The United States has Georgia O’Keeffe, the Netherlands has Vincent van Gogh, New Zealand has Rita Angus. Well, that’s how I see it and feel when I see Rita Angus’ paintings. Had she lived elsewhere in the Western world, there would by now be a museum dedicated to her.

Rita Angus didn’t sell many works during her lifetime, not because she couldn’t but because she wouldn’t. When she died in 1970, aged just 62, she left behind around 600 works in her cottage in Wellington. They have since been stored at Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand. They’re seldom shown to the public. The last large exhibition of Angus’ work was in the 1980s, at the National Gallery in Wellington. A major exhibition of 70 works was prepared for a show first at The Royal Academy in London and then Te Papa, but this was postponed due to Covid-19. However, thanks to the art collection of John Money, there are eight of Rita Angus’ paintings on permanent display on the bottom of the South Island, in Gore.

Rita Angus was not only a world-class artist but also a convinced pacifist. Her worldview is expressed in her own words about her artistic intentions: ‘I like to paint with the seasons, and devote time to the observation of skies, country, sea, and people. (…) To show to the present a peaceful way. (…) As a woman painter, I work to represent the love of humanity and faith in mankind, in a world which is to me richly variable, and infinitely beautiful.’

If you’re interested in great artists’ biographies, I suggest you try to obtain a copy of Jill Trevelyan’s “Rita Angus; an artist’s life”. It is a moving, detailed account of someone utterly dedicated to their art, and all the sacrifices that commitment entails. Her letters to composer Douglas Lilburn and family members, including her sister Jean Jones, were the main sources for the book. Fellow artist and friend Jaqueline Fahey praised Angus’ ‘passionate commitment to her visual intelligence’ in the documentary ‘Lovely Rita’, by film-maker Gaylene Preston.

I was thrilled to learn that Angus spent time in the area I moved to five years ago. She walked these roads! She savored this view! And she painted and drew here.

I have secured a small grant to further look into her life during the period she lived in the Far North of Aotearoa New Zealand. I thought I would first gather readily available information about her time here. But when I asked around, most people didn’t know her name, let alone that she spent time around here. Even my initial searches in the small, local archives held at Te Ahu in Kaitaia have come up blank. But I’ve since found a few more leads to this period of her life — often skipped over in her bios — and I’m sure I will find more.

© Sitara Morgenster

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