Book Review: Finding Frances Hodgkins, by Mary Kisler

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cv_finding_frances_hodgkins.jpgThis year marks 150 years since the birth of artist, Frances Hodgkins. Mary Kisler, Senior Curator, Mackelvie Collection, International Art at Auckland Art Gallery has written a remarkable book on the life and works of Frances Hodgkins. Her decision to travel to Europe and visit as many of the places where Hodgkins painted has resulted in a travelogue of Hodgkins’ work and the landscapes that inspired her. Kisler also uses Hodgkins’ diary to give us an understanding of the people and events which were so important in the paintings.

Arriving in 1901, Hodgkins was to spend most of her life in Europe with only two brief visits home to New Zealand. During these years she moved on average six times each year, only pausing during the wars when she could not visit her favourite places in France, North Africa, Holland and Spain. She enjoyed the company of others on her travels and accepted offers from friends and acquaintances to stay in new places. Kisler makes wonderful use of Hodgkins’ diaries to describe not only the landscapes, but also the social events that influence her life. Armed with photographs of Hodgkins’ paintings and her diaries and letters, it was a mammoth task to try to match each work to a specific place. While sometimes, this is achieved, a growing awareness of Hodgkins’ clever manipulation of form and space, helps Kisler to understand the way works are often composed of various elements rearranged by the artist.

I was impressed by the gentle patience of Kisler, who also chose companions for her travels. Language, lack of signage and the ravages of time, made her task daunting. The colour plates that sit alongside the text help the reader to follow the development of Hodgkins’ art. Her fascination with shapes and light, and the way she reduces a scene to blocks of colour, helped me better appreciate her work.

Here is a tribute to a truly great New Zealand artist. By melding her diaries, artworks and the actual landscape together, we arrive in awe of the output and quality of work that Frances Hodgkins produced. This was her life, and she worked hard at her craft, which was not always easy. My hope is that the touring exhibition of her work allows us a chance to truly stand in wonder at her works.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Finding Frances Hodgkins
by Mary Kisler
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780995102972

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