Hodgkins' sesquicentenary marked in fine style

Frances Hodgkins. Photo: supplied
Frances Hodgkins. Photo: supplied
Two new books on the life of Frances Hodgkins beautifully celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Dunedin artist's birth.

FRANCES HODGKINS: EUROPEAN JOURNEYS
Edited by Catherine Hammond and Mary Kisler
Auckland University Press

FINDING FRANCES HODGKINS
Mary Kisler
Massey University Press

REVIEWED BY GEOFF ADAMS

These two remarkably fine books about the Dunedin-born artist enrich our knowledge about Frances Hodgkins, who is regarded as one of the leading lights of the British Modernism movement and probably New Zealand's most influential of expatriate artists.

The books are linked with a major touring landmark exhibition of Hodgkins' works opening in Auckland, which will be featured at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery from October this year until January 2020.

They are published in tandem and work beautifully to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the artist's birth; a daughter of William Mathew Hodgkins, the person responsible for setting up the Otago Art Society in 1876. The society's art collection became the basis of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 1884.

European Journeys is a large and weighty book that explores Frances as a traveller across cultures and landscapes, teaching and discovering the cubists in Paris, the landscape and light of Ibiza and Morocco, and exhibiting with the progressive Seven and Five Society in London. It enchants with its rich visual chronology of the artist abroad, and delights with more than 100 illustrations: some of Frances' key paintings and drawings.

The two editors (both senior members of the Auckland Art Gallery staff) have done a marvellous job with their own written contributions and employing the talents of a number of distinguished national and international art historians, curators and critics who also contribute. This is a book that entices the reader to turn the pages for its wonderful selection of Hodgkins' imaginative art works, many that may perhaps be unfamiliar to the viewer. The large format is enticing. Then one goes back to the text to find many interesting facts and opinions - readable and scholarly with its notes, select bibliography, list of works, annotated archives, and index.

The second book is Mary Kisler's magnum opus, a smaller book certainly but no less appealing as she narrates her discoveries and adventures in Finding Frances Hodgkins. The book immediately draws attention with another large selection (more than 70) of Hodgkins art works. It is more personal in character as Kisler tells her tales of several visits to countries in Europe and elsewhere where Hodgkins had visited, drawn and painted.

The author had successes in identifying many places chosen by the artist to feature (or be adapted) in paintings. Detective-like she tells how she followed tracks and clues to understand her target. Admitting that no-one can really "find'' Frances Hodgkins (a complex figure and rover), Kisler does piece together some of the puzzles surrounding where, when and why the artist painted some of her best known pieces. Kisler's own travel adventures also make enjoyable reading.

It is a remarkable event in New Zealand art history to have these two splendid books published at the same time. They fit together to give a grand salute to the artist. As John Piper wrote of her in The Spectator in 1940: "Probably no living painter has such powers of arranging colours in original and telling ways.'' Hodgkins deserves this similar and admirable recognition in her home country. We await the exhibition later in the year with great interest.

Geoff Adams is a former ODT editor.

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