Monday, 19 October 2009

Frances Hodgkins, Femme du Monde

The Dunedin Public Art Gallery is compact enough to view in an afternoon and interesting enough to keep you thinking all night. The wooden floors and solidly coloured walls – mint; sage green; berry red; mustard yellow – set off the art works far better than the boringly clinical white walls and concrete floors favoured of many galleries.

When I visited there was an exhibition of furniture, ceramics, sculpture and paintings such as might conjure up an 18th Century English interior. Marble and bronze sculptures by Italian masters and mahogany, pine and oak tables, dressers and chair in the style of Sheraton, Hepplewhite and Chippendale amongst others, looked perfectly at home here on the other side of the world.

The highlight, however, is the Frances Hodgkins collection of works entitled Femme du Monde. The Dunedin-born artist travelled extensively throughout Europe and many influences were brought to bear on her adapting and developing style. Landscapes, portraits, still lifes and even printed textiles display a love for life and a curiosity about design.

You can see the influence of Cezanne in the French paintings and the groups of families, mothers and daughter and single bachelors. Whether pen and ink pictograms or watercolour and charcoal paintings and sketches, the characters come alive on the walls before you – I feel like a child in a storybook who can step through the frame and into the image at any moment.

Another room includes a couple of paintings by her contemporaries, including Petrus van der Velden who used the same sitter for a portrait as Hodgkins had done for Old Salt. Her portrait is in the Impressionist style and is more than a mirror with subtley and hints of implication. According to the accompanying catalogue, it ‘shows the hand of the true artist, not the mere picture painter.’

Here also is a painting by her older sister, Isabel Field, By Tranquil Waters. The watercolour is rustic and simple; with exquisite greens, greys, and blues, it is wonderfully calming and gentle. On the other hand, Hodgkins’ ‘bold use of colour and her confident and daring brushwork take a traditional subject to a new, almost surreal level.’ Hence, the French market scene pictures bustle with life and colour.

Orange Sellers, Tangier is a fabulous image of a hazy bazaar. In a letter, Hodgkins complained that Tangier was not as colourful as she had hoped, being ‘all browns and whites and muddy creams’. So she manipulated the scene and painted a watercolour in which ‘tumbled oranges and red-skinned onions radiate a fiery glow and the glittering, blinding sunlight bleaches and disintegrates the forms of people and buildings.’ After creating this masterpiece, she wrote almost petulantly, ‘I am going to eschew vegetables after this with a comfortable feeling that I have done my duty by them.’

This is going to sound very familiar, but Frances Hodgkins was not appreciated in New Zealand until she became famous overseas and then people began to follow her with respect and bemusement – someone else says she’s good so she must be.

Red Cockerel painted in 1924 is an oil on canvas in the cubist style using flattened forms and abstract shapes within the context of the traditional ‘vanitas’ painting – a meditation on the transience of all life. Yudi Y Moro depicts two cream and brown dogs curled around each other with quivering insouciance. The shapes are not dogs as we know them, yet we know they are dogs.

The artwork is remarkable, and has been called neo-romantic; signifying nostalgia for a rural past and a fascination with ruins and rustic decay. Her wartime paintings of weirs and Welsh farms are among my favourites. Landscape with Engine (1941) embodies the motif of the machine in the garden and what might have been simple decay is elevated to a new level. The catalogue remarks there is ‘no particular grandeur but Frances’ delicate colour and exquisite mark-making transport the viewer into a magical landscape tapestry.’

She had to defend her art as she made little money of her own and relied upon financial gifts from her family – as a woman she was expected to repay this with a more conservative career than roaming the continent with a paintbrush. In a heartfelt letter she writes to her mother, ‘I have slogged. I do want to make all these years worthwhile and make you all proud of me.’

Yet despite the pressure of the debt and the knowledge that she is misunderstood back home, there is the essence of joy in her work. The Weir is not the dark and depressing oil on plywood that it could have been, and in the words of the catalogue, ‘Patterns of paint dancing across the surface of the paper give Mill House Ponterwyd a bright ebullience.’

The exhibition is stunning and uplifting, beautifully displayed and a triumph of the Dunedin cultural collection. The gift shop and cafe attached are also excellent and the delicately spiced gumbo sends me back out into the Octagon with a spring in my step.

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