On the trail of Frances Hodgkins

Frances Hodgkins. Photos: Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tamaki.
Frances Hodgkins. Photos: Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tamaki.
Retracing Frances Hodgkins’ steps around Europe turned out to be both a delight and hard work for Auckland Art Gallery curator Mary Kisler. She tells Rebecca Fox about her adventures in uncovering the origins of the artist’s work.

Mary Kisler
Mary Kisler
Standing in the streets of Ibiza, Spain, Mary Kisler has a ''great big detective'' moment.

She has just discovered that a painting by Frances Hodgkins, Monastery Hill, is not one view but two - thanks to an 80-year-old local she has just met.

Kisler and her Ibiza-born guide couldn't find the right-hand side of the painting until the 80-year-old pointed out it was another view, that of Puig des Molins (Hill of Windmills).

''It was the road leading into the old fortified part of Ibiza on the hill where as the monastery is on the left-hand side of the hill.

''I thought she's playing with our minds.''

It was an important discovery for Kisler.

''If I had not discovered that I would never have been able later to identify that actually a lot of her paintings, her final oil paintings were painted from her sketches and her memory and she was incorporating her memory of the place into the painting rather than just the specific location.''

The discovery was all part of the journey for the Auckland Art Gallery senior curator who took on the challenge of identifying the views Hodgkins had painted, but did not name, for a large project involving an exhibition (opening in Dunedin this weekend), online catalogue and two books on the Dunedin-born artist's European journey between 1901 and 1946.

Frances  Hodgkins’ Red Jug, 1931
Frances Hodgkins’ Berries and Laurel, circa 1930
One of those books, Finding Frances Hodgkins, details Kisler's European journey retracing the artist's steps.

She wrote the book because many of the stories of people she met and places she went were not suitable for the catalogue book accompanying the exhibition.

''The catalogue is quite a formal book, but the second book tells people about the adventures I had behind the scenes.''

Those adventures include meeting that 80-year-old who owned a ''very glamorous'' gay hotel in Ibiza, Spain.

''It was the most stunning hotel.''

An architectural journalist - ''who looked like a Boy Scout in his English sandals and shorts'' - she had met that morning took her to the hotel.

''When he walked me down through this hotel and there were all these young bronzed men with oil rubbed on their chests, I thought 'Mmm his isn't a normal hotel'.''

Before the trip, Kisler had downloaded images of Hodgkins' works to her iPad and most of the time she simply ''rolled up'' to a village, opened the iPad and showed locals the images, asking if they knew what the images were of.

''In many cases people knew exactly where she had been working.''

Frances  Hodgkins’ Red Jug, 1931
Frances Hodgkins’ Red Jug, 1931
That allowed Kisler to pin down the second part of the research into who the other artists were in those places at that time and what kind of discussions she may have been having.

''So there are these lovely little background stories that give you another view into her life.''

It also showed Hodgkins was very specific about what she painted.

What stood out to Kisler from the research is just how much courage Hodgkins had to go off to Europe and travel around, often with very little money.

She became recognised as a New Zealand artist working in Paris and would have stayed there if World War 1 had not intervened.

Instead she moved back to England where she made a name for herself, becoming an important figure in the modernist movement.

''It was the works she did there that people recognised as highly unusual. There were lots of women artists but very few of them, unless they had money or connections, made it or became names that were remembered.''

While it was an adventure travelling in Hodgkins' footsteps, it did not come without a few hiccups.

''I got bronchitis twice. But I got the bit between my teeth.''

To see
Frances Hodgkins’ European Journeys, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, opens Saturday. Auckland Art Gallery curator Mary Kisler will give a guided tour of the exhibition, Saturday at 3pm.

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