Yes – I got there! Even with a sick child I managed to get into Wellington for an admittedly quick dash around the Rita Angus exhibit at Te Papa. I need to go back again, and I need to read the catalogue (which oddly costs more than the wonderful Angus biography). When I got there I found that there was a curators talk/tour on that night at the same time as a reading I was on my way to, so I had to skip it. Maybe it would have explained some of the misgivings I have about the show.
Mounting a retrospective is always going to be tricky. How will you arrange it- chronologically? style? subject? – a million other factors and with a huge selection of material in this case as well (apparently 600+ left after Angus’s death). So probably it’s as good as it could be. The series of ‘rooms’ representing groupings of work was probably a good approach as well. However, I was a little uncomfortable with the ‘rat in a maze” effect compounded by the little map provided. This maybe because I have a weird phobia of mazes though. Once I got through, I wandered back in the reverse direction which I would recommend. Also I found the green colour scheme unsettling. OK, there is critique of stark white gallery walls but…this reminded me of being sea-sick. Its also the colour of my kitchen which again is not a joyful place right now so that may have had an influence. I know I am being picky so lets just move on.
I was immediately surprised how small and intimate the earlier pieces were but and it was a joy to see familiar faces (Betty Curnow) and always Rita looking back at you. Like Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits (done from a mirror) there is a feeling of being directly addressed by the sitter, and this show had many portraits – self and other. Even the face of Marjorie Marshall, although looking away, was saying something to me.
I made a point of NOT reading the the information on the walls and just experience the art. It was good. The inclusion of unfinished works let us see her technique and as some one else commented, the labour that went into these 200+ images. Standouts for me were the grouping of the three goddesses (Rutu, Mercy and Sun), important to see them together I thought, and a small water colour of Angus’s parents’ garden at Waikanae. The garden is long gone but you can stand at this spot in Waikanae and recognise the hill in the background. Last time I was there, it was like the painting from my memory superimposed itself on the current landscape – a ghostly and transporting experience.
Something I want to look into further is the comparision of this exhibition, Jill Trevelyan’s biography and Gaylene Preston’s film, in their treatment of Angus’s life and work.
My question in an exhibition like this is “Was Rita there?” and like the quote from Martin Edmond about Clairmont, that he “haunts the paintings”, I think she was.
EDIT: The Angus garden is actually still largely intact in Waikanae. I was looking in the wrong place when I wrote this entry.