Around 1945, Rita Angus painted a man sitting in an armchair, next to a table of books and a bunch of flowers. Nothing too strange so far, right? Except that there is a devil in a long purple robe creeping up behind him. Not to mention the huge spider crawling on the books, or the large floating dagger at his feet. Plumes of smoke also swirl around him, revealing glimpses of a mountain landscape and the silhouette of a stark tree.
What does this all mean? Is it meant to be some sort of hallucination? Flashes of an artist’s imagination? Or an experiment in surrealism?
Most New Zealand art lovers are familiar with Angus’s iconic works like Rutu or Cass. But I’ve always been most fond of the odd and obscure paintings which shake up our expectations of her work. That’s why I was so excited to stumble across Figure Allegory (circa 1945) in the hidden depths of Te Papa’s painting storeroom. The more time I’ve spent looking at this weird gem, the more I’ve grown to love its strangeness – I think it shows just how vivid and vital Angus’s artistic imagination really was.
The meaning of this work is pretty ambiguous. It doesn’t appear to be finished, suggesting that even the artist herself didn’t quite know how to resolve it. The only thing we know for certain is that the man in the chair is artist Douglas MacDiarmid, who Angus befriended in the mid-1940s. At the time, MacDiarmid was studying languages at Canterbury University, and the pair bonded over shared interests in Eastern religions, literature and art. Angus’s portraits often included hidden clues to her sitter’s character, so the stack of books at MacDiarmid’s side probably reflects his literary interests.
The rest of the painting is much less straightforward. Some elements of the work appear to be borrowed from Angus’s standard oeuvre, such as the crisp mountain landscape, spindly tree, or the jumble of flowers. Yet, here, she mixes and mashes them into a fragmented collage, creating a strange otherworldly feel. The dagger and the spider are particularly curious additions to this mix, and seem a bit ominous in contrast to the lovely flowers and landscape.
Angus had a growing interest in surrealism through the 1940s, which often uses these sorts of odd juxtapositions to evoke dreams and the subconscious mind. So do the objects in Figure Allegory tell us something about MacDiarmid, or are they more about Angus’s own inner world? Or perhaps our personal interpretations are supposed to reveal something about our own minds?
The dagger, for example, could be read in a number of different ways. In psychoanalysis (a key inspiration for surrealist artists), Sigmund Freud interpreted daggers as symbols of aggressive male sexuality, especially in the dreams of women. On the other hand, in some Buddhist iconography – a shared interest of Angus and MacDiarmid – knives and swords are meant to symbolize wisdom cutting through ignorance. A floating blade also appears in a 1937 bookplate that Angus designed, hovering over the artist’s head. Angus explained the symbolic meaning of that sword as “…the curse of being born an artist” (see: Jill Trevelyan, Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life, Te Papa Press, 2008, p. 89).
The devil figure is perhaps the most enigmatic and unusual part of the painting. MacDiarmid once dressed up in a similar costume for an arts ball, and thinks that Angus might have been inspired by that (see: Trevelyan, Rita Angus, p. 175). But it also recalls the imaginative Gothic engravings made by Angus’s close friend Leo Bensemann in the 1940s, which featured strange, devilish figures.
The bottom line is that the specific meaning of Figure Allegory is ultimately a mystery. For me, that’s the pleasure of looking at it. The work is currently on display on Level 5 of Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa for the first time, so I encourage you to come take a close look and decide its meaning for yourself.