Rita Angus was a core part of the influential Christchurch-based artist group, known simply as ‘The Group.’
In 1927, Rita Angus enrolled at Canterbury College School of Art to begin a four-year diploma in fine arts. From tutors such as Leonard Booth and Cecil Kelly, she received a sound traditional training in life drawing, still life, and landscape painting.
During the late 1920s and 1930s Christchurch was in its heyday as an art and cultural centre.
On 13 June 1930, Angus married fellow artist Alfred Herbert Owen Cook in Christchurch. The marriage was shortlived, however: in 1934 the couple separated on grounds of incompatibility, and were divorced in 1939. As a young artist with feminist views, Angus was evidently unable to reconcile the conflicting roles of wife and artist. She signed her work Rita Cook from 1930 until 1946, but changed her name by deed poll to Henrietta Catherine McKenzie, and from 1941 sometimes signed paintings as R. McKenzie or R. Mackenzie, although she usually used the name Rita Angus.
Angus’s divorce left her in a difficult position, financially and socially. During the 1930s and 1940s she lived mainly in Christchurch, working at various short-term jobs, including teaching and as an illustrator for the Press, in order to eke out a living. In 1930 she began to exhibit with the Canterbury Society of Arts, and in 1932 she first exhibited with The Group. These remained the primary outlets for her work for most of her life.
In 1936 Rita Angus and Louise Henderson made a sketching expedition to Arthur’s Pass. The drawings from this trip formed the basis of ‘Cass’ (1936), a painting of a small Canterbury railway station, which represented a break away from her academic training. With its brilliantly lit, hard-edged form and insistent patterning, ‘Cass’ exemplifies Angus’s very personal style and vision. In 1940 it was exhibited in the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art, signalling critical recognition for her work.
Angus based herself in Christchurch, until 1954.
(With thanks to The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand)