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‘Everything I paint has the sense of being alive’: From nature to abstraction in the work of Rita Angus

Tony Mackle on Rita Angus &#8211; an extract from <EM>Rita Angus: Life and Vision</EM> edited by William McAloon and Jill Trevelyan


<P data-associrn="291773"></P> <P>Rita Angus could have made a career as a botanical artist. The natural world of plants and flowers was fundamental to her comprehension of life, and the attributes of the botanical artist were the basics of her style: intuitive understanding of colour and form, coupled with sound draughtsmanship and technical skills. Watercolours such as <EM>Passionflower</EM> (1943) and <EM>Irises</EM> (1942) highlight these characteristics admirably.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> </P> <P>Her own nature, however, dictated a more complex path for Angus. Plants and flowers were hardly ever purely representational in her art, and the world of nature was mined for its mystical, symbolic and abstract as well as its ‘natural’ forms. Throughout her career, plants and flowers appear both singly and in groups but always in a variety of contexts which were intensely personal. Her remark that ‘Everything I paint has the sense of being alive’<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> expresses her attitude to the natural world, which she integrated into both her psyche and her painting.</P> <P data-associrn="135113"></P> <P>An uncompromisingly emotional character, who suffered a great deal in a passionate interaction with the world around her, Angus nevertheless had a steely core which served her artistic gifts. Her spiritual philosophy was inextricably linked to her art, through which she sought to codify many experiences. In her painting, Angus sought to create a factual record of her spiritual relationship with the natural world. Buddhism, with its groundedness in the natural world, was one of the belief systems which resonated with her own intuitive and natural inclinations. This philosophy was intermixed with a pantheistic belief in the presence of God in the natural world and a ‘joyful Franciscan world of flowers and trees’.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> </P> <P data-associrn="330016"></P> <P>The watercolour medium, which Angus used for most of her flower and plant studies, embodies much of her personality and artistry. It is a fragile medium capable of infinite subtlety and variety, which she employed with an astonishing fineness and delicacy. This is particularly evident in two watercolours from 1943, <EM>Passionflower</EM> and <EM>Tree</EM>. Both subjects are painted in such minute detail they have a visual intensity beyond their natural attributes. Although she was capable of the same startling clarity and assured line in her pencil drawings and oil paintings, it is her watercolours that are indicative of her personality at a deeper level. The dynamic between the medium and its application evinces important aspects of Angus herself. The fragility and the vulnerability of plants and flowers excited her interest and made her feel an empathy with them as extensions of her own extreme sensitivity.</P> <P>A particularly important work in this regard is <EM>Self-portrait with Fruit</EM> (1960&#8211;61). A head-and-shoulders portrait of Angus surrounded by fruit, vegetables and flowers, it gives concrete semblance to this aspect of her psyche. In the background is her Sydney Street West cottage in Wellington, and the magnolia tree which grew beside the veranda. What is remarkable about this portrait is the unifying pale whitish tonality which underlies all its elements. They are leached of all their true depth of colour and only a pastel remnant signifies their natural hue. Angus’s own features are ‘washed out’ and relate to the pale white roses which surround her. The placement of her head and shoulders in the lower section of the portrait effects an equal value with the other items in the image. The ledge immediately in front and the wall behind her head compress the space and intensify the visual message of her oneness with all matter. The fixed intensity of her gaze, which does not engage with the viewer, conveys the sense of another world &#8211; a world not normally visible but one which energises and sustains her.</P> <P data-associrn="721791"></P> <P>Angus’s identification with nature, as expressed in this self-image, is a compilation of that conveyed in her ‘portraits’ of flowers such as <EM>Irises</EM> of 1942 and 1945, <EM>Iris</EM> (1953), <EM>Passionflower</EM>, <EM>Crocuses</EM> (1944), <EM>Carnations</EM> (1945) and <EM>Waterlilies</EM> (1950). In these flower studies the strength of the botanical accuracy is underlined by the subject’s delineation from its surroundings. Whether grouped or centrally placed, the flower achieves a life and existence of its own through Angus’s artistry. The effect of subtle illumination can only be explained by her close identity with her subject. This empathy is thoughtfully articulated in a diary letter to Douglas Lilburn in 1943 in which she compared their talents: ‘It is only in the last few months that I’ve begun to know mine, as a tiny New Zealand flower it grows, I think I may belong to the iris family one day’.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> </P> <P data-associrn="330128"></P> <P>Angus’s close identification with plant life may be gainfully examined in the two watercolours <EM>Tree</EM> (1943) and <EM>Waterlilies</EM>. In <EM>Tree</EM>, painted in wartime Greymouth in a situation where the artist herself felt isolated and alone, the single tree may be indicative of her own physical and emotional circumstances. Seven years later <EM>Waterlilies</EM> of 1950 indicates a radical change of outlook. A depiction of the pond in her parents’ garden in Waikanae, the water lilies in their various states from bud to full bloom present a joyous celebration of new life and potential. The previous year had been difficult for Angus, emotionally and physically, leading to her hospitalisation after a nervous collapse. Waterlilies signifies a new phase of her life and a renewal of her emotional well-being at the beginning of the decade. Another variety of water lily &#8211; a single lotus blossom &#8211; appears in the dramatic 1951 painting, <EM>Rutu</EM>. In the sheltering hands of the goddess Rutu, the flower symbolises aspiration for enlightenment and spiritual illumination. <EM>Waterlilies</EM> and <EM>Rutu</EM> show the way that Angus used plants to express a variety of complex meanings personal to her at the time.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP> </P> <P>On a stylistic level, <EM>Waterlilies</EM> is a fine example of Angus’s ability to preserve the beauty and freshness of her subject in spite of the virtuosity of her technique. </P> <P data-associrn="746945"></P> <P>She had the gift of keeping the specimens of nature natural. The sizes and colours of the leaves and blooms are carefully varied and arranged; the colours are true to nature. The characteristic features of a water lily pond in bloom are preserved. Simultaneously Angus prompts the viewer’s awareness of the abstract qualities of the colours and shapes of the petals and leaves. <EM>Nasturtiums</EM> (1939) achieves a similar duality of expression. The natural oranges and yellows of the nasturtium flowers and the green of the leaves are brilliantly balanced by the blue of the vase and the violet background so that the shapes of the flowers are gently enhanced. As in <EM>Waterlilies</EM> there is a perfect tension between the representational image and the abstract patterns of shape and colour.</P> <P data-associrn="733912"></P> <P>The objective view which Angus could apply to her flower paintings is evident in other watercolours which focus even more scientifically on the colours and patterns found in nature. In a series of watercolours produced between 1952 and 1954 from the same Waikanae garden, Angus uses a pointillistic brush technique which negates any accurate reading of the vegetation. These watercolours, such as <EM>Garden, Waikanae</EM> (<EM>c.</EM>1952), draw attention to the patterns made by areas of colour in the garden. From several similar study watercolours, Angus used the plants and leaves to assemble a colour palette of the subtle tonal contrasts in nature. <EM>Colour Notes</EM> and <EM>Colour Study from Fruit</EM>, both from the 1950s, are examples of the manner in which Angus annotated such studies for future reference. This probing, experimental side of her art practice helped to maintain the depth and vibrancy of her studies from nature by ensuring the accuracy of her colour palette in painting flowers and plants.</P> <P data-associrn="747261"></P> <P>An objective and scientific aspect to her work had been evident since the beginning of her career, but it became more noticeable in later years. A work entitled <EM>Poplar Trees</EM> (1929&#8211;30) won a prize at the Christchurch School of Art Sketch Club’s annual exhibition. The artist herself described it as ‘Poplar trees outlined and shapes’.<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> By the 1950s some of her works emphasised shape against complex backgrounds, as part of composite abstracts. <EM>Landscape with Arum Lily</EM> (1953) and <EM>Fungi</EM> (<EM>c.</EM>1956&#8211;57) are fine examples of this approach. In <EM>Landscape with Arum Lily</EM> a single flower is surrounded with a landscape, a beach and boats, a banana, a plant form and a clam shell, which concentrate attention on the slightly off-centre lily as part of a spectrum of natural objects. The emphasis on shape and form in <EM>Fungi</EM> is achieved in a similar manner with a variety of organisms grouped in three sections of overlapping and complementary colours. Again Angus achieves a fine balance between representation and abstraction.</P> <P>In a work such as <EM>Landscape with Sea</EM> (1953, p.151), the reference to natural forms is minimal. The composition is made up almost entirely of coloured shapes which echo the natural world. Here they are used to create a harmonious and intricate assemblage of complementary colours, tonal relationships and interlocking shapes. This picture demonstrates Angus’s knowledge of modernist abstraction, which is even more startlingly evident in <EM>Growth</EM> (1968). The energy and potential indicated by the title is created through the clever manipulation and placement of three primary colours, red, yellow and blue, in varied rectangular and triangular shapes. These complement and offset one another. Interestingly Angus chose titles which located these abstract images in the natural world &#8211; her fundamental source of inspiration.</P> <P data-associrn="178498"></P> <P>Angus’s ‘nature studies’ are like nature itself: there are no absolute divisions, and early works hold the seeds of later ones. Different periods of her practice, like the seasons, show various aspects of the same landscape, flower or vegetation. But running through all these paintings is a single thread: an intense awareness of and connection to the natural world which fuelled and sustained Angus’s life and her art.</P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P><FONT size=2>Endnotes</P> <OL><LI>From an early age Angus showed an ability to draw. Her parents encouraged this talent by sending her for private lessons with George Herbert Elliott (1860&#8211;1941) while she was still at primary school in Palmerston North. Elliott was a teacher at the Palmerston North Technical College. He encouraged meticulous attention to detail and naturalistic representation which would have helped to develop Rita’s natural gifts. In the 1880s Elliott had taught Margaret Stoddart (1865&#8211;1934), an artist whose work Angus would later come to admire, at the Canterbury College School of Art.</LI> <LI>Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 11 July 1942, ATL, MS-Papers-7623-051.</LI> <LI>Rita Angus, letter to Douglas Lilburn, 14 June [1944], ATL, MS-Papers-7623-055.</LI> <LI>Rita Angus, diary-letter to Douglas Lilburn, 29 July - 2 August 1943, ATL, MS-Papers-7623-052.</LI> <LI>These personal connections between Angus’s life and her flower paintings are what distinguish them from those of other artists. The most obvious context for her work is in the company of other notable landscape and flower painters, including Margaret Stoddart and Dorothy Kate Richmond. Both these artists produced superb watercolours of flowers, and were brilliant technicians and colourists, but unlike Angus were not concerned with the symbolic aspects of plants or their biographical role.</LI> <LI>Rita Angus, draft biographical notes for Gil Docking, not dated [1969], ATL, MS-Papers-1399: 2/1/1.</LI></OL> <P>&nbsp;</FONT size=2></P> <P>&nbsp;</P>
image

Rita Angus, Waterlilies, 1950, watercolour,
Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Rita Angus, Passionflower, 1943, watercolour,
Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Rita Angus, Tree, 1943, watercolour,
Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Rita Angus, Self-portrait with fruit, 1960-61, watercolour,
Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Rita Angus, Carnations, 1945, watercolour,
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate.
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Rita Angus, Nasturtiums, 1939, watercolour,
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate.
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Rita Angus, Garden, Waikanae, circa 1952, watercolour,
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate.
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Rita Angus, Colour notes, 1950s, watercolour,
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate.
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Rita Angus, Growth, 1968, oil on hardboard,
Gift of Hans and Martha Lachmann, 1995.
© Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz