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Language of light

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Bringing together artworks from New Zealand and around the globe, Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys explores the artist’s place in the 20th-century.

Maeve Hughes visited the exhibition in Auckland and found a Frances fluent in the language of light.

Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys, (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2019

‘A good picture, like murder, will out,’ said Frances Hodgkins and so too, as it turns out, will a good painter. European Journeys is a retrospective at Auckland Art Gallery of Frances Hodgkins’ art, only sixty years after her death. Curator Mary Kisler describes it as a ‘party’ for Hodgkins. The words on the final wall of the show were Hodgkins’ own: ‘New Zealand is at last beginning to recognise me.’

The show’s path follows Hodgkins’ time in different countries. Starting with her first decade in Europe, then to Morocco and France, through the French Riviera, England and ending in Ibiza. Each space has a different vibrant wall colour, which felt as if Kisler had asked herself, ‘What colour might Hodgkins have painted her lounge this year?’

At the start of the show we have Hodgkins earliest European pieces. Untitled [Loading the Cart], 1906, depicts two men in casual clothing and dappled light at a market. Around them there are trees, blurred men and a cart. As if seen through eyes just opened from sleep the main divider between space and people is varying shades of light. While the edges of the picture are broad washes of colour there is a delicate accuracy to the way Hodgkins has the light fall on the faces of her protagonists. She captures the feeling of their gestures, the man on the left leans into the conversation first with his hand, then his head, then his heart. Hodgkins’ technique of scraping pigment off the canvas creates a ghostly world around the figures and the tension between them becomes our focus. Like a cloud pinned in place Hodgkins uses paint to hold these men in a delicious, un-ending moment of sunshine and shade.

Frances Hodgkins, Untitled [Loading the Cart], 1906, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased with assistance from Geri and John Herbert, Cyril Wright and Linda Light, 2007.

Another work at the start of the show was Untitled [Checking the baskets], 1906, with a similar scene to Loading the Cart, it shows men at a market, checking baskets. On the wall next to the painting is a quote by Hodgkins: ‘Watching the men, who might easily have belonged to another time’. I wonder what she means. Could it be that these men appear to her to be old fashioned? If so, as I look at this painting 100 years later, how much more old fashioned would they seem to her now? Could it be that she knows a quality in them which hasn’t been told through paint? Are they in fact humble farmers by day but flamboyant performers by night? Are they planning the invention of something we still haven’t heard about? Usually when we describe someone as belonging to another time it is because they are teaching us something new, something the status quo may not be ready to accept yet. What could these men checking baskets have to offer? If it is not of their own intellect maybe it was the lesson their forms gave her in the light they shared. Here at the start of her career in painting, and at the start of the show, we can see how she is beginning to work with light in a new way. She is seizing hold of light and using it as she wills – creating light as a physical place, a box in which her subjects live.

By the end of her show the paintings have transcended the light of this world, they come from their own strange world, one that seems to have forgotten about the sun or candles. Each painting holds its own light deep inside of itself. Study for Pembrokeshire Landscape, 1938, is an example of this. It is a landscape of a country village with some farm animals and a river in the foreground. The objects float towards you from a bottomless tunnel of colour behind. It is in a new language of light, a language which Hodgkins had been working towards her whole life. Looking at it feels like closing your eyes and being told the names of the objects - cow, house, hill, tree, river, bridge. It is almost impossible to look at the whole painting at once, each object demands its own perspective. Her paintings once dutifully performed the functions of light as seen in the real world, now ignore it. Light has become a consequence of seeing, a background to colour.

Frances Hodgkins, Study for Pembrokeshire Landscape, 1938, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1956.

This show claimed to be a party for Hodgkins and rightfully so. Her presence is felt strongly in her art but also in the hands of the gallery; the bold wall colours, the inclusion of her own words on the walls. While we look at the paintings it seems they also look at us. For the duration of the visit we are small figures moving through rooms of vast colour feeling as if Hodgkins herself might be nearby, behind a scarf, quietly observing us.

Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, until 1 September

Touring to Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery and Adam Art Gallery


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