If you’ve been to the Rita Angus exhibition at Te Papa you’ll know it’s popular, but in some respects this large scale Angus project is strangely near-sighted. Following Jill Trevelyan’s approach in her biography, Rita Angus: an artist’s life, the exhibition takes a classic nationalist stance. Angus is positioned as a singular figure who “produces something that was unique” without too much help from the rest of the world. Trevelyan, for example, will tell us in her book that Angus stood “completely absorbed” in front of a picture in London’s National Gallery, but never let us know what the picture was. We learn that Angus has a “formidable appetite for gallery-going” but the “lists of exhibitions” she sends back in a letter to Gordon Brown are not revealed in the text or listed in the footnotes. Frustrating. Tracing influences can become reductive, but some sense of context and heritage are illuminating about any artist and her work.
The catalogue for the exhibition also has only a small handful of references to twentieth century artists. Malevich get a short, rather curious, reference, “What separates the buildings from their natural environment is Kazimir Malevich’s straight line”. Braque and Picasso are acknowledged through a quick nod for cubism (77 words), and Cezanne (18 words) for cylinders, cones and spheres. And that’s pretty much it. There are ten illustrations of work by New Zealand artists other than Angus in the catalogue, but not one by anyone in the rest of the world. Miro, an obvious influence, is not mentioned or illustrated and neither is Frieda Kahlo, who may or may not, be a direct influence, but who certainly could have brought something to the table. There are also no illustrations of the very influential Group of Seven, Canadian painters who showed at the National Art Gallery in 1938, although the show is given a brief (30 words) mention and Angus is said to have “emulated” some of their styles. It is one of the very few times any twentieth century artists are acknowledged to have played a part in her work. As most of Angus’s mature work was made after the Group of Seven exhibition, and as the works shown in it were close in spirit to her own, it probably merited an illustration or two. Perhaps it was felt that Canadian parallels were not the thing for a unique voice. Finally, the only reference to modernist abstraction we could find in the catalogue is a short sentence. “This picture demonstrates Angus’s knowledge of modernist abstraction….” indeed. Francis Pound, were he dead, would be rolling in his grave.
Images: Miro’s Joan Miró’s Vegetable Garden and Donkey, 1918 in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Bottom, Vineyards and Olive Tree, 1919 in a private collection