Rita Angus

Rita Angus New Zealand Artist Hawkes Bay
Rita Angus, Storm, Hawkes Bay, c.1969. (Private Collection, copyright held by Rita Angus Estate)

Of all New Zealand’s early modernists, Rita Angus’ paintings are perhaps the easiest to love. It was her 1936 oil Cass, after all—that quintessential image of the lonely comings-and-goings of rural New Zealand, mundane, everyday journeys carried out amidst the unique transcendence of God’s Own peaks—that was voted to be this country’s most loved painting. But in a country looking for not just an art but an art history of its own, the art has never quite been enough; it was not just a New Zealand art we were looking for, but mythologies of New Zealand artists. That role was the one Rita Angus steadfastly refused to play. And so today New Zealanders find themselves in the position of having three great New Zealand artists, but not knowing what to make of the third. Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, and Rita Angus—Angus last in the list, separated by the Oxford comma, as if we didn’t quite know where she belonged.

Though her artworks were increasingly recognised and loved during her lifetime, Rita Angus herself remained to the end an enigmatic figure, sitting as solitary and isolated from the country’s burgeoning ‘art world’ as the figure in her Cass. She could be peevish, even to her closest friends and family. Douglas Lillburn, her one-time lover and long-time friend and neighbour, often found himself mediating on her behalf with those her brooding letters had left in disbelief. Art dealers and museum curators, far from being an exception, often bore the brunt of her fretful letters, and for this her reputation likely suffered. She never did have a dealer, but sold most of her early works through The Group, bastion of early modernism in Christchurch, and her later works mostly to select visitors to her Thorndon cottage in Wellington. When she died in 1970, aged 62, the bulk of her artistic output remained in her studio.

Perhaps some of the peevishness was personality. More likely, it was the result of the obstinateness that her choice of vocation forced upon her. For it has never been easy to be a woman painter—but to be a divorced woman painter intent upon modernism in what could then still be a conservative backwater was an altogether different challenge. Angus’ portraiture provides a fascinating record of the self-image required to proceed, let alone to succeed, in such an environment. Her Self-portrait of 1936-7 shows her standing strong and defiant, left arm raised as she clutches a cigarette in cool nonchalance as her right hand drapes a green beret over the opposite arm; but she may as well be holding Holofernes’ head by his hair, such is the strength of mind the picture conveys. A decade later and Angus painted A Goddess of Mercy, its central figure bearing distinctly ‘Rita’ features. This is an image of a woman at one with the world—deer nuzzle against her, birds swoop in harmony, mountains and farmland mirror themselves either side. This is a picture of strength, too, but strength borne from a unifying compassion. “As a woman painter”, Angus would write, “I work to represent love of humanity and faith in mankind in a world, which is to me, richly variable, infinitely beautiful”.

Angus was a modernist painter, one of the earliest this country can boast. But she was not by any stretch of the imagination an avant-gardist. Cubism, when it reached her work in the sixties, was diluted—a technique useful only for expressing the landscape as she experienced it while driving through on a bus, as in her late series of Hawkes Bay landscapes. A red barn, viewed frontally, but with what should be its two non-visible sides folded out either side to become visible; a gable-roofed house with both eaves represented simultaneously. Cubistic, more than Cubist—cubified at most. (Perhaps she picked this up from John Weeks who, despite studying under Andre Lhôte in Paris, always had what has been called “a wrong-headed idea of Cubism”). And whenever one senses, for a brief moment, something quite new in her work, there is always a reminder that Angus was looking far further back than us, or her twentieth century viewers: gridlines remain sometimes visible, as though her work were a preparatory drawing for a fifteenth century fresco, and always she worked in rich glazes of colour far more reminiscent of Renaissance Florence than Picasso’s and Braque’s muted, sepia, Cubist-era Paris. The Italian Primitives of the Quattrocento were as much a persistent influence than Picasso’s own dogged dominance of Angus’ century. She did reach abstraction, once or twice, but always she clung to the objective world with a title like Growth, suggesting shoots and seedlings in the springtime Thorndon she so loved.

Angus’ New Zealand landscape, by far her most frequent subject, is always the landscape seen from the metaphorical comfort of a cottage. In this her vision of New Zealand is starkly different from the raw, geomorphic, anti-materialist visions of her Nationalist contemporaries McCahon and Woollaston. Hers is a largely domesticated landscape: a stump of tree in the foreground, always a symbol of the land tamed, upon the quilted patchwork of farmland divided and registered by a District Council; or a road, a railway or perhaps powerlines running up between the quatre-acres. In another sense, too, Angus’ paintings are always domestic. She never painted a canvas or board larger than 900mm along any dimension, and her best works were significantly smaller (often they were watercolours, which, particularly during the first half of Angus’ career, frequently surpass her oils in their power and clarity.) Central Otago of 1940, her dynamic oil composition with a clarity she perhaps never captured again, surprises for how small it seems after one has seen reproductions, and her landscapes of the late 1960s never reach larger than a 600mm by 600mm square. There is something of Dalí’s approach to scale in Angus’ small, powerful and condensed images—even something of the icon in them—and again she demarcates herself from her contemporaries who painted ever-larger. McCahon and Woollaston stun the public into submission with eventually massive works. Angus enchants us. Her works are like small jewels, radiating human-scaled hope and warmth.

In 1958 the painter from Hawkes Bay who had always maintained that “N.Z. has more than enough to offer” made what was to be her only overseas trip, to London for a year, with just a three week grand tour of the continent. Where New Zealand’s other great female painter, Frances Hodgkins, saw in Europe the intellectual frontier and decided to stay forever so she could push against it, one gets the sense that for Rita Angus, a woman who lived a life of ascetic devotion to her art, to stay would have been too easy. “It is also easier overseas as it is traditional for a painter to devote their time to their work, & a liberal atmosphere to work in.” To have it easy was not the life she had chosen.

And so New Zealanders are left with a body of work astounding in its unity, an oeuvre unwavering in its commitment to what is ‘local and special’ about this country and its inhabitants at the point this painter picked up the traces. But the conflation of the subject of a work with its spirit has been the elementary mistake to have dogged the art historical reception of Rita Angus, leaving her out in the cold behind that Oxford comma. For hers was not the chauvinist vision of her nationalist contemporaries any more than we would say Picasso’s vision was jingoistic merely because he painted memento moris during the war. Angus stands in a relationship to New Zealand art history akin to how Edward Hopper stands to America’s: concerned deeply with the country and its people, its changing present and its potential futures, modestly moving beyond the art of old while incorporating its best traditions, yet all the while never once asserting an agenda at all limited by the borders of nationhood. And indeed these two came uncannily close to one another at times, in their unwavering realism, in their seascapes (Angus’ Boats at Island Bay to Hopper’s The Long Leg) and their cityscapes (Angus’ At Suzy’s Coffee Lounge to Hopper’s Nighthawks), and in their immutable—yet mute—resistance to their young countries’ insistence that in painting their landscapes they were painting their identities.

What Rita Angus leaves us is a minutely composed lesson in how by close observation of what is unique about ourselves we might move closer to seeing what is universal—how a love for one’s land, down to a solitary Passionflower, might reflect the passions that all humans have in common. It does not seem surprising that she viewed her 1951 Rutu as perhaps her most important work: this multi-ethnic goddess is at once unmistakeably Rita and undeniably everyone, set in at once the autumnal environment of her cottage at Clifton and the tropical paradise of a Tahitian Eden. Seen this way, the solitary, suited man on the station platform at Cass may not be waiting for the Midland Line train after all. He might just be waiting—as we all are, no matter what alps or oceans we wait amongst—for someone or something a bit like Godot.

 

Design and Living: Architect Ernst Plischke’s Manifesto for Housing in New Zealand

Unnoticed by most New Zealanders in May 1939 was the arrival in Wellington of an architect of international stature. Racism, xenophobia and war were driving some of the best minds of Europe to (very) distant shores, and one can only imagine the reaction Ernst Anton Plischke had when he arrived in Wellington with his wife and children. A highly sophisticated and well-educated Austrian, Plischke grew up in Vienna and moved in prominent circles with names across the arts. After graduating from his studies he was immediately recruited by Peter Behrens (who had earlier recruited others central to the Modernist movement like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier); Plischke later joined Josef Frank’s studio, then moved to New York to work for Ely Jacques Kahn (architect of many of the city’s skyscrapers). While in New York he met Frank Lloyd Wright. This is the man—urbane, sophisticated, with a prominent career looking increasingly assured—who, as a Jew aligned to the socialists, fled to Wellington, New Zealand, following the reunification of Austria and Germany.

We do know that life in New Zealand wasn’t the easiest for Plischke. For instance, while working for the Department for Housing Construction—a quickly conceived government plan to cope with looming housing shortages following the anticipated end of the war—Plischke designed the Dixon Street Flats in Wellington. A few years later, his boss Gordon Wilson won the New Zealand Institute of Architects Gold Award for precisely those buildings. It seems that many who he worked with were envious of his talent and whenever possible appropriated aspects of his designs; and as a final insult, his Austrian qualifications were deemed insufficient for him to join the New Zealand Institute of Architects. So, when Plischke finally left his government job, he went into private partnership with a fully qualified New Zealander, Cedric Firth.

Ernst Plischke architect New Zealand Design and Living book During his time in New Zealand (he left twenty four years after arriving to return to Vienna) Plischke designed numerous public buildings, social houses and private dwellings. These certainly set an example. But Plischke also wanted other architects and the public to understand the philosophy behind his buildings—to see Modernism as not just sleek lines and lots of glass, but as a philosophy of living. To this end, in 1947 he published a pamphlet book called Design and Living. It is a remarkable publication, filled with drawings, acting as an architectural primer, a philosophy of modern design, and a portfolio of key Plischke works. For a country facing once again a housing crisis—just as we were when Plischke wrote the book—it presents lessons we appear still to need to digest.

A house is a framework for living

Plischke's Corner Flat in Wellington, completed 1959/60
Plischke’s Corner Flat in Wellington, completed 1959/60

In New Zealand architectural history Plischke is usually presented as one of a band of International Style-ists opposed to any attempt to find a ‘vernacular’—i.e., a ’New Zealand style’—of architecture. Plischke’s kind of modernism has been criticised for being wilfully ignorant of local conditions or culture, for enforcing a supposed rational uniformity on all inhabitants of a building no matter where in a country or even where in the world they reside. This is the same criticism of Le Corbusier’s dictum that “a building is a machine for living in”. People are organic beings, not machines, is the protest.

But in reading Plischke’s own Design and Living one is struck by how far he himself seemed to have moved beyond this kind of international-vernacular debate entirely. In one important section he nods to all the different philosophies of housing, from an ascetic/simple living view, to the Corbusian ‘machine’ philosophy, and even a kind of post-modern ‘home as self-expression’ view. And he then moves beyond them:

“There is the person who says that a house should be essentially a shelter against wind and rain and cold; that any structure which effectively keeps out those elements is a good house. There is the person who wants, besides shelter, something he describes as a snug, cosy home. The man who imagines himself up to the moment will probably oppose that idea and demand that a house should function like a motor-car, or, rather, like an ocean liner: a machine that makes life as efficiently comfortable as possible. Then, we know the person who wants to impress his friends with his success and his worth as a citizen. And we know what his house usually looks like. But there are people who dislike the idea of display, who think that a house should be something more than a shelter or a snuggery or a machine. They realise that a house is a framework in which our lives are lived, and that life does not entirely consist of working, eating, and sleeping. They want a richer and fuller life, and they know that the house they live in can play an active part in attaining it.”

Plischke’s philosophy is far more complex than those other views, but also, in a way, far more simple. Here’s where I think his own origins play a role in having shaped his philosophy. Having grown up in a cultural centre, somewhere where art and culture being discussed at the coffee house was a central part of existence, Plischke sees the buildings in which we live and converse as existing to help bring out those heights of human achievement and accomplishment. Elsewhere he expands on this view:

“Earlier I said that houses make a framework for richer and fuller living: this goes far beyond the materialistic idea that a house should be merely a shelter. A rich and full life can be called a civilised life. And we who belong to a young country just beginning to build should remind ourselves that history does not judge a civilisation by its material and economic organisation alone, but rather by the thoughts and arts that it inspired.”

This is no architect concerned with building monuments to a nation or monuments to himself. It’s almost a modest view—that the best an architect can do is get out of the way and let artists, scientists and workers get on with their lives.

New Zealand housing in crisis

Plischke wrote his book as New Zealand was still in the midst, though emerging gradually, from a housing crisis. The cost of housing was rising; there weren’t enough houses to go around; and government housing programmes weren’t being built fast enough. He had for years been working on social housing developments, and was very sensitive to the charge that as a modernist architect he was elitist, and his homes unaffordable. At various points in Design and Living Plischke responds to that criticism, providing costings for his houses and showing that they fit below the government grant provided for affordable housing.

Though he didn’t put it as simply as this, Plischke seems almost to have a three-point plan for solving New Zealand’s housing woes:

  1. Adjust expectations
  2. Build smaller, but more efficiently
  3. Think at the family, town and city level, not in terms of number of houses built

Way back in 1947 Plischke seemed to take for granted that the way we were building wasn’t sustainable, and that at a certain point we would have to change our expectations about a quarter-acre patch. As he wrote simply,

“The first and most important step towards getting good design and good value would be that we ourselves should revise our taste and our ideas about what we think is good building and good furniture.”

Note that it wasn’t “change the dream of home ownership”, but just that in owning our homes we might need to change our views about the kind of homes we would be living in. This then led on to his view that multi-units were the way to go, and had been unfairly tarnished in the public eye by early failed projects:

“No doubt dissatisfaction can be and has been caused by multi-units when, because of the house shortage, families have had to put up with houses not designed for their needs; but this is rather like having to wear shoes that don’t fit you. The multi-unit proposal is one well worth discussion.”

Plischke thought we could build smaller houses, but not have the impression that we were living in smaller houses. Everywhere in Design and Living he makes suggestions for how to make a small home seem more spacious: use beds that fold-up into a cavity in the wall so that during the day the space can double as a living room; build-in all storage and furniture; put mirrors on the inside of wardrobes so that they don’t need to stand alone, for instance.

And, last, Plischke was adamant that government was using the wrong metrics to talk about housing:

“To many people a housing programme simply means a certain number of houses to be built on a certain area. But a housing programme can also mean the settlement of a certain number of families. You will notice the change of emphasis. The distinction becomes clearer if we think in terms of new suburbs or even of new townships…”

At a time when parties still propose building x or y number of houses, his change of emphasis to the family unit and to suburbs and towns is a good reminder about what is eventually at stake in the building of houses.

— — — —

It is ironic that Plischke’s legacy is still larger in Austria than in New Zealand despite the fact that he spent his most productive years here. Everywhere in Wellington you can see his buildings, from sleek residential buildings popping up over hillsides in suburbs, to his large tower on Lambton Quay. Plischke’s status in the public mind was solidified with a 2004 exhibition at the City Gallery in Wellington put on by the NZ Institute of Architects (the brochure of which I’ve included below).

Plischke’s book Design and Living still seems fresh with ideas, and it’s also fascinating to see how so many aspects of house design that we now take for granted were at one point controversial and revolutionary. It is disappointing that the book is so hard to find—the copy I read was practically falling apart in my hands. Now seems a good time for a re-print, if a local publisher could manage it.

Plischke Architect Wellington City Gallery Brochure 2004Plischke Architect Wellington City Gallery Brochure 2004