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Topic: Frances Hodgkins’ Double Portrait No. 2

Is part of topic Parade (Te Papa exhibition - 14 February 1998 to May 2001)

Double Portrait No. 2 is an oil painting of the artist's friends Katharine Church and Anthony West. It was painted after Hodgkins had been staying at their home - Quarry Farm. Hodgkins said about her stay, 'I . . . the happiest long week end with the Wests & have painted 3 quite attractive canvases inspired by objects observed by me out of the corner of my subjective eye, when really looking for black berries.' (1).

Although dated 1937, this painting may have been completed after that date, a common practice in Hodgkins' later work. Katharine Church remembers Frances Hodgkins working on the double portrait in 1939 from an existing watercolour of herself and a pencil drawing of Anthony.

This portrait was painted during the latter part of Hodgkins' career, at a time when her style was becoming increasingly abstract. Hodgkins' earlier oils had been characterised by the use of thick paint and restrained composition. However, this painting shows that the artist had changed to a softer, more fluid style, with a looser and thinner use of oil paint.

Calligraphic brush marks and traces of colour applied in fleeting patches characterise the painting. The bold use of red on the Wests' clothing, and in the details on their faces and hair, effectively highlights them against the neutral colours of the background.

Hodgkins' early influences were her father, William Mathew Hodgkins - a Dunedin lawyer who was a very keen watercolourist, and Girolamo Pieri Nerli - a professional Italian artist who taught Hodgkins while he was visiting Dunedin. Nerli's work was characterised by animated and decisive brushwork, as seen in his oil painting Girl in a Sunbonnet (painted around 1895).

Nerli taught Hodgkins to use a more spontaneous approach to her watercolours. As a result her work became bolder and more fluid. She also started to concentrate less on landscapes and more on human figures, often painting human heads against a white background to emphasise them. The Girl with Flaxen Hair (1893) is typical of this technique.

From 1908 to 1914 Hodgkins was based in Paris. A work from this time, The Hill Top (1908), shows the influence of Impressionists Monet and Renoir, and demonstrates Hodgkins' extensive use of female models.

In the early 1900s Hodgkins travelled in Europe and North Africa, which brought about fresh developments in her painting. She began to evolve a bolder, highly original and more abstract style, and produced some fine watercolours.

After the First World War Hodgkins virtually abandoned her earlier Impressionist style. She dubbed the 1920s her 'experimental' years, exploring Post-Impressionism and moving away from naturalism. Rather than depicting objects as they really were, Post-Impressionist artists focused on the underlying structure of objects and on a more spontaneous use of colour. One of the artists who influenced her during this period was the Fauvist artist Raoul Dufy.

After 1930 Hodgkins' paintings show an increased degree of abstraction. Still-life objects set within a landscape give her works a surreal quality, which was a growing trend in British art at the time. She abandoned traditional perspective, instead objects appear to 'float' within the composition. Hodgkins called this 'open-air still life' (2). Composition and the structure of individual objects were becoming as important to Hodgkins as the technique and colour used to paint them.

Cut Melons (1931) is a good example of Hodgkins' post- 1930 style. The objects are arranged formally against the background of a crumpled cloth. We can see the influence of cubists like Picasso and Braque in the way the melons appear to be painted from a range of different viewpoints.

Later works, such as Pleasure Garden (1932) and Double Portrait No. 2, are looser, more decorative and increasingly abstract. However they are often based on a recognisable subject, and her favourite earlier themes, such as landscapes, inanimate objects and human figures, are still frequently used.

By the 1940s Frances Hodgkins became associated with a new British art movement - Neo Romanticism. This style combined moody and atmospheric subjects with an interest in the mythical and imaginative qualities of Surrealism. Though the subjects she painted remained much the same throughout her career, her style was constantly evolving. 'Probably Frances Hodgkins' most impressive quality was this ability to recharge her artistic vocabulary, to search continually for a more meaningful way to express her vision.' (3).

References

(1) Buchanan, Iain; Dunn, Michael and Eastmond, Elizabeth. (1994). Frances Hodgkins: paintings and drawings. Auckland: Auckland University Press. p 69.

(2) Kirker, Anne. (1993). New Zealand Women Artists: a survey of 150 years. New South Wales: Craftsman House. Revised edition. p 48.

(3) Kirker. (1993). New Zealand Women Artists: a survey of 150 years. New South Wales: Craftsman House. Revised edition. p 51.

Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).

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