Our Garbo

There was no recession in New Zealand. Rita Angus is proof

There was no recession in New Zealand. Rita Angus is proof



On the basis of a recent viewing of magical Rita Angus exhibition ‘Life & Vision’ at Te Papa in Wellington, I was forced to conclude that Aotearoa was a pretty happening place in the 1930s. The accepted picture of this period was that Godzone was Dullsville: a provincial backwater and poor as all hell.

Looking at the divine Rita’s self-portrait of 1936, we don’t see the frump in a handsewn dress fixing us with the gargoyle stare so common from photos of the period. Angus is an elegant aesthete enjoying a languid ciggy with all the hauteur of a silverscreen diva. She could be Christchurch’s answer to Greta Garbo.

In short, Rita Angus set the blueprint for the forthright, girl-powered-up, post-feminist woman that we know and love today.

Angus was born in 1908 and died in 1970. She lived in a real world and an art world mind-bogglingly different from today.


Rita Angus, Self-portrait (1937), oil on canvas laid on board. Collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, courtesy of The Estate of Rita Angus

The saying ‘The past is a foreign country’ applies with particular acuteness to New Zealand when Rita Angus first began her artistic journey at Ilam art school in 1927. Just think—no television, no texting, no gangsta rap and, based on my research, irony had yet to be invented. It was a journey that led to her becoming one of the icons of New Zealand culture and it’s for this reason that I urge Idealog readers to make a point of seeing this major exhibition over the course of the next year, either in Wellington until early October or in other centres as it travels about the country in 2009.

Rita Angus created some of the great ‘mistresspieces’ of New Zealand art and seeing paintings like Cass and 1942’s Portrait of Betty Curnow again can only be described as thrilling. These images are quite literally the foundation stones of New Zealand’s history of art. Granted, it’s a pretty short history, but it is ours.

Revisiting these paintings in the flesh reminded me of just how exciting the real art object can be. We live in an age of infinite reproduction on the page, online and now (hooray for technology!) on phones. While this cavalcade of unsolicited and fiftieth-hand visual doggerel can be both over- and curiously under-whelming, what it can’t do, thank God, is deaden the impact of the original. The freshness of Angus’ colour and the painstaking application of paint has to be seen to be believed, but in her case seeing really is believing.

Recently I shared a coffee with a good mate, an illustrator who a few years ago had stared oblivion in the face as the digital onslaught changed the way images were made, seen and even thought about. It felt, he said, like the days of the artist staring at a blank piece of paper, pencil in hand, was going the way of the film negative: herded into extinction by the monoculture of the digital image.

Angus could be Christchurch’s answer to Greta Garbo. She set the blueprint for the forthright, girl-powered-up, post-feminist woman that we know and love today

Or so he had thought. Today he’s flat out with storyboards, illustrations for stamps and kids’ books—all sorts of stuff—and he’s furiously investing in pencils and paintbrushes to keep up with demand.

I’m predicting this Rita Angus exhibition will have a similar effect on a new generation of young artists who, after a decade of staring at a computer monitor, will engage with the mysteries of drawing and the infinite possibilities that paint provides.

If they look closely at her work they will discover a lifetime of clues and pointers to what they themselves could achieve as an artist with the barest of artistic necessities. If they do, perhaps history will remember them as kindly.

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