Over‑respecting the person, Tony Bellette

Frances Hodgkins: Paintings and Drawings
Iain Buchanan, Michael Dunn, Elizabeth Eastmond
Auckland University Press, $79.95

Do we have any right to claim Frances Hodgkins? Famous expatriate artists, to be regarded as properly belonging to their land of birth, normally continue in their art, if only through recollection and argument, to maintain the connection. Joyce, Mansfield, Nolan could be said, in terms of their essential subject matter, never to have left home; or alternatively, not to have come to terms with Ireland, New Zealand and Australia until they had settled somewhere else. The colonial context only highlights the need to fly the coop, to reassess from a distance. New Zealand provided subjects (people rather than scenery) for Frances Hodgkins while she lived here, but played no part in her art after she left. Her creative life seems to have been lived entirely elsewhere, and nowhere for very long. She moved in vagabond fashion from one rented premises to another. For artistic purposes she may be called “British”.

Frances Hodgkins: Paintings and Drawings places her firmly in the British tradition. The introduction speaks of “the lack of serious focus on the contribution of Frances Hodgkins to modernism in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s” and the last sentence of the text refers to her “individual and substantial achievement within the context of British art of this period.” Yet she is also described, twice, as New Zealand’s “major historical artist”.

Leaving aside what is meant by “historical artist” (as opposed to “living”?) one might rephrase the initial question: do we have the right to claim a painter as one of ours merely because she was born and grew up here? To many people the answer to this is probably “yes, of course”. Yet expatriates and particularly those who, like Hodgkins, seem to have no real quarrel with their native land but are by nature simply restless, do throw into doubt not just the propriety but the very rationale of such acts of appropriation. She may have been “the Dunedin Girl who conquered Paris” to the Otago Daily Times in 1913, but 80 years later should we still be seeing her in these terms?

The authors of this book would probably say “yes” also, on the grounds that the British have never properly recognised her as one of theirs; nor have the French, to whom she was most indebted throughout her creative life. Whatever the case, this is overall a fine book on a great artist. The colour plates are excellent and my only regret is that there aren’t twice as many of them. Whoever may finally be said to “own” Frances Hodgkins, it is to be hoped that this fitting commemoration of her may be distributed elsewhere than in New Zealand.

When considering the text, as opposed to the pictures, it is clear that the book has certain agendas which must be considered, that certain cards (though by no means all) are on the table. For instance, the book is described as “prioritising … the work in relation to the life”. Recent studies of women artists in particular are seen as having emphasised such things as gender issues, working conditions and personalities at the expense of serious consideration of the work itself.

The approach taken, then, is revisionist to the extent that it downplays if it doesn’t actually reject the kinds of questions which have figured so largely in art criticism of the last 10 or 15 years. What we have is an approach which seems happy to accept the autonomy of the art work as a central tenet and which thus assumes an unrepentantly modern stance. With this I have no argument, except that the book also claims that only now, when “notions associated with postmodernism have arguably freed us from the limiting effects of binary construct” and from “unproductive notions of nationality and of gender difference”, can we appreciate Hodgkins’ art for what it truly is.

This position would be more convincing if these notions had actually been applied to Hodgkins in the way it is claimed they have been applied to such artists as Frida Kahlo and Berthe Moriot. Nationality and gender may or may not be “unproductive” as asserted but in this case they have simply been dropped without being tested and we are back with more or less straight description of the chronology-and‑influences kind which up till now is all we have had with respect to this particular artist. It is hard not to feel that certain opportunities have been lost here. If by the end of the book we feel we know less than we would like about the woman who painted these pictures, it is not because fuller knowledge is inaccessible but because the methods by which such knowledge might have been gained have been somewhat arbitrarily ruled out.

E H McCormick’s excellent accounts of Hodgkins’ life have long been available: Linda Gill’s equally excellent edition of the letters appeared a year ago. Material is not lacking for a deeper and more speculative account of the work than is given here, at least by two of the three contributors. Michael Dunn and Iain Buchanan write on the periods 1869‑1913 and 1914‑1930 respectively (the dividing line being her last return visit to New Zealand). If these two sections are thorough rather than inspired, it may be because Hodgkins’ work does not get particularly interesting until the late 1920s and if it were not for what came later would not be easily distinguishable from that of many other reasonably competent dabblers in early twentieth-century modernism. Though this said, one should remember the London reviewer of 1909 who described her work as “nervous in touch, elusive in colour, and strange in technique … the strongest contribution of a woman to art for some time past”. Or the Melbourne reviewer of 1912 who found her work “ultra‑impressionist” and the public who were “too dazzled and confused” to risk buying. As with Emily Carr, her Canadian counterpart and her pupil in 1911 in Concarneau, it does not do to slight early work merely because we know what came later. The space given here to the early years recognises this.

Elizabeth Eastmond, who also writes the introduction, gets the exciting part, the last 16 years, from 1931 to 1947. The critical turning point came in the period 1927‑1931, the “Four Vital Years”, as Arthur Howell of the St George’s Gallery, her agent and most attentive early critic, called them, when she moved from restless experimenter to assured practitioner of high modernism. The lessons of the always carefully observed French masters, in particular Picasso, Matisse and Dufy, had been fully assimilated. Cubism had been learned at source, not from the salon cubists at second or third hand as had been the case with many other antipodean artists who had arrived later on the modern European scene than Hodgkins. Matisse’s line and colour were understood as more than surface decoration, while more was learned from Dufy than he was necessarily capable of teaching. There were in fact very few modern artists whose work Hodgkins came into contact with that she was not able to turn to her own account. Acceptance into the English avant‑garde by way of the New English Art Club and the 7 & 5 Society gave her her final exposure to neo-romanticism, some of whose adherents arguably learned more from her than she from them. At the end of the war she moved into the orbit of Sutherland, Moore, Smith and Bacon, exhibiting with them at the Lefèvre Gallery in 1945.

Full justice is done by Eastmond to the late work. She begins: “Like ritual offerings of plenty, Frances Hodgkins’ still‑life landscapes float pleasurable images of fecundity and delight before the eye.” In them, she adds later, “Hodgkins constructs a distinctive, subtly transgressive series of images and significantly expands and alters conceptions of the still life as a genre”. She is aware of the sensuality, the sexuality, of these remarkable works, but also of their “sly humour” and “gleeful jauntiness” (qualities apparent also in photographs of the ageing artist, habitual hairpiece now discarded, as she engages with the photographer in both defiance and complicity). She gives a detailed and moving account of the last works, with their images of war and destruction and at the same time their deep, mysterious spaces, both tactile and dreamlike.

Eastmond also recognises the source of Hodgkins’ power: her ability to work in “that fertile gap between representation and abstraction” which early modernism opened up so fruitfully. Only the American Arthur Dove steered as individual a course within that gap as Hodgkins did. But Hodgkins’ late work also stands at the beginning of another tradition, that of painterly abstraction in Britain that begins with Hitchens and ends with Auerbach and her near‑namesake Hodgkin. A full critical account of Frances Hodgkins’ work will find much to add to this too‑brief beginning.

We are still a long way from the person. Linda Gill in her introduction to the Letters says that she “drew about herself a protective cloak of eccentricity”. The passionate friendships with other women, pupils and fellow‑artists, which, as with Lois White, may or may not have been overtly sexual, were conducted in terms probably closed to us now. None of the three authors of the present book engages in the kind of relentless pursuit of the private person that in most modern biographies is obligatory. Hodgkins once said that her chief aim “is not to be beholden to any school” and that aim seems to have been respected, at both the public and the personal level, by all three.

The result overall is a less original and a less controversial book than might legitimately have been hoped for and one which does not in the end come to terms with the central concerns of modern art history which it invokes. But it remains true to its subject, the works themselves, which are for the first time generously and faithfully reproduced, each with it adjoining page of description. Hodgkins is alive in these pages for whoever might wish to claim her as their own.

Tony Bellette is a senior lecturer in art history at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction and Review
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