Francis McWhannell goes on a grand tour of escapism, adventure and parochialism with our quintessential expatriate artist, Frances Hodgkins, at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
Few artists from Aotearoa deliver escapism like Frances Hodgkins (1869–1947). She has a gift for teasing out the transcendent in the world about her. An early watercolour depicts a Marseille so drenched in sun that balcony railings dissolve and women in no-nonsense skirts fuse together in the shadows. A late oil titled Zipp (1945) emphasises texture and colour so intensely that its sartorial reference points become near-impossible to pin down. Humdrum is a state of mind, and one Hodgkins has no interest in inciting. For this reason, she is loved in this place and shows like Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys get off the ground.
This wasn’t always so. In 1901, Hodgkins travelled to Europe, where she would remain, with few interruptions, for the rest of her life. As her reputation grew there, it shrank here. At her funeral, her friend David Brynley found himself recalling “wistful remarks” she had made: “I would have liked a home and children … New Zealand is at last beginning to recognise me.” The small-mindedness that had no doubt encouraged her to leave in the first place proved tenacious. However, Hodgkins had her advocates, who helped see to it that she was embraced as our quintessential expatriate, the Katherine Mansfield of paint.
While Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki has long been an institutional champion, European Journeys represents an exceptionally emphatic plug. Coinciding with Hodgkins’ 150th birthday, it’s part of a suite of projects driven by the tireless Mary Kisler, including two books and an online catalogue raisonné. The show is the biggest in years anywhere. Entry is ticketed, a curious situation given that the display draws heavily on the house collection. But it’s a luxe affair, and not low on appeal. Each time I’ve visited, the space has been humming. And while the crowds haven’t exactly been diverse, they have been lingering.
The exhibition confines itself to works produced in and around Europe. In passing over Hodgkins’ Aotearoa output, it continues something of a tradition (Kisler’s Leitmotif from 2005 did the same). Yet it reshapes the mould in other ways. Most notably, it plays up Hodgkins’ mobility. Largely based in Britain, she got around within that country, also visiting Morocco and various parts of continental Europe. European Journeys follows her from place to place in a broadly chronological fashion, highlighting her fascination with new locales, and giving a solid sense of her artistic trajectory.
The opening two rooms centre on works in Hodgkins’ initial medium, watercolour. A good number are from the first decade of the 20th century, a seldom-explored period in her career. There are strong examples. With its tendrilous lines, unpigmented expanses, and deft splashes of colour, Untitled [Woman with a Mirror] (c. 1912) wins on formal adventurousness and emotional impact. Flimsier and repetitious pieces, however, diminish the ensemble. I’d have liked to see a couple of even earlier works created in Aotearoa. In particular, one of Hodgkins’ images of Māori women would have made an interesting comparison with later portraits.
European Journeys is further atypical in featuring numerous pieces by Hodgkins’ European contemporaries (or near contemporaries). A few are instructive. Despite being out of step in scale and medium, a large Frank Brangwyn oil from 1913 resonates intensely with an adjacent Hodgkins watercolour from 1906, sharing both its location, Avignon, and its tentative modernity. The inclusion of a Claude Monet is defensible, because Hodgkins was influenced by Impressionism. The trotting out of the gallery’s much-shown Edgar Degas dancer feels forced indeed.
Deeper into the exhibition, a 1928 portrait of Hodgkins by Cedric Morris points to the intellectual circles in which she was moving (reading between the lines, these took in a fair few feminists and queer people). A true cracker of a painting by Paul Nash, Landscape of Bleached Objects (c. 1934), is delightfully in sympathy with her practice. However, the success rate remains mixed. A lithograph by Raoul Dufy is not irrelevant, but it scrapes the bottom of the collection barrel. Filtering out such extraneous pieces would have made the presentation punchier.
As it is, European Journeys is a lot to absorb. The latter rooms – those containing Hodgkins’ most ardently experimental and arguably finest pictures – are tightly packed. Owing to the show’s strict linearity (a sign stops you from entering through the gift shop), they also come at the end of a content marathon. In addition to the many works, there are scores of wall texts bursting with details about the subjects depicted and more tangential matters (for instance, the fact that Hodgkins and Duncan Grant had a common friend who made brandied cherries). Not for the first time at Toi o Tāmaki, I yearn for a good, crisp audio guide to free up my eyes.
Reflecting on the show as a whole, I find myself unconvinced by the emphasis on place and travel. Hung together, paintings of Ibiza do signal Hodgkins’ ability to take up and make her own the specificities of her surroundings (“like a fish on the bottom of the sea”, as her artist-friend John Piper put it). A photograph of a grinning Hodgkins striding across a bridge does an excellent job of encapsulating her position as an independent woman, tripping round Europe with a mixture of curiosity and canniness. However, I can’t shake the sense that European Journeys works best when least preoccupied with seductive locations and contextual titbits.
Areas of the exhibition in which formal or otherwise artistic concerns come to the fore really sing. The first room to captivate me every time I visit features two types of work that were especially fertile for Hodgkins: moody graphic works, such as Village Scene, Peaslake from 1929, and paintings colliding landscape and still life elements, such as Landscape with Still Life from about a year later (fancifully, I keep thinking of Venetian paintings of the Madonna and child out of doors, except with the holy figures transubstantiated into vases). Either type could happily hold a room of its own.
I suspect that the notion of ‘European journeys’ would have worked better demoted to sub-theme status. Although I love printed matter and appreciate its scene-setting power, the inclusion of large numbers of travel guides and postcards with no direct connection to Hodgkins strikes a bung note. I dare say there’s a logic to prodding visitors of a certain age or income bracket into remembering their own first European adventure. But there is also – somewhat ironically – a parochial quality to the framing, which plays on a lingering cultural cringe: Europe is where the real art happens.
That said, every frame has its limitations, and it’s not easy to deal with the relationship between Hodgkins and Europe. Part of her significance does lie in the fact that she learned from European art in the flesh, unlike so many other New Zealanders of her day, who had to settle for reproductions. As European Journeys notes, she did become “an important figure within British Modernism”. Yet, for all her successes overseas during her lifetime, this grand show tours to Dunedin, not to London.
Is Hodgkins overdue greater attention in her adopted home? While European Journeys does not make that argument explicitly, it does hint. Perhaps being her champion tomorrow will mean teaming up with a British institution, creating a smaller exhibition with choicer works by Hodgkins and fellow modernists. Or perhaps it will mean spending more time unpacking the ways she has influenced art in this country, whether through friendships or by example.
The latter approach is already suggested at Toi o Tāmaki by 19 Gallery: Relocating Frances Hodgkins, a miniature showroom stocked with pieces by 19 local artists. The display imitates a 1934 example, the ‘34 Gallery’, for which Hodgkins made two wee pictures. It collides two trendy but worthy curatorial tactics: the commissioning of new response works and the restaging of old exhibitions. Situated downstairs from European Journeys, 19 Gallery takes on an air of radicalism, neatly encapsulating the adventurousness of Hodgkins in her moment and her legacy in the present.
Hodgkins has not merely been recognised in Aotearoa. She has children.
Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys runs until 1 September at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
For more listings of current art exhibitions across Aotearoa go to ArtNow.NZ