Archive: Issue No. 86, October 2004

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Robert Hodgins

Robert Hodgins
Couple Discussing Light Fittings, 2004
Oil on canvas. 90 x 90 cm

Robert Hodgins

Robert Hodgins
Woman with Moustache, 2004 Oil on canvas. 90 x 90 cm


Art, privilege and the sound of wry laughter: new work by Hodgins
by Robyn Sassen

The challenge of being a painter with critical credibility in this world of advanced multi-media and technology is not for the faint of heart or conviction. Robert Hodgins testifies to this in his exhibition of new work currently on show at the Goodman Gallery.

Now 84, Hodgins is one South African artist who, through the years, has not only maintained a sophisticated level of professional practice and integrity, but a sense of humour as well. The works on show are bitingly funny, playing with society's values.

Hodgins has a fondness for playing with quotes from literature, from history, from the news: language embracing the contradictions endemic to polite society. 'They are, and they suffer; that is all they do�', a painting whose title draws from a 1938 sonnet by Auden, succeeds in retaining an edge of wry humour, while being dramatic and emotive, evocative of Beckett. Reminiscent of Bacon, the work is sophisticatedly unpretentious.

With a long and prolific history of painting and of self-belief without taking himself too seriously, Hodgins has a stylistic signature that speaks of a knowledge of and confidence with colour, anatomy, concept and material that doesn't need heavy accents on accuracy. The magnificence of these works, with strong, undiluted colour, with crazily formulated figures, posed loosely in compositions, and with titles spontaneous and outrageous, attests to this.

Drawing heavily but flippantly on the narratives of art history, these works are neither serious nor pedantic. They are beautiful testimonies to the playfulness of artmaking. They speak intimately of the value of art history for the artist; not as a dry subject, obligatorily learnt in darkened lecture theatres with projected slides, but lived art history, seen with fresh eyes, big with wonder, at great museums. These are Hodgins' real art roots.

His biography reads like that of many a European modernist: coloured by romantic arty aspirations, thwarted by middle class values. He distinguished himself with his intelligence, and garnered recognition late in life. While the biography is almost like a modernist clich�, it offers valuable insight into the man he has become and the paintings he now makes.

Born in 1920 in England, Hodgins was the illegitimate son of a working class woman, and experienced a childhood and adolescence tainted by working class poverty and pragmatic needs. He refers, however, in an interview with himself, published in 2002, to his 'country childhood', as a time of complete happiness.

His adolescence was not so charming. 'Working-class life in the Depression 30s. It was grim, but it was in those eight years (between the ages of 10 and 18) that I began to discover literature, music, the visual arts.' His mother didn't have time or inclination to shape his creative bents, so he did so alone, and with the aid of teachers or circumstances.

He recalls a furtive dawning of awareness of the arts and 'bumping into' visual arts because galleries and museums were free, warm and dry. 'Silly and sissy in my immediate society; secret, because there was nobody� to whom one could talk about such things�'

Hodgins was compelled to leave school and start working at the age of 14. It was a debauched, war-stained London to which he became attuned, and 70 years down the line, there is still a Dix- or Grosz-like echo of the social horrors of living though the Depression: the ugly disgruntled whores, the naked desperation of the man in the street�

In his late teens, he was offered passage to South Africa by his great uncle. 'I landed in Cape Town on my 18th birthday with exactly sixpence in my pocket,' he recalls.

War broke out in 1939, and the following year Hodgins joined up. His great uncle had compelled him to write matric first. Joining the Transport Division of the military was something he did out of 'part lemmingship, part boredom', yet it was the starting point for his voyage of discovery in the arts, the world and society.

The war also took him back to England, where at the age of 31, he enrolled at Goldsmiths College, to study fine arts. Fluctuating between the need to earn a living and grow creatively, Hodgins opted to specialise in painting.

In 1954, he returned to South Africa and took up a teaching post in Pretoria. Two years later, he had his first solo exhibition. From 1966, he began working at Wits University, after rather a chequered series of experiences, as a struggling painter and an arts writer, amongst other things, to keep body and soul together. He remained at Wits for 17 years, and then retired to paint.

Hodgins' current show maintains a standard of honesty and bravery to the material and subject matter consistent with his reputation. His work constantly challenges itself, but uses a language of expression that's about putting one in the eye of the solemnity of the traditions relating to art history, but at the same time, upholding and respecting their dignity and tradition. It is this double-sidedness that informs and energises Hodgins' work.

The impact of this exhibition of paintings in oil on canvas and monoprints on paper is like a breath of fresh spring air: colour is bright and clean, images and titles witty to the point of hilarity. Hodgins plays with so-called international aesthetics � some of the pieces evoke artists like Bacon or Hockney � yet these works retain a South African identity; not only by virtue of the artist's choice of home, but through the nuances, the colour, the humour. He is an artist South Africa is truly privileged to have and to have nurtured.

September 11 � October 2


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