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FRANCES Hodgkins is considered one of New Zealand's foremost artists, but it wasn't always that way.
A play presented at Tauranga Art Gallery later this month tells the story of Hodgkins' life, from a young girl growing up in Dunedin, to impoverished artist, to finally being embraced for her artwork before she died.
Kapiti Coast playwright Jan Bolwell's play Double Portrait: Finding Frances Hodgkins, is an insight into the "colourful" life of New Zealand's most significant expatriate and modernist painter of the 20th century.
The play will be performed in conjunction with the gallery's "blockbuster" exhibition of the year, a collection of Hodgkins' work under the title of Femme du Monde. The exhibition is on display at Tauranga Art Gallery until September 5.
As a woman trying to forge a career in the arts, Bolwell became curious about Hodgkins' determination to make it as an artist.
 "Here was a woman born in the Victorian age - how on earth could she imagine that she could live the life of a professional artist? It's still a question for women today.
"She had to make a lot of sacrifices because she was determined to have that life."
The biggest of those sacrifices for Hodgkins, Bolwell says, was leaving her home country.
"In order to pursue her career, she left New Zealand in the early 20th century ... Apart from visits of a couple of nephews who were in the war, she was virtually separated for 40 years from her family."
Hodgkins was also poverty-stricken for much of her life.
"Her family initially did send her money.
That came to an end. They probably thought 'she has had enough from us', really. But she was lucky because she had many good friends in England," Bolwell says.
Although she is now considered one of the top painters ever to emerge from New Zealand, it was not until shortly before her death in 1947, aged 78, that she was appreciated.
"In the last decade of her life, she was regarded as a leading British modernist painter ... She didn't have the strength to capitalise on her growing fame."
In New Zealand, it wasn't until after Hodgkins' death that art buffs recognised her talent.
"New Zealanders weren't exposed to the sort of modern art she was doing," Bolwell explains.
 "Up until the mid 20th century, New Zealand was locked in a Victorian concept of art. Her work was not appreciated here.
"Now she is regarded, quite rightly, as our most famous and accomplished expat visual artist."
Today, Hodgkins' work hangs in galleries across New Zealand.
And Bolwell says art lovers enjoy hearing the story of her life through the play.
 "It's like 'oh my goodness, I want to find out more about this painter'.
"I hope that by bringing the play to Tauranga Art Gallery, people will look at the paintings with a bit more information."
Bolwell plays the lead role of Hodgkins, and is supported by two other actors, John Wraight and Perry Piercy, who play a number of roles.
The play is not chronological, but "jumps around" the artist's lifespan.
"We start with her as an old woman and we go back to her early life in Dunedin, and take her to Morocco where she lived and painted.
 "The play isn't so much about her art, it's about her relationships."
Bolwell started writing the play in 2007 when she had a writer's residency in Dunedin, Hodgkins' home city.
"Being in Dunedin and being able to visit the paintings and look in the Hocken Library was fabulous."
The play was first performed in May last year at the Mahara Gallery in Waikanae, where Hodgkins is buried. It has since been performed in art galleries around the country.
Bolwell's interest in Hodgkins began when she was a child growing up in Dunedin.
"Her work was in the Dunedin Art Gallery, and my mother was fond of her work. We had reproductions of Frances Hodgkins' paintings on the wall at home."
* Tauranga Art Gallery's Frances Hodgkins exhibition, Femme du Monde, opened on July 2 and is on display until September 5.
* Double Portrait: Finding Frances Hodgkins will be performed at Tauranga Art Gallery on Friday July 23, at 1pm and 7pm. Tickets $20. Booking essential, ph 578 7933.