Frances Hodgkins: Essence of place

This April marked 150 years since the birth of Frances Hodgkins. Ahead of this auspicious anniversary, Mary Kisler traced the artist’s journeys around Europe, mapping paintings to places and ‘acts of looking’. Finn McCahon-Jones explains.

When I visited the conservation lab, flooded with bright beautiful light, at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in March 2019, a dozen Frances Hodgkins paintings were carefully laid out on tables and easels. The lab is small but efficient; and the light that day raked across the painterly surfaces and their deep carved frames. Something about seeing the paintings in this environment opened them to me in a way I had not experienced before.

They sat before me like objects—three dimensional, visceral and immediate. The surface of Spanish Jars (c. 1931) in particular leapt out, revealing Hodgkins’ hand and process. I could see that the paint had been worked up and scraped into. The surface was not a flat depiction, but a textured environment. Hodgkins was working in collaboration with the materiality of the paint to express the texture of a city; she was going beyond just depicting the landscape, she was working with the minutiae that make it up. The paintings show that Hodgkins was a keen observer and—as Auckland Art Gallery curator Mary Kisler puts it—“committed to the quotidian”.

For the last four years Kisler has been working on a large Frances Hodgkins project which involves a major travelling exhibition, Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys; a book, Finding Frances Hodgkins; and an online catalogue raisonné. The catalogue, she says, currently sits at 1300 works—“and rising”. I meet her in a small café in Auckland to chat about Hodgkins, eat ginger crunch, and discuss the book and show. She walks across the road to greet me with a wide Cheshire-cat grimace (read: on the edge of insanity, but loving every moment). “Nearly there,” she tells me, “I’m up to my waist in exhibition labels.”

Like Hodgkins, Kisler could also be described as committed to the quotidian. She believes that art is linked to the society and place that made it, and that there are clues to understanding embedded in the local cultures and landscapes. I agree—there is something crucial about seeing and looking at the real thing. ‘Looking’ is also the basis for the book, which as a record of Hodgkins’ travels and thoughts, and Kisler’s own experiences following her footsteps across Europe, is more akin to a travel journal than an academic tome. The text is peppered with anecdotes and quotations from letters sent by Hodgkins to her friends, interwoven with Kisler’s equally interesting experiences. It offers an honest approach to art history. All too often, historic figures are written about from an ostensibly ‘objective’, floating point in time; but in this book you are aware that Kisler is in the present and Hodgkins is in the past. I found myself absorbed in the text—both Mary and Frances have wonderfully observant and descriptive languages.

Frances Hodgkins, Almond Tree, 1933, gouache on paper. Private collection

Finding Frances Hodgkins is divided into geographic locations and does not keep a strict chronology. Starting in France, Kisler follows Hodgkins to Morocco and then through numerous towns in Italy, Spain, Wales and England. I was constantly flicking to Google Maps trying to keep up; and was bombarded, as I googled, with thousands of images of unfamiliar countryside and exotic architecture. “You never can discover everything, but you can die trying,” Kisler writes in the introduction.

Was there something she wanted to find, but didn’t? I ask. She laughs. It was a case of following her nose. From the records in the archive, Kisler knew where to go, but did not always know where exactly to look. This is partly to do with how Hodgkins’ work has been catalogued. Hodgkins did not always sign and date her works, Kisler explains. Even when they were signed, dates and titles were sometimes made up. This project was thus a chance to “rectify Hodgkins” by bringing as much of her material together as possible, to fill the gaps.

Travelling around Europe offered not just a chance to see the landscape, but to understand how Frances Hodgkins used it in her paintings. Armed with her iPad and a thousand images of the paintings, Kisler set about asking locals if they recognised locations. Surprisingly, they often did. On many occasions people would point out recognisable features in the landscape, or buildings that had similar shapes.

It became clear that although Hodgkins was painting from her environment, she was not painting single scenes.

A breakthrough moment came when Kisler met a Spanish photographer who recognised Almond Tree (1933) not as a singular place, but as a compressed composite image—Hodgkins had taken the tree from the orchard down the road and moved it next to the local church, essentially rearranging the local landscape.

Many other Hodgkins paintings, Kisler discovered, are not of a single site but instead convey an essence of place. Hodgkins would sketch scenes from life, recording detailed drawings that would inform her paintings back in the studio. There she would experiment with elements and composition, often stripping back detail to focus on form. Even with the stripped-back forms, you can always see a bit of the original subject imbedded in the paintings, Kisler says. I ask her how she knew what to look for. “I didn’t!” she exclaims.

Frances Hodgkins, Untitled [Santa Maria de la Neus] [Sketch for Hill Landscape],c. 1935–36, graphite on paper. Te Papa (1998-0006-3), purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds
Frances Hodgkins, Hill Landscape, 1936, gouache on paper. Private collection

The hunt was exhilarating, with Kisler not knowing what she would find around the corner. She travelled into gardens, along walls and cliff tops, through squares and streets, just looking. Gradually, as she became immersed in a place, things would emerge: a street, a building, a tree stump, light at a certain time of day. Both Mary and Frances describe the places they stayed as more than just tourist stops and scenes; they both engage with the atmosphere and personality of the location. Hodgkins was always looking for inspiration, Kisler says, and you see that in the work. Different locations completely change how she painted. Hodgkins loved ordinary people, and ordinary moments, favouring discrete views over grand vistas. She was attuned to the regional differences seen in daily life—ceramic jugs, embroidered tablecloths and paved streets, or the way haystacks are made.

Finishing our ginger crunch, Kisler and I natter about line and colour. It turns out that we both particularly like the Hodgkins period from the early 1930s when she was in Ibiza and Saint-Tropez. In particular, the flattening of space, the simplification of forms and the saturated use of colour. Kisler emphasises how bright and beautiful the light is in the south of France and Spain. When you are there, looking at the same landscape that Hodgkins experienced, she remarks, you can see exactly where her colour comes from.

I was reminded of a trip of my own, to Europe in 2013 when I attended the Attingham Summer School on a Clark Collection scholarship. At one point on the trip I found myself in Turner’s studio at the top of Petworth House, looking out into the landscape and the afternoon summer sun, and just seeing Turner. There is nothing quite like the experience of being there.

Hodgkins too was a keen observer of light. Kisler quotes her describing Tétouan, a town in Morocco: “The whiteness & pearliness of the town simply defies you—you can’t get it pure & brilliant enough & the shadows drive one silly—you race after them, pause one frenzied moment to decide on a blue mauve yellow or green shadow—when up & over the wall & away & the wretched things gone for that day at least & you are gazing at a glaring blank wall & wondering why on earth you ever started to sketch it.”

Throughout Finding Frances Hodgkins, I felt like I was getting to know Hodgkins from her letters; her descriptions of the places that she stayed give you a greater understanding of how she saw things. Not in a direct way, perhaps, but overall you are left with a better understanding and awareness of how she saw light, of her acts of looking.

At the beginning of the book Kisler includes an anecdote from the first year of Hodgkins’ travels, in which she impulsively buys a collection of pottery only to find it is too fragile to pack and too expensive to ship, so she leaves it behind. I recently had a similar experience. I had travelled to see a particular painting in a museum collection and was expecting to be able to photograph it, to have a reminder of the details I wanted to think about later. But photography was not allowed! After a moment of disappointment, I told myself that I was standing in front of the real thing and that I should look, really look at the work rather than relying on a surrogate. I focused my mind and engaged in the act of looking, and found I could take on more information than I realised. Perhaps Hodgkins learned a similar lesson when she had to leave the pottery behind—that she needed to develop a focused mode of looking that registered the unique aspects of the streets and daily life in each location, the affect of each new place. That she succeeded is evident in her ever-changing practice; and from the fact that locals still recognise their towns in her paintings.

Reading the book and chatting with Kisler was reflective for me. I was left feeling how important it is to experience a place through durations of time, and to look—actually look with our eyes—at the texture and local differences of our immediate environment. In her final chapter Kisler admits to attempting the impossible: trying to get inside Frances Hodgkins’ head, to see as she saw. I think she has come as close as anyone could. As I have been writing this piece, I have been looking into my garden—at the different shades of green, the matte and glossy leaves, the formal and informal lines of hedges and trees.

Without knowing it, Hodgkins and Kisler have provided a lesson in looking, transforming how I see my garden. Although Hodgkins became the artist she is on her travels, the way she learned to see can be experienced at home. All you have to do is look.

Mary Kisler’s Finding Frances Hodgkins (Massey University Press) is in bookstores now; Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys is at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki until 1 September.

Published in Art News Winter 2019

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