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Birthday girl

April marked 150 years since the birth of Frances Hodgkins. To celebrate Francesca Emms spoke with Dr Joanne Drayton - biographer, curator, and fan of Frances.

Art historian Dr Joanne Drayton describes Frances Hodgkins as a beacon in New Zealand’s art history, ‘breaking down barriers and achieving things others people only dreamed of.’

Frances Hodgkins, 'Self portrait: still life', ca 1935

Drayton wrote the first comprehensive exploration of the artist’s life, Frances Hodgkins: A Private Viewing, which came out in 2005. ‘What drew me to her was her remarkable work and amazing dedication and endurance. She had that drive, that energy, that huge energy for painting,’ she says. ‘Here was an older woman who was making it amongst the most avant garde and exciting painters. It’s an awesome achievement, for anyone, but for a New Zealander, a woman, in her 60s and 70s. It’s sort of gobsmacking really.’

Two decades ago, as Drayton was researching Edith Collier for her PhD, Frances Hodgkins was ‘hovering in the background’. Edith, a devoted student of Frances, saw her as a role model, teacher and mentor. In her 1999 book Edith Collier: Her Life and Work, 1885–1964, Drayton describes the savage critical assessment and negative responses Edith received from her own community in provincial Wanganui, and the notorious incident when Edith’s father burned many of her finest paintings. ‘Frances gave a seriousness to what many New Zealanders saw as a secondary thing.’ The artist life was seen as unimportant, even frivolous, compared to farming, or a ‘normal, mundane life’. Frances showed Edith that painting could be a legitimate choice. Drayton describes Frances as a light, giving Edith hope ‘that her talent would have a life, in her present and after her death.’

Frances Hodgkins, 'The Bottle Party', 1928, Private Collection

Looking back, Joanne says Frances was ‘even better than I thought she was. I could have said more.’ Drayton’s book captures the artist’s life vividly, drawing on her extensive correspondence with close friends and family. ‘She was a modern woman, in the complete sense of the word,’ says Drayton, something she thinks ‘New Zealanders would have found difficult to handle,’ almost fifteen years ago at the time her book was released. She’s referring to the LGBTQI+ circles Frances moved in. ‘Her world was more rainbow coloured than I felt free to announce when I wrote the book, but it’s all there.

Drayton thinks New Zealand audiences have never been very open to their iconic figures being anything outside of the box. She says Frances wasn’t simply a ‘spinster’ putting her career before marriage and babies, but a complex, interesting and engaged person. Her book shows that Frances’ life was full of adventure, involving both physical and artistic journeys in which she crossed hemispheres, cultures, epochs and styles.

‘Frances took huge risks, had intense focus and became a leading figure of twentieth century British Modernism, and one of the most internationally significant New Zealand-born artists to date’, says Dr Drayton.

First published ArtZone #78


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