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Frances Hodgkins: How the daring NZ painter left her mark on 20th century art

At the Window, c1912, by Frances Hodgkins. Image/Art Gallery South Australia, South Australian Government Grant 1913

The legacy of pioneering artist Frances Hodgkins is being reconsidered in a major exhibition and two new books.

South African artist Dolf Rieser was wrong. The middle-aged woman standing at her easel on Ibiza’s stony east coast was not, as he assumed, yet another “sunset painter” attracted to the intense light of Spain’s Balearic Islands. Rather, on seeing the translucent beauty of her watercolour, he was compelled to stop and congratulate her on her work.

“Well, I’m Frances Hodgkins,” she replied, “quite well known nowadays.”

This was 1933. New Zealand’s most famous expatriate artist and one of this country’s most important painters had been in Ibiza for less than a year and, yes, she was quite well known.

After arriving in England in 1901, Hodgkins had taught at the prestigious Académie Colarossi in Paris, exhibited with leading avant-garde artists Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in the progressive Seven and Five Society in London and received a contract with St George’s Gallery.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Her home country rejected anything more experimental than her earliest watercolours, but her reputation in Europe was bounding ahead. She was invited to represent Britain in the 1940 Venice Biennale (later retracted because of World War II), her 1941 exhibition at the Leicester Gallery was praised in the Spectator for its “originality and power”, and her retrospective exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in 1944 put her at the forefront of British Modernism.

Now, to mark the 150th anniversary of Hodgkins’ birth in Dunedin in 1869, her legacy is being framed within her insatiable thirst for new landscapes and experiences in an almost lifelong habit of travel across England and Wales, Spain, Morocco, the Netherlands and the small villages of southern France, where the air, she enthused in one of her letters home, “is like wine and the wine like champagne”.

“The heady lure of the Mediterranean,” says Mary Kisler, senior curator at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, “became a driving force in her constant search for inspiration.”

The artist in her Bowen St studio, in Wellington, in 1904. Photo/Supplied

This search, examined in fine detail in Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys (edited by Catherine Hammond and Kisler), which accompanies the forthcoming exhibition of the same title, begins in France in 1908, when Hodgkins’ interest in the Realist and Impressionist paintings of Monet, Manet, Pissarro and Degas is quickly diverted to the bold explorations of colour and form of the Post-Impressionists: Gauguin, Cézanne and van Gogh.

In Paris, Hodgkins admires Picasso’s confidence and restless inquiry, Matisse’s use of colour and Raoul Dufy’s brushstrokes. She urges her students to visit the modern galleries. “This was not standard advice,” says Kisler. “The work of Picasso and Cézanne was derided, with few sold, but they were still doing it and it was that role model for Hodgkins – that you set your mind in a particular direction and, whatever the odds, you just keep going.”

And Hodgkins did keep going, moving six times a year, on average, between 1901 and her death in 1947. Despite ill health (suspected cholera, a persistent stomach ulcer), impecuniousness, lost luggage, and war nipping at her heels, Hodgkins continued to lug her trunks and easels across the Continent, seeking out the stark colours, hard lines and sudden expanses of view in each new destination.

“She was looking for disruption and quirkiness,” says Kisler. “She wasn’t looking for uniformity. It is what she used to call the modern problem and it really begins with the Impressionists: this idea that you don’t look to the past, to the academies, to ancient Greece and Rome, but instead find your subject matter in the everyday.

“She loves the simple life, the landscapes, the flowers, and the bars, but she is constantly thinking, ‘How do I handle this differently?’ She realises each of them is facing the same problem: Dufy doesn’t want to look like Picasso, Picasso doesn’t want to look like Braque – everyone is trying to find their own language, but the focus is on the modern world. Her influence isn’t in the land or the object itself, it is in the way she constantly challenges the way she looks [at them].”

Mary Kisler, senior curator at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Photo/Supplied

Pinning down this transition from Victorian watercolourist to British Modernist has not been easy. In trying to complete the catalogue raisonné of all Hodgkins’ known artworks, Kisler found many paintings had incorrect titles, a legacy of auction houses and galleries changing names or giving descriptive titles if unnamed. Although it was obvious many of her paintings were specific to place, the question was: where exactly?

“When you look at her oeuvre, things keep evolving and I started to think it was the travelling, a new location each time that stimulated her to develop a slightly different way of handling a subject. So, to place the works accurately, I would have to go to the places where she worked.”

She did, setting off in 2015, then again in 2016 and 2018, in the shadow of Hodgkins’ footsteps a century earlier. Her experiences are recounted in another book, Finding Frances Hodgkins, developed from the group emails she was sending back to friends and family in place of the diary she never kept. “It was a way of capturing the flavour of the place,” she says. “In a gallery catalogue I could not say I had been to a gay bar in Ibiza – it just wouldn’t have done. In my book, I could.”

It is an enchanting if slightly obsessive travel story, journeying with friends and colleagues across England, Wales, France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. She eats in the same cafes, stays at the same hotels, negotiates the same narrow streets, takes in the same views that Hodgkins translated into oil and watercolour, piecing together the where and when (and inevitably how) of the paintings.

“I constantly tried to look through her eyes. I kept thinking, ‘When she stood here, what did she see?’”

It is tough going. Kisler contends with a nagging cough, a barely-there bike saddle, the narrow doors of French trains and the precarious path above the medieval fortification Vila Vella on the Catalan coast looking for the site where Hodgkins placed her easel.

Harbour, South of France, c1931. Image/Private Collection, Sydney

But the victories are frequent. In Bodinnick, a tiny village in south Cornwall, she stays at the Old Ferry Inn, hoping to identify the deep bay windows from which Hodgkins painted over the winter of 1931-32. With insight from a rotund barman, she learns her room is the only one from which one of Hodgkins’ watercolours could have been painted.

In Shropshire, close to the Welsh border, where Hodgkins stayed with her students in 1926, a chance meeting with a local water board member takes Kisler to the private garden that features in some of the paintings: “I knew I had struck gold.”

In the small Welsh village of Ponterwyd, nestled up against the Cambrian Mountains, she fights her way through the undergrowth to stand by the river beneath the now-defunct but familiar millhouse “trying to sense where Hodgkins would have sat to paint the view of the mill”.

Close to the picture-postcard village of Corfe on the Isle of Purbeck, she finds the sweeping arc of Kimmeridge Bay where the artist could “tuck herself into the sheltered side of the bay out of the wind to make preliminary sketches”. In Cerne Abbas in Dorset, where Hodgkins and a friend stayed in September 1943, she follows the artist’s footsteps past the dog-leg bend in a stream featured in The Millers House and The Watermill (Water Wheel).

Across the Channel, on Spain’s Costa Brava, she identifies the whitewashed walls of Casa Johnstone in Tossa de Mar that appear in several paintings, now surrounded by the tennis court and swimming-pool complex of the sprawling Hotel Don Juan. “Wearing my most confident face,” she recalls, “I walked briskly inside as if I had forgotten my towel or tennis racquet, and discovered that the interior also appears unchanged.”

Many of these discoveries were made with the help and enthusiasm of local residents, especially when recognising a particular scene or location from the catalogue of paintings on Kisler’s iPad. “People were so curious that here was this person who loved these small communities. The locals are the ones who can say, you need to go around the coast two bays and you will find the other bits.”

Chairs and Pots, c1937. Image/National Galleries of Scotland, Bequeathed by Miss Elizabeth Watt 1989

In Ibiza, a local resident immediately recognised the two different views conflated by Hodgkins in her work Monastery Steps.

Back in France, in Antibes, Kisler wanders through the same produce market where Hodgkins painted, the air “heady with the scents of the ground spices laid out in trays on trestle tables, like an artist’s paintbox”. In the cluster of villages above Nice, she identifies the vantage point used by Hodgkins to paint the church rising above the stone walls of St Paul (in the painting, Kisler notes, the hills have been elevated to better contrast with the vertical houses).

She traipses through the small French fishing village of Martigues where the artist painted Venetian Lagoon, eliminating the iron lamp posts to simplify the scene. Alone in an apartment in Cassis, in southern France, Kisler settles down on her terrace: “As the evening set in, I thought how influential the evening light of the Côte d’Azur became to Hodgkins, for a delicious hazy pinkness spread across the sky, and at a certain point the sea turned a magical liquid golden colour.”

There were discoveries. While visiting an art collector in London, Kisler is told of a neighbour with an interesting work by Hodgkins. This turns out to be the previously undiscovered The Road to Barcelona. “I was familiar with the sketch and kept thinking there had to be a finished painting somewhere and – lo and behold – above the sofa.”

But the story is far from complete. Following Hodgkins’ death in a home for “senescent women”, some of her personal effects, including a letter about the dissolution of her engagement to English journalist and writer Thomas Wilby in 1906, were destroyed in Wellington. The painting she gave Rieser on a goat path in Ibiza has not resurfaced. All her paintings done in Capri were lost and have since disappeared.

But two books, one exhibition and an improved catalogue provide new insight into the artist’s restive search for a distinctive and compelling expression.

Hammond and Kisler quote Hodgkins’ long-term friend and fellow artist John Piper: “She was part of us – with no parish, country, climate or anything else attached to her. She was just herself and she was such a sensitive person that she was very good at adopting the colour of the climate she was in – like a fish on the bottom of the sea.”

His description captures the restlessness and at times isolation of an artist driven to constantly extend her art far from the country of her birth in a fashion, says Kisler, not too dissimilar from that of another gifted expatriate, Katherine Mansfield.

“Mansfield did something no one else was doing in literature. She was influenced by Virginia Woolf, but Woolf was influenced by Mansfield. She could pare things back par excellence and Hodgkins was a little bit like both of them. She was like Mansfield when she did really simple, pure, clear watercolours and she was a bit like Woolf when she composed something that was incredibly lyrical, but also very complex.

“When you look at the colours and the lines, particularly in her later work, none of them sits still. Your eyes leap constantly from one tone to another. She is a woman, with her faults and her really good points, but I admire her enormously.”

FRANCES HODGKINS: EUROPEAN JOURNEYS, eds Catherine Hammond and Mary Kisler (Auckland University Press, $75); FINDING FRANCES HODGKINS, by Mary Kisler (Massey University Press, $45).

Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys at Auckland Art Gallery, May 4-September 1, then travelling to Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington.

This article was first published in the May 4, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.