When art historian Jill Trevelyan began research for her biography on artist Rita Angus, she had no idea that she would happen upon new information that would change perceptions about Angus. Independently director Gaylene Preston also started her own research on the artist with the idea for Lovely Rita. Preston heard about Trevelyan's biography and the rest, as they say is history. Together biographer and director were able to provide a more detailed picture of Angus and her work, than has previously been possible, and the result is Lovely Rita.
Closely connected to Angus and living near her in Thorndon, Wellington, was composer Douglas Lilburn. After his death in 2001, Angus' letters to him were bequeathed to the Alexander Turnbull Library. It is these letters that revealed the extent of their relationship, and on which both biographer and filmmaker draw generously. In this film actor Loren Horsley reads from the letters and poses as the young Angus, while the voice of Donogh Rees stands in for the older Angus.
The most surprising piece of information that emerged from these letters was the sexual nature of Lilburn and Angus' relationship. This resulted in Angus' pregnancy in 1941, which she later miscarried. Much is made of this in the film, and rightly so as it shed new light on both parties - Angus the unconventional, independent woman, and Lilburn the homosexual. And as composer Jack Body points out, had their child survived, "the history of New Zealand's artistic creative life would have been changed forever."
Preston has a knack for personalising her documentaries, and this is another excellent example. She interviews a number of people who knew Angus - artists Juliet Peter and Jacqueline Fahey, gallery owner and art historian Elva Bett, and friend Christine Cole Catley - along with collector Sam Neill and other Angus enthusiasts (artists Graham Sydney and Vita Cochrane, curators Tony Mackle, Peter Shaw, and Anna Miles), and presents the different eras and events in Angus' life in relationship to her paintings.
Artist and woman are made sense of in tandem rather than separately. And while the debate continues as to the importance of biography in understanding an artist's work, Angus' example supports the argument that artists' lives and personalities often inform their work - as this film shows.