Radical carrot, upside down parrot, Gregory O’Brien

Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys
Catherine Hammond and Mary Kisler (eds)
Auckland University Press, $75.00,
ISBN 9781869408930

Finding Frances Hodgkins
Mary Kisler
Massey University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9780995102972

You reach a certain age and your favourite artists and writers start invading your dreams. In one such reverie, I am strolling through Auckland Art Gallery’s “Frances Hodgkins; European Journeys” exhibition with the poet Peter Bland. An expatriate Englishman living here – a reverse-image of Hodgkins, you could say – Peter is a similarly divided or productively bifurcated person. In my dream, he hovers upside down in the antipodean gallery, like a diver frozen just before breaking the surface of the water, or a figure in a Chagall painting. He is relaxed and looks quizzically around, as if this is a perfectly natural way to be.

A few weeks later, I am standing outside the Auckland Art Gallery, where the blockbuster Frances Hodgkins exhibition is currently showing. In my youth, I believed for a time that the creatively inclined young of Aotearoa New Zealand had to make a fundamental and foundational choice: you were either a Katherine Mansfield person or a Frances Hodgkins person. I wanted to be one of the latter. Less glamorous and seductive, slower-burning rather than incendiary, Hodgkins was better behaved, calmly cool rather than hot-headed, crustier maybe, and – in just about every regard – a better role-model. Mr Gurdjieff would not have been Hodgkins’s cup of tea.

From the forecourt, I phone Peter Bland on my mobile to see if he can join me. Two months earlier, at Unity Books in Wellington, we had discussed the possibility of such a rendezvous. On that evening, I had had the good fortune of launching his recent collection of poems inspired by paintings, Just Looking (The Cuba Press 2019). Lodged in my mind, along with the poems, is a quotation from Paul Cézanne which Peter used as an epigraph: “A single carrot, freshly observed, could set off an artistic revolution.”

Within the hour, Peter has arrived by taxi, and we launch forth into Radical Vegetable Land, or the version of that post-Cézanne territory which is “The Hodgkins Show”. At once, Peter – right way up, this time – and I are struck by how true Cézanne’s assertion rings in the often foody and flowery works of Hodgkins. Continuing in that vein, I recall a quotation from Manet: “A painter can say all he wants with fruit and flowers.” (A line which might even have inspired Interflora’s trademark slogan: “Say it with roses.”) I was right in thinking that Peter would have something apposite to say about Hodgkins’s sense of dislocation and her commensurate, heightened engagement with place. He goes on to liken her compositional approach to writing a poem. By his reckoning, Hodgkins at the easel would have firstly seized upon a single motif from the visual field. This would then function as a catalyst, drawing forth further elements from her subconscious. The best paintings, Peter says, are the ones containing things of which she would have had no foreknowledge. As part of the same process, an ordinary object attains the power of a talisman, while acting, formally, as a lever, opening up the space, the possibility.

What else can be said of the paintings themselves – so gorgeous and engaging in the flesh, and beautifully presented in the new monograph? The background in Hodgkins’s late oils is like a river or lake upon which items float or from which they extend. Running counter to modernism generally, she blurs rather than fine-tunes positive and negative spaces – an approach which could easily become clotted and cloying, but is saved time and again by some intuitive visual music or magic. It is an odd thing, Hodgkins’s modernism. Never wholly a part of that programme, she liked too much the happenstance. Her subjects, later in life, tended to be messy farmyards rather than cleaned-up modernist-friendly propositions. She favoured the improvised tableau of outdoor lunches and windowsills; places or settings defined by manual labour rather than manufacture. (Her upbringing in Dunedin and environs would have given her a good grounding in the semi-rural, ramshackle style.)

Hodgkins’s paintings maintain a curious distance, with their compositional swirl and uprightness, their flattening and pattern-making. Like baffling fabric. She assiduously avoids grandeur and pomp. Neither does she succumb to the “luxe, calme et volupté” which characterised so much early 20th-century painting on the Mediterranean coast. (As far as I can tell, scanning the Frances Hodgkins online catalogue raisonné, there are no nudes within her oeuvre. Given her interest in Matisse, Picasso and others, this surprising statistic could suggest an over-riding sense of propriety or maybe just a lack of interest. For any sexual content, the viewer has to make do with a vast population of flowers and curvaceous fruits and vegetables, often presented in fecund, humid painterly environments.) When mansions and country houses appear, they resemble trinkets or stage props floating ambiguously between fore- and background (as in Still Life In Front Of A Courtyard (Willy Lot’s Cottage), from 1930). The flowers and foodstuffs are, ultimately, the most constant thing: her beloved pumpkins, peppers, mushrooms and watermelons. In their presence, we know where we are. The school of edible and composting modernism. The altar of the radical carrot.

For some weeks prior to my gallery visit with Peter, I had been foraging in Catherine Hammond’s and Mary Kisler’s gorgeous, smart and indispensable monograph, Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys. For all their familiarity, Hodgkins’s paintings are even stranger and more puzzling than I remember them. Why does the red half of the parrot in Wings Over Water (on the book’s cover) dissolve into space? In the mature works, objects appear to be coming into being/seeing at the same time they are fading into/from memory. And how do you explain the two vessels at wharf which are jammed hard against the upper edge of Wings Over Water? There is so much that is bizarre and shouldn’t work, but it does.

Richly illuminated with works and photographs, the main essays in Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys are rock-solid yet flicker with resonant details and insights. Bloomsbury specialist Frances Spalding devotes her chapter to placing Hodgkins within British art history. (The fact the book is co-published in the United Kingdom by Thames and Hudson should, no doubt, generate much discussion and further study at that end of the geographical equation.) Essays by Kisler, Elena Taylor, Julia Waite, Antoni Ribas Tur and Sarah Hillary are bracketed by an illustrated chronology and a map listing the places travelled. In contrast to the shunting through geographical space and chronological time which dominate the publication, Hillary’s essay is an expedition into the layers of pigment and across the variously treated surfaces of her work.

For much of the past century, Hodgkins’s work has attracted first-rate writing – from Mfanwy Evans (who wrote the 1948 Penguin monograph) to Eric McCormick and onwards. Linda Gill’s 1994 book of Hodgkins’s letters is an enduring illumination and is much quoted in the present monograph. There is a freshness and palpable energy in Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys. The paintings appear to be holding their ground into the present era while, at the same time, suggesting avenues for  further exploration and elaboration upon – a point made by a delightful “miniature” exhibition on the Auckland Art Gallery’s mezzanine floor. In that gem of a glass-case presentation (which borrows its “model” format from a 1934 project in London involving Hodgkins), contemporary artists including Vita Cochran, Nick Austin and Bronwynne Cornish have created Hodgkins-esque work – an act of homage, revision and revisitation. Here we get an inkling of how Hodgkins might be engaged with and imaginatively rebooted for the 21st century.

Another contemporaneous reboot is Kisler’s relaxed, impressionistic, insightful retelling of her own Hodgkins-inspired/entangled travels, Finding Frances Hodgkins. While the book could have used more compression, it is a lively chronicle of a lengthy, healthy obsession, with the requisite frustrations as well as break-throughs and epiphanies along the way. It is reassuring to know that so many of the geographical and cultural ingredients in Hodgkins’s paintings are still present in the real world. Another considerable reboot of the artist’s life and work is the website completefranceshodgkins.com, which contains, at the time of writing, over 1200 works of art – well-reproduced and well-annotated – and nearly as many letters, photographs and other documents.

There is always more to looking than “just looking”, as Hodgkins and Bland would agree. Life and art draw you in and wind you up. In a Listener interview with Sally Blundell (4 May 2019), Kisler said: “When you look at the colours and the lines, particularly in [Hodgkins’s] later work, none of them sits still. Your eyes leap constantly from one tone to another.” We live in a world of living, animated things. That goes without saying. Nothing remains still for long. Maybe that is the wisdom underlying Cézanne’s radical carrot and Hodgkins’s upside-down parrot. Such a state of mutability, which might stand as the great theme of her art, is also integral to the state of being soulfully, attentively alive in the material world, as Bland himself suggests in “Still Life” (from Just Looking), a poem which could easily have been written for Hodgkins:

I love domestic surfaces …
an apple, a vase, a limb.
I gorge on the small excitements
of material things.
I like white walls with windows
but I don’t stare out:
I let those windows stare in.
I try to become a still life.
Still lifes are never really still.


Gregory O’Brien’s most recent book is Always Song On The Water: An Oceanic Sketchbook (2019), an oceanic reflection on poetry, painting and related matters.

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