By Jill Trevelyan
Te Papa Press, NZ$69.95 | Reviewed by Jodi Ruth Keet

WHILST this book is a posthumous biography of an artistís life, its 349 pages delve into much more than just an artistís work and her story. An Artistís Life depicts Angus and her work during a time in New Zealand when women were expected to be wives and mothers, divorce was socially unacceptable, a world war was raging, a young country was trying to find its roots independent from Britain, art was expected to be just a hobby, and a New Zealand art world was trying to emerge. Angus rebelled against this stereotype, not only by being an artist, but by being a childless single woman, divorcee, pacifist, and proud New Zealander. An Artistís Life with its well researched background and quoted letters from Angus to her contemporaries (Colin McCahon, Toss Wollaston and Douglas Lilburn being a few) asks questions about our culture that we are only beginning to be able to answer today, thus making this biography, perhaps, perfectly timed.

In another sense it is also well timed in the fact that Angus herself would likely have not wanted to see this book published; at least not while she was alive. Not because of any lack of quality however, as I doubt she could have said anything negative about the extensive and beautiful colour plates of her work that show an excellent chronological development of one of this countries foremost founding artists. Mainly because of the personality that is strongly depicted in its pages. Through the letters by Angus and, sometimes, even more tellingly by letters from her friends, she can be seen as a very passionate, colourful, and yet private and at times, troubled artist. Because of this, it seems in her own time, such a book would have been very difficult to write. However, its importance for understanding the art world that we now have in New Zealand, and the work that Angus has left us with can not be overstated. Jill Trevelyan writes about Angus in a detailed and yet empathetic manner, which leaves the reader feeling a gratitude of debt to Trevelyan for bringing us this story, and also to Angus for her persistent passion and beliefs in what she was achieving even though, in her own day, it appears her efforts, reaped very small reward.

An Artistís Life will appeal to a wide range of people from a wide range of interests. From artists to art collectors, from historians to everyday New Zealanders asking questions about our culture. From an artistís point of view reading this book, it is depressingly telling to see that Angusí work at her last solo show before her death sold for up to $200, whereas not too long after her death one of her works claimed what at that time was a New Zealand record at an impressive $31,000. In saying this, it is interesting to note that An Artistís Life describes an Angus who was confident in herself and was well aware that the work and life she was living, would one day reach the masses and be important, groundbreaking, and well sought after.

While An Artistís Life is extremely well researched with facts and letters listed in an extensive bibliography, it is written in a manner that makes it seem more like a gripping novel, indeed, I found it extremely difficult to put down.

While I read my own review, I see that I have only been exceedingly positive about this biography, but try as I might, I cannot find anything to be negative about, nor can I suggest anything that could be improved. An Artistís Life is an excellent, well written and illustrated biography that is a must read for all those whom hold an interest in Rita Angus, or indeed New Zealand art, culture and history.