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July 28, 2008 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Angus our Cult Artist

Te Papa presents one of New Zealand’s most significant artists Rita Angus which opened on 5 July.

If you like modernism and New Zealand’s take on it then this show is for you, with almost 200 of Angus’ works ranging from her most iconic ones to sketchbooks, studies and a number of unfinished works. Every Art History Department should take their students to this kind of show for it is comprehensive overview.

This exhibition is complemented by the book complied by Jill Trevelyan: Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life. What this exhibition seeks to do is separate the myth from the reality, and this can be achieved through reading the book and viewing the work, thus discovering for oneself a truth about this artist.

The exhibition for some may raise the whole notion surrounding the cult artist. But what does it mean to be a cult artist? Hamish Keith draws us into this fascination because Angus’ life “was filled with hurt and rejection, some of it real and some of it imagined, a hopeless love, poverty and heaps of paranoia, it would be easy to see Angus’ life as tragic. As a nation, we love victimhood.” And through all this there develops the appeal of the cult artist.

You have to look good to be a cult artist and Rita Angus does: she is referenced at times throughout the exhibition as confident and self assured, coupled with paintings and photographs highlighting her beautiful features. Many of her portraits allude to this such as her Self-portrait (Wanaka, 1939). Even the image of Rita Angus (circa 1935) from the photograph album of Harvey Gresham suggests this self-assuredness and definitely her beautiful features. Although one could be curious as to why Te Papa choose a work by Angus where she is posing with a cigarette in one hand as the main advertiser? Quite un-PC!

A cult artist probably also should be someone who does not fit in to general society and in this Angus could well belong, in that she did not follow the traditional roles for women of her time. Angus’ status of pacifist during World War Two also fits comfortably into this realm with her at one stage refusing to work in a factory to support the war effort and being prosecuted as a result.

Sex is also pivotal to a cult artist status, especially if there is ambiguity, and in this Angus has plenty to deliver such as in her relationship with Douglas Lilburn!

An early death helps as well, assuring a seminal body of work for public consumption. The death has to be tragic such as through the use of narcotics or liquor. Even a suicide! New Zealand artist Philip Clairmont (from the Militant Artist Union days of the heady 1970s) hanged himself from a beam in his bathroom at aged 35, whereas Angus died of cancer, aged 62 (was it from smoking?). So Angus probably does not fit into all the possible criteria of the cult artist, but who cares about the rules!

The cult artist should also belong primarily to the young and impressionable who have a desire to live on the edge. Cult artists therefore require cult fans who like to document the lives of these artists (purchase the books and pin posters to their walls) and the cult artists’ ambiguities making them both terrible and wonderful. By having this exhibition Te Papa is endeavouring to elevate the cult status of this artist for general consumption and a mainstream audience.

If you link this to the influence of the mass media, sophisticated public relations and a book, it becomes apparent that the international consolidation of cults has become hugely marketable, which probably accounts for New Zealand’s current fascination with Rita Angus. Or is it rather to honour the centenary of her birth? Exhibition runs until 5 October.

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