This auction features works by a trio of gifted female painters: Rita Angus, A Lois White and Adele Younghusband, and gives us a chance to consider the role these artists played in the modern movement and the qualities they shared, as artists and as women.
But first, where did modernism begin in New Zealand? In 1929, the English painter W H Allen rued the complacency of the local scene and the lack of interest in modern art. New Zealand art was ‘safe’, he declared: “[I]t represents a past age, avoids all experiment, and is full of sentiment”1. That situation began to change in the following decade, thanks to the influence of migrant artists like R N Field, Christopher Perkins and Allen himself. New Zealanders returning from overseas study also had a galvanising effect, bringing books, reproductions, and a new sense of excitement and purpose. Olivia Spencer Bower remembered Cora Wilding coming home, “fizzing with excitement over Cézanne… and trying to convert the lot of us”2.
Women were at the forefront of new developments all over New Zealand but to be ‘modern’ meant different things to different artists. In Auckland, A Lois White treated the human form as part of a sinuous, decorative scheme in two stunning works in this auction: Gay Ladies (1939) and Rainy Day (circa 1939). Both demonstrate a keen instinct for design, every element in the composition contributing to a sense of rhythm and movement.
To Rita Angus, modernism meant a bold, linear style with flattened form and crisp blocks of colour, as seen in Self-portrait of 1936–37, in which she represented depicts herself, cigarette in hand, as a stylish ‘New Woman’. But Angus’ modernism took many forms. All her life, she painted flowers, exploring their mystical, symbolistic and abstract qualities. In Untitled Still-life (circa 1952), she depicted the flowers with characteristic refinement but brings a subtle, modernist treatment to the composition. Traditional perspective is jettisoned; instead, she emphasises the flattening of the picture plane with the taut, checked tablecloth and uptilted green dish. This luminous watercolour affirms Angus’ claim: “Everything I paint has the sense of being alive”.
For Adele Younghusband, who was more than 20 years older than were Angus and White, modernism offered a gamut of styles to adapt to her own purpose. Her work has a strong symbolist bent, reflecting an interest in spirituality and theosophy. The Scientist (1951) is a marvellously enigmatic image in which an array of motifs – a frog, a goat’s skull and a saw – float in front of the subject. The symbolism alludes to life, death and transformation but, also, it invokes the shadowy world of the occult. In the background, a temple-like building is superimposed against a series of cubist-inspired planes and shapes 4. It is difficult to find a comparison in New Zealand art but, perhaps, Rita Angus’ Figure Allegory (circa 1945) comes closest. Both have male protagonists – in Angus’ case, the painter Douglas MacDiarmid, while Younghusband’s subject is yet to be identified – and both have a mélange of baffling symbols and a dreamlike, contradictory sense of space. These two extraordinary paintings are rare examples of surrealism in New Zealand.
As artists, Angus, White and Younghusband had much in common, practising a tempered modernism, anchored in representation. Deeply interested in spirituality, they painted imaginative, allegorical images, and expressed social concerns and feminist principles in their art. On a personal level, too, there are parallels in their independent and mainly solitary lives; the marriages of Angus and Younghusband ended in divorce, and only Younghusband had children. Above all, they were courageous and remarkable women – dedicated artists, pioneers in their field and an inspiration to us today.