Auckland Art Gallery curator Mary Kisler followed in Frances Hodgkins' footsteps to shed new light on her work for a major exhibition and two books on the renowned modernist painter.
1 Why did you write two new books on Frances Hodgkins?
There was so much material that couldn't fit into an exhibition catalogue. Friends encouraged me to turn my emails from Europe into a book. The catalogue I think of as the beautiful older sister, the wise one, and the little book is the naughty younger sister.
2 Finding Frances Hodgkins is a cross between a travelogue and a detective story. Why did you need to retrace the artist's footsteps?
Packing up to move to the new gallery, we found a metal box full of index cards listing all her known works — 850 at the time. We knew there were far more out there and a lot of the information was out of date. Some were attributed to places that didn't fit stylistically. The only way to solve the problem was to go where she went, stand where she'd stood and absorb what she'd seen. Many of those little clifftop fishing villages in Italy, France, Spain and Wales still look very much as they did when she was there a century ago.
3 What did you discover in your travels?
I began to understand how she changed her palette with place. In France she used a lot of soft colours — pale pinks, lilacs and misty blues; if you go there in the early morning or late evening those are exactly the colours you see. In Ibiza she used completely different colours; you get intense blues in the sea and sky while she adds ochre to white buildings. She kept developing throughout her career, finding new ways to approach subjects. I discovered that many of her landscapes are combinations of places she's painted from memory back at her studio, collaged together in unusual ways. Her brilliant later works are quite abstracted.
4 What was your favourite part of your experience?
Seeing the way locals engaged with her work. I'd show them paintings on my iPad and they'd recognise places immediately. A tour guide almost cried when I showed her a painting of the Convent of Sant Augusti. She said, "Look, look at the water!" There's only one stream left in Ibiza now and it runs out in summer because the hotels have all got swimming pools so they have to bring water in on ships from Barcelona.
5 How did Hodgkins' trip to Morocco in 1902 change her style?
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Morocco was a revelation to her. It was where she first sensed that she could move beyond impressionism; it's the light and the block-like buildings. Having done watercolours in France full of busy architectural detail, she goes somewhere that is so simple and yet full of life and energy and she just revelled in it. She began to pare back the detail and really focus on form.
6 How much did she travel?
She moved on average five to six times a year, apart from during the wars. Early on she often travelled with students which meant she didn't have enough time for her own work. When she was alone she was much more experimental. Her career really began to take off in England in the early 1930s when she finally had a contract and could really focus. She became known as one of Britain's leading modernists and was invited to represent Britain for the 1940 Biennale. Not bad for a woman in her 60s.
7 Were the 1000 letters she sent to her family in New Zealand helpful for your research?
Her family didn't understand modernism, so she doesn't write much about what she was painting or her influences; that's where I had to play detective. But she does talk about her travels and how she was feeling. You can tell when she's happy or frustrated or unwell. Despite the financial and physical hardship she had great faith in her work and she stuck it out. She only came home twice.
8 Did Hodgkins ever have a partner?
No, she was always alone. She was engaged to a man when she came back to New Zealand in 1904 but that fell through and it hurt her very badly. She had intense friendships but she realised that to do her best work she needed to be alone. She did love company in the evening. She enjoyed going to the pub after a good day's work and having a drink with the locals.
9 You must've come to know Hodgkins almost as a friend. How would you describe her?
She was witty and sometimes a bit acidic. Generous; as soon as she had money, she shared it. She was very good to young artists. Sometimes she'd take a gin with people like her old friend, the gallery owner Lucy Wertheim. Lucy tended to mother artists and Hodgkins didn't want to be owned by anyone. She valued her independence more than anything. She was always seeking to produce paintings she could be really proud of, so she threw away a lot of her work if she thought it wasn't good enough.
10 Growing up in Epsom, was art a big part of your childhood?
We didn't have any money but Mum loved art and people and reading and listening to the radio. Our family were all very interested in ideas. I think that makes a difference. My art teacher at Epsom Girls Grammar was May Smith, the artist. She was little, part-Indian, walked with a limp and a superb teacher. She had a way of making you think you could do something. She held an art club at lunchtimes where we'd have philosophical debates. I was delighted to discover that she'd met Hodgkins in Ibiza in the 1930s. It's a lovely connection.
11 How many years have you devoted to this Frances Hodgkins project?
I first started looking at Frances Hodgkins when I was teaching art, drama and English. She was my artist and Katherine Mansfield was my writer. Both were adventurous, challenged themselves and overcame adversity. Mansfield was paring back language in the same way Hodgkins was doing with line and colour and form. So I've followed Hodgkins my whole life. I'll probably never do an exhibition as big or as important to me as this one, but there's still a lot of work to do.
12 Your Hodgkins website is due to be launched on June 28. Why is there a need for this resource?
We keep finding new works and information. A digital archive can be constantly updated and it's a wonderful way of sharing information. Scholars like Roger Collins in Dunedin who travelled around France on his sabbaticals collecting postcards of the hotels that Hodgkins stayed in have shared their collections. All of her letters will be on there. You'll be able to see the exhibitions she saw, like Picasso in Barcelona in 1936, so you can see how she was influenced by her contemporaries, but she never imitated. She was determined to find her own voice and she did. You could never put her in a box.
The exhibition Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys is on at Auckland Art Gallery with the catalogue by Catherine Hammond and Mary Kisler, RRP $75. The book Finding Frances Hodgkins by Mary Kisler, Massey University Press, RRP $45.