Fashion, beauty and modernism all play a part in the exhibition Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys. Megan Dunn talks to fashion designer Karen Walker and the show’s curator Mary Kisler about their collaboration and Frances Hodgkins’ close ties to fashion – plus the cheeky question, “was she gay?”
This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frances Hodgkins, one of our greatest expatriate artists. Curated by Mary Kisler, Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys traces Hodgkins’ creative life through France, Morocco and Spain to her final days in England, examining the significance of travel and location on her paintings. The exhibition is also the jumping off point for an artwork-inspired range of collectible accessories Frances Hodgkins: Framed by Karen Walker. Each piece in the collection features an iconic Hodgkins painting from the early 1930s, finished with a signature Karen Walker border.
‘What are the essential travel accessories? A great scarf, a handy tote, a travel case,” says Walker.
“Throughout her life, Frances Hodgkins was extremely interested in fashion,” says show curator Mary Kisler. “Her letters to her family in New Zealand kept them up to date with the latest styles and she worked in 1926 as a fashion designer in Manchester. Her most radical paintings are fashion-focused self-portraits combined with still life in which she intertwines favourite fabrics, hats, shoes, and objects.”
Megan Dunn: I understand Self-Portrait Still Life (1935) was a starting point for this collaboration, Karen?
Karen Walker: In the beginning, we spread out about 10-15 of Hodgkin’s most famous paintings. We didn’t want to reinterpret or change her paintings – we couldn’t improve them, I loved that this was a deconstructed self-portrait. It tells a story but that story isn’t literal.
Mary Kisler: Self Portrait Still Life is a very unusual painting for its time because most artists weren’t using favoured objects to depict themselves. By the time Hodgkins painted it she was in her mid-60s and she didn’t think how she looked was relevant, but she loved her own objects. The composition is made up of a Belgian shoe, a hat, various objects, a vase with a flower on it, sitting on one side, and it’s one of those paintings that the more you look at it, the more you see. It’s been very influential on other generations of artists. When Gretchen Albrecht was a young student at Elam School of Fine Arts, her lecturer took her down to the art gallery to stand in front of the painting and said ‘you will find what you need in this’. It’s a painter’s painting. And because Hodgkins was peripatetic and always on the move, having things that you could tuck in a suitcase, like scarves, and take with you were very important to her.
Karen, you selected five paintings for the accessories range from the Auckland Art Gallery’s entire collection of Hodgkins’ work. Why this five?
Karen Walker: We needed to find works that were going to translate well into garments and accessories. For the scarves we were looking for several things; perhaps most important amongst these was that given scarves are seldom seen open and in full, they would work spliced and diced in any way a fold might take them. The abstracted works were perfect for this. The pieces needed to have great colours that pop and that we could riff off for our Karen Walker framing. As an added bonus we looked for pieces that could be trimmed to a square format and also, of course, we wanted pieces that were beloved and well known. For the tops, we really loved the idea of faces and symmetry and of eyes not just following you around the room but following you right around the body.
What other key decisions come into play during the design process?
Karen Walker: The main decision was around figuring out how we could contextualise her work as a Karen Walker accessory; what was our part in this? How could we add to her incredible work? Framed by Karen Walker was the solution to that question – it framed the work emotionally and literally.
Bridesmaids (1930) is prominent in the accessories range and features in four designs, from a tote bag, to a blouse and two dresses. Twinned in their green frocks and matching sunhats, the girls in this charming Hodgkins painting seem to put a little whimsy and spin into that old maxim, “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” What’s the resonance of Bridesmaids for you?
Karen Walker: I love the subverted symmetry. They’re so even but they’re so off at the same time. It feeds into my love of having something perfect but throwing it off-kilter. Bridesmaids is also a favourite because of how it makes you feel. There’s something incredibly odd about it, If I could choose between stepping into the moment of the painting, on a summer’s day in the shade, or owning the painting, I’d step into it.
Mary Kisler: Hodgkins did a whole series of double portraits; she was very interested in what happens in a painting when you have two people, and particularly two children. What she manages to do is capture the completely different personality in both the sitters. One child is older and more confident and one child is younger and a little bit more uncertain. So what Hodgkins was so clever at was really observing people and places and looking at what a ‘thing’ is, what is in a flower, what are two children, but she also had the grace and there’s a wittiness to her portraits, for instance, the fact that she puts green around the girls in Bridesmaids.
Karen you’ve probably been asked this a million times, but how do you define beauty?
Karen Walker: I define beauty in a similar way to how I define art. How does it make you feel? Does it make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? My idea of beauty has some oddness to it; there’s often opposites thrown together. Jarring nodes, you know, and some flat notes thrown in whether it’s a piece of music or a view or a painting.
And what did Frances think of her own appearance as a woman and her femininity?
Mary Kisler: I know that she wished she’d been beautiful. She had a beautiful sister and it’s always difficult to be the plainer one and she had quite a big jaw, so what she did was make a personality of herself. We can’t all be beautiful, but you take what characteristics you’ve got and you make yourself a personality. And I think that’s what she did. She was visually striking and of course, conservative people didn’t know how to deal with it, whereas Bohemian people loved it. She was ahead of her time in that sense and she always had an interest in colour and to pattern.
Karen, Auckland-based painter Emma McIntyre has sat for a trio of portraits at Auckland Art Gallery, wearing items from the Frances Hodgkins: Framed by Karen Walker range. What do you love about McIntyre’s work?
Karen Walker: Using Emma, another artist and painter with a bold use of colour, tells the story of the collection in another way. I think McIntyre’s got the same adventurous, almost punk spirit to her work that Hodgkins had. Had they been contemporaneous I think they would have been great pals.
What are the risks and sensitivities you consider when recontextualising an artist’s work?
Karen Walker: It’s a delicate tightrope walk of respecting the artist’s work and also adding your own magic to it.
Mary Kisler: You have to work with people with integrity. We all look to other people and artists for ideas. Karen looked at the paintings and thought: which really draw me in. It’s a very personal response. I think Frances Hodgkins would have been immensely proud.
One last cheeky question… since running our review of the exhibition, I’ve seen a lot of commentary online about Hodgkins’ sexuality. Was she gay?
Mary Kisler: I don’t know, was she? She loved women but she also loved men. She had a lot of friends, apart from being engaged that one time. I can’t find evidence to suggest that she was, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t. In those days you either were one of those great characters who really flaunted that you were gay or you kept it your own private business and people should mind their own business, you know? I think people think what they want to think.
Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys runs for one last week at Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tāmaki, closing this Sunday, 1 September 2019.
Emma McIntyre is a 2019 Fulbright Graduate Award winner who will complete her Masters of Fine Arts specialising in Contemporary Painting at the ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles. She is represented by Hopkinson Mossman.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.