A painter of genius living in poverty. A description of Frances Hodgkins, London 1942
By Roger Childs
Frances Hodgkins is possibly New Zealand’s greatest artist. A bold claim, but worthy of debate. Her right to be ranked amongst the best woman painters of all time is not in question and 24 of her works can be viewed in Waikanae until 20 April. The exhibition has been part of the Wellington’s New Zealand Festival and is a must see for all art lovers.
The Waikanae Connection
Isabel Hodgkins, herself a competent artist, married Wellington lawyer and landowner W H Field and they raised their family in the Kapiti area. This established what was to be a long association with the Waikanae district. The other links:
- Their mother Rachel is buried there and in Frances’s words this made Waikanae ancestral
- Frances Hodgkins ashes are interred in the Waikanae Cemetery in the Field family plot
- Frances visited and stayed in Kapiti and painted there
- The Field Collection, comprising 44 paintings by Frances and her contemporaries, is based on the Kapiti Coast.
So it is very appropriate that Waikanae’s Mahara Gallery, which has a long association with her work, should be the venue for Frances Hodgkins in Kapiti.
Painting in the great age of artistic movements
Born in Dunedin in 1869, Frances Hodgkins started her artistic career in the shadow of her elder sister Isabel. The southern city was at the forefront of the New Zealand art scene in the late nineteenth century and Frances studied at the Dunedin School of Art and Design. Immigrant artists coming to New Zealand from Britain and Europe, such as Girolamo Nerli, Petrus Van der Velden and James Nairn, influenced Frances. However, she soon realised, that if she was to make her name in the art world, she would have to go to Europe.
By the early1900s she was in Paris and was able to experience the birth of modern art. In the period up until the outbreak of World War One, in what Robert Hughes describes as the shock of the new, the art world underwent a whirlwind revolution. It was time of great creativity as artists experimented with various styles, incorporating elements from many cultures. It saw the origins of art nouveau, cubism, fauvism, futurism, pointillism, expressionism and abstract art.
Frances soaked it up and in search of subjects and inspiration she roamed Europe like a gypsy. She would spend the rest of her life in Britain and Europe.
The talented free spirit
Like many of the great modern artists who lived to old age, such as Dix, Picasso and Dali, she experimented with different styles and painted as the spirit moved her. She refused to become an establishment painter and retained her individuality. This meant that she made very little money, however increasingly the global art community came to acknowledge her undoubted talent.
She was comfortable with any subject matter and style, and the exhibition and the DVD show her amazing versatility.
~ Her portraits captured the essence of the individual as can be seen in Isabel Jane Field 1895, Head of a Maori Girl 1905 and Peasant Woman at Market 1921
~ Her landscapes and urban settings show a range of influences as revealed in Port with Boats, Douarnenez 1921, Hill Town c 1907-08, Moroccan Street Scene 1903 and The Dye Yards 1903.
~ She captured wonderful impressions of still life scenes and farm and industrial machinery.
~ She demonstrated a range of styles: romantic, primitive, impressionist, cubist, semi-abstract, art nouveau, expressionism and Dada, all with the distinctive Hodgkins touch.
Showing at Mahara
Along with a range of Frances Hodgkins paintings, an excellent DVD called A Painter Genius is narrated by Ray Henwood with his dulcet Welsh tones. It features a wonderful portrayal of the elderly Frances Hodgkins talking to a magazine writer and photographer in the 1940s.
There are also a number of paintings by Frances’s sister and father and contemporaries. In addition there is some interesting information on the extended Field family. A catalogue with newly made colour reproductions of the Field Collection, other publications and postcards are available for sale.
Admission is free, however donations which will go towards the future expansion of the gallery, are gratefully accepted.
Frances Hodgkins in Kapiti features at the Mahara Gallery, Mahara Place, Waikanae until 20 April 2014