In the winter of 1965, Rita Angus started a nightly routine of sketching the moon. These drawings capture and note transformations to the moon’s form, colour, and atmospheric effects as it passed various planets in the solar system. While moons appear in Angus’s paintings of this time, these drawings are not preparatory in nature or purpose. They are powerful, independent explorations into the boundaries between the earthly and the celestial, art and science, the personal and the universal.
Pages of Mercury centres around the Moon drawings. It is a companion exhibition to Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings. Af Klint and Angus are both pioneering figures of modernism—countering and confronting the restrictions placed on women artists within their respective cultural contexts. Both made private, heavily symbolic work—and struggled with questions around its public presentation and reception. Af Klint famously decreed that the world was not ready for her art and prohibited its display until twenty years after her death. Angus was equally suspicious of her contemporaries, insisting that ‘I paint for the next two generations’. Both visualised ‘a temple of art’ where their work would be displayed and contextualised on their own terms.
Of all of her work, Angus’s Moon drawings—where she lifts her eyes to the night sky and to the unknown—edge closest towards af Klint’s mystical, heavily symbolic artistic language. As was the case until recently with af Klint’s work, the Moon sketches are little known. They sit outside the conventional understandings of Angus’s work, which largely centres around her contribution to landscape and portraiture. Extracted from her ‘Pages of Mercury’ sketchbooks, the drawings are on long term loan to Te Papa Tongarewa from the Rita Angus Estate.
Artists Andrew Beck and Séraphine Pick have long been fascinated with these drawings. They have come together under their auspices, thinking through and working in or around them together for a number of years. Pages of Mercury explores Beck and Pick’s relationship to these drawings as artists who see and respond to something in them that others have not. The new and collaborative works they have made for this exhibition manifest a shared understanding of what is at stake in these enigmatic drawings and the generative possibilities that come from pushing one’s practice outside of itself to seek different forms and outcomes—as Angus did with her Moon drawings.
Pages of Mercury is an atemporal collaboration or exchange made with and through Angus—rather than simply being about or in response to her work. It celebrates the communicative powers of art, and the ability that some artists have to speak across time and make their own futures. In tracing this artistic relationship between Angus, Beck, and Pick, the exhibition also asks us to see or imagine another—that between af Klint and Angus whose respective works carry all of these possibilities.