improvements – often for lengthy periods – sometimes created confusion about their status.”
Always highly-strung, in 1949 Angus was found wandering the streets of Sumner, disoriented and upset. She was picked up by the police and sent to Sunnyside Mental Hospital, where she had electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The writer Janet Frame was traumatised by her courses of ECT at Sunnyside, but Angus found her time in hospital gave her space to reflect on the factors that had led to her breakdown: her divorce, the war, and her habit of living on nothing but vegetable soup and biscuits (she used starvation as a tool to heighten her awareness before beginning a major work). When her family arrived to pick her up, she didn’t want to leave – after years of unrelenting struggle, Angus had at last experienced the care, attention and “protection” she had always yearned for.
Her later life brought, at last, an overseas trip (in London, she noted with wonderment that there was less opposition to women painters in Britain than in New Zealand), great productivity and growing recognition. She remained as ornery and controlling as ever, remorselessly lobbying her friends to join her in the campaign to save Wellington’s Bolton Street Cemetery from demolition, and writing to the director of the National Art Gallery to point out that her self-portrait was hanging in the sun: could he please move it? Angus died in 1970 of ovarian cancer, unaware that she had anything more serious than flu and planning a series of hospital drawings when she felt stronger.
She once wrote that the true artist “believes he has something of supreme importance to tell the world … he has to stay alone, and work alone, and believe fervently.” She refused to see the story of Van Gogh as tragic: it was not the life that mattered, as far as Angus was concerned, but the art.
As for her art, it was a long time before it was widely understood and appreciated. Critics found the colours too bright, the shapes too dynamic, and the figures too uncompromising. And then of course there was that light: the southern hemisphere light, the light that few before Angus had considered worthy of attempting to paint. As for her life, it has taken the 38 years since Angus’s death for someone to write the first biography of her. It was worth the wait.
Linley Boniface is a Wellington reviewer.