Rita Angus (1908–1970) is without doubt one of New Zealand’s most important artists. Her major works are hard to come by and the National Gallery of Australia has been trying to acquire a significant painting for the national collection since the early 1980s.
Angus’s self-portraits are widely acknowledged to be among her most impressive works. The Gallery was fortunate to acquire, through negotiations with the artist's estate, an exceptional example of this genre, from a pivotal time of her life: Self-portrait (Wanaka) 1939. Angus has also received much acclaim for her depictions of specific New Zealand environments. The fact that this self-image is located within the distinctive Wanaka landscape of the Central Otago region, with the snow-capped Southern Alps in the background, makes the work additionally special.
In the 1930s and 1940s, national identity was an intellectual obsession among many New Zealand artists, writers and critics who turned to their own place to consider the effect it had on shaping a collective consciousness. For Angus, the landscape was only part of the equation and, although she was often deeply inspired by locality, she was also drawn to people and human psychology.
Self-portrait (Wanaka) is a dramatic, penetrating self-portrait painted on the eve of the Second World War. As a young woman, Rita Angus was a feminist and a pacifist. A clear sense of her independent spirit comes through in this self-portrait. As we contemplate the painting it is possible to observe an intensity of feeling in her deeply furrowed brow and the powerful expression in her eyes. This was no doubt informed by her difficult personal circumstances at the time. In the lead-up to undertaking this work, her marriage had ended, her sister had died and she had no fixed address. As a pacifist, she also found it painful to witness the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe. Set in the bracing atmosphere of a wintry landscape, this painting conveys a sense of place, time and personal experience.
This powerful work adds significantly to the portraits by modernist women in the Gallery’s collection and also strengthens our collection of New Zealand art. After years of consideration and negotiation, the Gallery can now represent Rita Angus with a major painting for the first time in an Australian public art museum.
Deborah Hart, senior curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture post-1920
in artonview, issue 65, autumn 2011
in artonview, issue 65, autumn 2010