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Design Review: Volume 5, Issue 5 (April 1954)

Frances Hodgkins

page 109

Frances Hodgkins

One of the most notable of last year's exhibitions in the Architectural Centre Gallery was that of paintings by Frances Hodgkins from private owners and galleries throughout New Zealand. The opening of this exhibition by Dr. J. C. Beaglehole, an occasion in itself, was made more valuable by Dr. Beaglehole's tribute to the Painter. This is reprinted below in full.
The Colonel's House 1935 Lefevre Gallery

The Colonel's House 1935 Lefevre Gallery

Frances Hodgkins was born in 1869 and died at the age of 78 in 1947. In the history of New Zealand that is not only a long but a very significant period. In 1869 our country had been a British colony for less than three decades; Dunedin, where she was born, had been a British settlement for only twenty years. Nothing could have been more essentially colonial, in social life, politics, and intellectual culture, than the scene on which this child opened her eyes. When she closed them finally, New Zealand was no longer a colony but, at least in some ways, a self-sufficient community: an equal member, as we are accustomed to say, of a commonwealth of nations; autonomous, self-governing, as independent as it is possible to be in the twentieth century, responsible for its own welfare, irresponsible in its own particular ways, irritable under the impact of good advice, quite willing to give advice to other people. Nobody could stop it from being as foolish as it wanted to be. As a community, that is, we in New Zealand show all the signs of maturity. Lately, and increasingly, we have, shown some signs of maturity in the realm of the spirit. We have indulged in philosophy, and poetry, and scholarship, and music, and science, and even in some of the plastic arts, for ourselves. We have begun to think, as well as to act, as New Zealanders. We are beginning to think in New Zealand. It has been—it is—a painful process. It is very necessary.

page 110

Now the artist, the thinker, becomes autonomous before the community; and between the mature individual and the immature society there are bound to be tensions. In this case I think I need not give you any long biographical disquisition. Perhaps the main significant fact, in this significant period, is that Frances Hodgkins died not in New Zealand but in England. She had what was in some ways the misfortune to be born into an artistic family, beset with artistic friends. She was no child prodigy. She lived and painted and taught both in Dunedin and Wellington. She had the intoxication of a trip to England. She returned, she knew discontent, she went away again, she travelled and worked in Europe; she returned once more and had a brief few months of success with an exhibition in the towns of Australia and New Zealand. But to live and work here permanently, to grow here—that she could not do. For the important thing about her as a painter is that she never ceased to grow, she never ceased to experiment, to explore, to be excited, to be concerned with creation. It was not until her late sixties, for example, that she discovered the possibilities of lithography, and the joy she got out of rendering, in that new medium, her own peculiar vision you can see in their clear and lovely colours, their spaciousness, their economy and exactness. Let us remember that it was in these later years, too, that she was a leader in the avant garde of English art; as if, the older she got, the clearer, the more compulsive, became her call to adventure. The pictures of her last period are not merely the harvest of old age and ripe experience: with their sureness and sense of direction they have also the brilliance, the insurgency, of an inspired youth. The sort of person I have been describing cannot function in a new, a young society. She is a point of danger; and a new, a young society clutches to itself, beyond all things else, security.

At the stage we have reached in our discovery of ourselves, there is more than one way in which Frances Hodgkins is important to us. She is important, quite obviously, as an artist: as a painter, and as a modern painter. This is irrespective of where she lived, or happened to be born. She is important in the same way as—shall I say?—Matisse or Matthew Smith. She holds out to us something that we need. She is important to us, again, as a New Zealander, as one in the contemplation of whom, after her death, our bosoms may inflate with proprietory pride. Or, as a New Zealander, she is important as a starting-point for denunciation, as a centre of controversy—a phenomenon, let me add, very valuable in the development of a national culture.
Barns Watercolour 1943 Lefevre Gallery

Barns Watercolour 1943 Lefevre Gallery

page 111 She is important historically; for her life, and her fate, her immaturity and her maturity, the fact that, born in New Zealand, she could live as an artist only outside New Zealand—that in New Zealand, quite literally, she could not in her lifetime hope for understanding—these things help us to understand her now as a person as well as an artist, and they help us to understand ourselves. As a historian, indeed, I might regard her simply, coldly, as a very important historical document. We are, as I have said, beginning to be mature; but our maturity is too late for us to have been equal to this woman while she was alive. She presents us not merely with the problem of the artist in society, but with a more difficult, a more agonising problem: that of the really gifted, the really original artist, in a desperately colonial society. For the artist who is both really gifted and really original outgrows any society, broadly considered: and how much more quickly must she outgrow the New Zealand of the early twentieth century! It makes no essential difference when the artist, as in her case, develops uncertainly and slowly; that makes the awkwardness, the strain—I think we may perhaps even say the tragedy—of her relations with her own people no less. It may even make it greater; for a single rapid flight into the empyrean of a perfectly self-confident and self-reliant genius may eliminate all awkwardness, all strain, be a simple uncomplicated success-story. But how often has this happened? Any person who exists by the original use of the mind is bound to be in some way an expatriate, even in the midst of his own people—he cannot be thoroughly at ease and at home; how much worse is the dilemma when, as with Frances Hodgkins, the expatriation is physical, when she loves the country of her birth and it is death to the mind to live in it!

Of course the phenomenon of the artist born in the province is not new, it is as old as art. The young artist has always made from the province to the metropolis: the Watteau, the Gainsborough, the Cezanne. But with the European artist the metropolis and the province have been relatively close; with a Cezanne the province may even be a refuge, a strength-imparting hiding-place, from the metropolis. A province, also—we need to remember this, for it is our own hope for the future—may have a sturdy and satisfying, a many-sided cultural life of its own. ‘Provincial’ is not necessarily a term of disdain. But for Frances Hodgkins her province was so very provincial, its culture was so very mediocre, its aesthetic grammar was so very elementary! Admittedly, in all these things it was no worse than innumerable parts of England and France and Italy; in England and France and Italy one could be sick and discouraged and depressed; those countries, we do well to recall, have also in the cultivation of democracy turned up their queer subsoil of city councils and art gallery committees and official persons. There at least, nevertheless, there was always hope; in the colony, as it slowly groped its way to acquaintance with the world, in this uncomprehending, complacent, well-intentioned, optimistic, half-baked community of New Zealand there was no hope. As an original thinker Frances Hodgkins would have starved in New Zealand. As a New Zealander myself, striving to bolster up my self-respect in a negative sort of way, I have sometimes reflected that she did not make her fortune in England either; that she was, in fact, at times precious close to starvation. But at least she had friends who believed in her, who knew she was getting at something; at least there were one or two art-dealers who were prepared to gamble on her—if she would take most of the risk; at least there were interested people. At last she could think freely. And so there was that lovely flowering of her late years.

Well, in time—perhaps as the day of our own maturity slowly dawns—we catch up, or we fancy we catch up, on the serious and original thinker. We cease to opine that she has been taking drugs; we cease to compare her efforts with those of our own sons and daughters at school, to their great advantage. We eagerly buy her Penguin book. We study her development. We bring as comprehensive a collection of her work together as we can. We are anxious to consider the composition and balance, the grand strategy, of her pictures, the subtlety of her painter's tactics. We read with joy that a knowledgeable critic in the old world considers her to have been one of the greatest colourists who ever lived. I leave the verification of this, I leave the discussion of all this, to you as you look at these pictures and try your own minds on them. My task is not one of exegesis, of detailed criticism.

I shall say only one thing more. You may have observed that I have preferred to talk, when possible, not about art and the artist, but about thought and the thinker. This is partly because I cannot see Frances Hodgkins merely as an isolated phenomenon, a sort of romantic velveteen jacket slashing away in a fine frenzy of regardless genius. She is to me a symbolic as well as a vividly real and individual figure. And though her most beautiful pictures, I think, have a lyrical air about them, a luminosity and grace, a sort of spontaneous joy, I know that this is the flower, and the root goes deep down. No one who has studied her, beneath the topmost surface, no one who has read half a dozen of the letters of her middle or her late age, can doubt that this is so. Her whole life was a struggle with thought, a struggle to find first principles, and to make clear and logical deductions from them in her own instinctive medium. She reminds me of a greater than she, of Cezanne, in his ceaseless struggle to do what he called ‘realize’—not to produce a literal copy of the object, which any competent workman can do, but to put visibly and lucidly on canvas the idea, the vision, that was in him. So she, too, wrestled with angels, not on one night, but year after year, by night and by day; feeling, sometimes, that her lot was to be cursed. It is not only a Newton who voyages on strange seas of thought, alone. The fundamental thinker is bound to be lonely, whether he thinks in paint, in notes of music, in mathematical abstractions, or in those concepts that will go into words. The greater he is the lonelier. Frances Hodgkins thought in paint. She could not come to terms with the land of her birth. In her isolation she suffered anguish. But she was lonely because she was great.

In the end, I suppose all this is perfectly irrelevant. In the end, we are concerned not with social history nor with a piece of psychological research, but wtih pictures. In the end we, as consumers, have the duty to examine not the artist but the art. The question is one of form and colour. To the pondering of this question you are invited.