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September 15, 2008 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Rita Angus An Artist’s Life

By Jill Trevelyan
Published by Te Papa Press, 2008

This is my second visually lush review book in the past short while, and is written by the co-curator of the Rita Angus retrospective now exhibiting at Te Papa, so is necessarily a companion volume for those who are really keen on this painter, one of Aotearoa’s most iconic, most independent, feminist and pacifist artists.

Angus’s life astonished me, even though I thought I knew her works very well; after all, since her death in 1970 all her works, bar a very few sold during her lifetime, have been available to galleries for showing; and I was a regular at the National Art Gallery in Buckle Street. The appearance of Douglas (Gordon) Lilburn’s private papers after his recent death have changed the popularly accepted view of Rita, and added so much material to the biographer’s task that I wonder she didn’t falter.

So I cheekily asked Jill Trevelyan, how did she manage, the biographer’s primary task being what to leave in and what to leave out?

Salient: How hard was it going back to Rita Angus after already co-authoring one book* on her life and work?

JT: Not hard at all. When I did the first book I felt a sense of frustration with the limited archives available – felt I couldn’t add much to the Rita Angus story. The Lilburn letters changed all that. Plus, other archives came to light too.

Salient: Do you have much regard for the serendipity of finding Lilburn’s papers while researching another project?

JT: Oh yes, I’ve always loved the unexpected things that turn up in the process of doing research – even though they can be a terrible distraction!

Salient: How wonderful is it to be able to research a subject with 600 pieces of original work held at Te Papa?

JT: It was great having so many works here in Wellington. Plus the main archives were in Wellington too. I first discovered the Rita Angus collection now held at Te Papa when I was a curatorial intern at the National Art Gallery back in the late 1980s. So I already had some familiarity with it.

Salient: I’ve been to the exhibition twice, and am encouraging everyone I know to do the same! I can’t imagine how great it must have been to view everything, then choose which works had the most significance for exhibition.

JT: That’s great! It’s a big exhibition and I think it really pays to make several visits, rather than try and see everything in one hit. Working on the bio and the exhibition has been a privilege – I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity!

I’m not going to say too much more about the life of Rita Angus, except to say that the book is well worth the 420 pages to read; take heart, much of that is stunningly well-reproduced artworks, augmented by private snapshots sourced from family and friends. If you have any interest in the Group, a Christchurch art society of the 30s to 50s, you also don’t want to miss reading this biography, as Jill has tracked down al of them that are still alive, and their relatives and friends. This is a very complete work, and brings a perspective on the New Zealand art scene which has been in need of illumination. I’m grateful to Jill for her generosity in our discussions over the past week, as she has had Te Papa Events** to run as well as a day-job at MFAT.

*Rita Angus: Live to Paint & Paint to Live, co-authored with Vita Cochrane

**floortalks, and the first showing of Gayleen Preston’s documentary, Lovely Rita, which was in Soundings theatre 21 August – see Te Papa’s website for upcoming events related to the exhibition.


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