4 Sep 2019

Rita Angus paintings bound for Royal Academy showing in London

8:26 pm on 4 September 2019

Works by the feminist, pacifist and modernist painter Rita Angus are destined for a world first exhibition at London's Royal Academy of Arts next year.

Deep inside Te Papa, beyond the public displays, the climate-controlled painting and sculpture storage is lined with much of the National Collection, including some of Rita Angus' finest works.

Born in 1908, Angus shunned the limelight and was reluctant to sell her paintings.

"She painted in a really crisp, clear, modern style. We've got brilliant colour, really strong light, and strong geometric forms," Jill Trevelyan, co-curator of next year's exhibition and Rita Angus' award-winning biographer said.

"Her art would have looked bracingly modern in the 1930s," she said.

Ms Trevelyan has travelled the length of the country visiting galleries, museums, and private collections, finding Angus' 70 best works to show in London.

They include various self-portraits, landscapes and watercolours.

Hers will be the first solo show of a New Zealand artist at the Royal Academy.

Rita Angus' local acclaim grew in the 1950s when she started showing and selling some of her works, Ms Trevelyan said but she's never been well-known overseas.

It was hoped next year's exhibition would change that.

"This is putting Rita Angus on the world stage - the publicity that will come out of this exhibition for Rita Angus, for Te Papa, for art in New Zealand will be huge," Ms Trevelyan said.

Her colleague in London saw the painting Cass - a scene of a mid-Canterbury rail station, "and he was hooked - that is the beginning of this exhibition," she said.

Rita Angus was something of a pioneer and inspiration among New Zealand artists, quitting her day job to paint, in a time before arts council grants, galleries and exhibitions, Ms Trevelyan said.

"Because of her sense of vocation, her dedication, her professionalism - if she could do it way back in the 1930s and 1940s then it was possible to live as an artist," she said.

Devoted to her art, she sought freedom.

"She sort of took a vow of celibacy, she said 'I'm quietly regaining my virginity because I wish to serve the arts'," Ms Trevelyan said.

Getting those 70 works over to London would be an ordeal, Te Papa's head of art Charlotte Davy said.

"They won't travel all together, it's like putting the royal family on the plane - we don't want them in one place," Ms Davy said. "We want to be able to split them up because if anything happened it would be too much of a loss to New Zealand."

It will be a high-tech and thorough operation, involving airlines and freighters, to keep the valuable works safe and stable, she said.

"[Angus'] major paintings are in the hundreds of thousands [of dollars], works on paper are starting to creep over $100,000 - so they're really significant in terms of New Zealand's artistic heritage," Ms Davy said.

To Ms Davy, sending them overseas is worth the risk to show off this foundational New Zealand art.

"People overseas have never really seen her art which is gobsmacking to us because I think many New Zealanders know her work and the idea that nobody outside New Zealand even knows who Rita Angus is seems quite shocking," she said.

The exhibition opens in London in October next year, and will then return to Te Papa in Autumn 2021.