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Twice as nice

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Celebrations around 150 years of Frances Hodgkins continue with two new Frances-focused publications. Dr Joanne Drayton, Ockham Award winner and author of Frances Hodgkins: A Private Viewing (2005), has read both and reports back.

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

Frances Hodgkins is an icon of New Zealand high art. Her life and work embody the other Kiwi dream - not the one that paces out the boundary of the quarter acre section, but the dream of travel. Our ancestors came here by boat; they were travellers. In essence we have followed the stars, so that when our need for ownership, belonging, and turangawaewae, is satisfied, what remains is the hankering to be gone. Two years before she died at aged 78, Frances Hodgkins wrote to a friend, ‘I am not to be trusted on a Railway Station – the longing to board the train & be off is irresistible’ (1945).

But, 150 years after her birth in Dunedin in 1869, we do not celebrate Frances Hodgkins because she was the OE traveller who never returned. What singles out Frances Hodgkins’s journey from the rest is that as well as physical movement, through time and space, it was also movement through the abstract landscape of ideas.

Frances Hodgkins’s life after she departed New Zealand in 1901, aged almost 31 years, bounced frenetically like a pinball between lodgings and locales. She was all over the British Isles, Europe and the Middle East. From when she left New Zealand to her death in 1947, she shifted an average of six times a year. Wars, random events, invitations to stay, the need to earn money from teaching and painting make some sense of this incessant movement. However, under scrutiny, her life’s itinerary seems haphazard. Hodgkins may be the most peripatetic expatriate New Zealander, ever.

Physically she may have moved chaotically, even desperately, but in the realm of aesthetic ideas her course was much more considered. In the space of three decades she shifted from faltering nineteenth-century watercolourist to British modernist, in the vanguard of contemporary exploration, especially in colour. Frances Hodgkins satisfies the Kiwi need, not only to move, but also to be successful abroad.

Frances Hodgkins is our poster girl; the person from the antipodes who, against the odds of penury, ill health and advancing age, created one of the most internationally significant bodies of art ever produced by a New Zealander. While over time Hodgkins’s odyssey has taken on a mythic quality, tinged with exoticism and romance, she remains deserving of every bit of her iconic status.

Edited by Catherine Hammond and Mary Kisler

Auckland Art Gallery/

Auckland University Press

The great achievement of the Auckland Art Gallery’s exhibition Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys is that her pilgrimage from realism to the Mecca of modernism can be seen in this unprecedented collection of 150 images. Hung together as families of work, they bounce ideas off each other in an on-going conversation about art. They are the distillation of Frances Hodgkins’s ideas as she travelled through successive paradigms.

Her many subjects; the fluid brush strokes and dissolving skies of her early watercolours; the symbolism of her surrealist explorations; the engimatic still lifes sitting in front of vistas of English countryside; and the luscious lyricism of her late Neo-Romantic odes to war and peace – all are here to see, and to carry away in a lavish catalogue of the same title.

The show provokes a sense of awe; the catalogue tells you why you feel that way. The development of Frances Hodgkins’s style is explored in a series of essay-style chapters by writers such as Catherine Hammond, Mary Kisler, Frances Spalding, Alexa Johnston, Elena Taylor, Julia Waite, Antoni Ribas Tur and Sarah Hillary. It relates people and place to picture, and brings alive milieu and context, diving below the surface of her canvases to understand the forensics of paint and process. There is a time-line of events, and an itinerary of sites visited. We can map Hodgkins the painter against location and innovation, but not completely know her. While the catalogue is richly detailed, the writing is not always even or smooth. But the reproductions of Hodgkins’s work are breathtaking and the depth of diverse expert knowledge undeniable. For those who love Hodgkins, or just want to know more, this book is a must.

By Mary Kisler

Massey University Press

Finding Frances Hodgkins, by curator Mary Kisler, is a perfect companion on a long-haul flight. It is Kisler’s search for Hodgkins. She follows the artist through England, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Wales to discover the locations in which she constantly pushed her exploration of modernism. It is a travelogue, almost a daily diary of events: the food eaten, the places seen, the wonder of travel balanced against the sense of isolation. Kisler’s travel is juxtaposed with detective-work in a way that can often be rewarding. There is much to be enjoyed and celebrated, in the discoveries made and connections established. A key understanding, perhaps, is that Hodgkins’ mature paintings often depicted not just one scene, but fragments of many brought together with a modernist’s eye.

The book is beautifully produced. The dust jacket, a quirky, calligraphic distillation from Frances Hodgkins’s travel in Ibiza in the 1930s, is a wonderful invitation into this world of movement. The chapter headings are destinations. The places that meant something special to Hodgkins are the places that accompany the author and her subject on this journey. The illustrations complement the text. Hodgkins’ work, and the work of her contemporaries, are set alongside biographical photographs, period postcards, and Mary Kisler’s contemporary photographs of the places she visited. The format of Finding Frances Hodgkins is intimate, so it can be easily carried. This is the Lonely Planet guide to Frances Hodgkins, which will help you find her yourself.

First published ArtZone #80


Dr Joanne Drayton has published six books and numerous chapters and articles. Her book Hudson & Halls: The Food of Love won best General Non-fiction in the 2019 NZ Book Awards and her biography The Search for Anne Perry was a New York Times Best Seller. Drayton’s biographies of expatriate painters include Frances Hodgkins: A Private Viewing, Rhona Haszard: An Experimental Expatriate NZ Artist, and Edith Collier: Her Life and Work. Joanne has curated exhibitions and publishes in art history, theory and biography.


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