Goodbye, my Friendby Sean O’Toole / 20.03.2010
“I am drinking hot strong tea, very British working-like manner, and reading a book about death by Julian Barnes – and finding it a bit much.” It is an August afternoon. The painter Robert Hodgins, 89, is seated under a large tree on his smallholding in Midrand. It’s just him sitting there, alone – I’m on the other end of the phone, elsewhere.
I ask him why he finds the book boring.
“It is quite a long book. Barnes is only 60 and he is thinking about death. Here I am knocking 90 – shouldn’t I be adjusting myself to this thought? I’m finding it difficult.” The book, he meant, the book was difficult. Death had no place in the mind of this spry, energetic, acutely thoughtful artist who passed away on March 14. “I have this great ambition to be 100, and be the first South African 100-year-old painter who starts a new painting on his life bed.”
This won’t happen. An early love for the coffin nails came back to haunt the painter in later life. Earlier this year Rob, once a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. On Monday I received the sad news. Death had come quickly, quicker even than Rob’s upbeat estimation of his condition suggested. Only a few weeks ago he called to invite me to his 90th birthday bash in June.
“I was born in England, 27 June 1920 – the illegitimate son of a working woman, by a Canadian who lingered in London from Wold War One, was a married parent back home, and wasn’t interested in further fatherhood,” Rob pithily stated of his inauspicious arrival in the world in his self-titled 2002 monograph. The book is a great read. The title to an essay contributed by Kendell Geers captures the essence of the book’s spirited tone: ‘Undiscovered at 82’.
Robert Hodgins, exhibition at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, 2008
Geers was of course taking license. Trained at London’s Goldsmiths – the same factory that generations later issued Damien Hirst – Hodgins immigrated to South Africa twice, first before the war, then again after. In 1954 Rob took up a teaching job at Pretoria’s old technical college. Post-war Pretoria wasn’t a bad place, he said. It introduced him to good food, clothes, wine and, yes, those cigarettes.
After an intense burst of activity in the late 1950s, which included his first local show at Johannesburg’s Lidchi Gallery (in 1956) and an appearance on a group exhibition with Alexis Preller at the Pretoria Art Museum, Rob slacked off painting. Teaching took over. In 1966, he moved to Joburg and Wits where he taught life drawing. This little distraction lasted 17 years.
“In the Sixties and even in the Seventies,” Rob explained over the phone, “there were about three people earning their living as painters. I mean three reputable people, not people who were churning out comforting little pictures of the Malay quarter, I’m not talking about them, I am talking about people who were trying to advance themselves and advance their work.” People like Walter Battiss and Alexis Preller, not him, not just yet. When he did paint, he said, it was almost as a hobbyist. “So in the Sixties, I don’t think I was yet a professional artist, I was a professional amateur.”
In the mid-1980s, now a retiree, things shifted. The sometime artist became a professional painter. Centrally preoccupied with the human form, Rob’s large body of work, much of it painted in his so-called retirement, chronicles the innumerable details that mark human difference – the things that distinguish a South American assassin from his sweetly pink counterpart, the Marine assassin; one fat lady from another; a Mister from his Missus. His cast of characters was diverse but also narrowly defined: Rob repeatedly painted stifled executives and old molls, tight-lipped warhorses and sun-drenched rakes.
Robert Hodgins at studio in Brick Lane, London, 2003
His interest in figuration is one thing, his style another. Rob was a laconic painter, applying paint onto his surfaces (canvas, board, ceramic, copper plate, paper) with a teasing economy. As Ivor Powell, one of his more attentive admirers and a former student no less, has noted, the outcome of this tendency towards abbreviation is “unbeautiful simplification”. It is an elegant description, concise too in summarising Rob’s ability to create visual scenes that, in the words of Francis Bacon, are a “tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction”.
Yes, Bacon was an influence, but then so too was George Grosz. It didn’t stop there. When I dropped by for an omelette one weekday, Rob showed me a book of Degas prints. He was besotted by the murky nothing out of which the artist had evoked a something. Rob’s eye also took in the contemporary. He wrote appreciatively of Kudzi Chiurai and liked Banksy. For a show at the Goodman Gallery in 2007, Rob applied black spray-paint onto his canvases. I thought it silly; Rob, of course, loved it.
A raconteur with a hip replacement, that’s how I remember Rob. At a show hosted by the Goodman’s Cape Town branch after his sell-out Joburg show, Rob drew a group of charcoal figures onto the gallery wall where his paintings were hung. Why?
“I had never tried it before and of course now I am going to try it at every exhibition I have. Partly, it’s a streak of anarchy: there’s this very nice drawing and no-one can buy it – unless they cared to take the whole wall away.” As was Rob’s habit, his explanation branched off into French. I didn’t understand. “It’s a gesture that you make that has no effect whatsoever,” he clarified, “and yet you love doing it and, you know, drawing on that scale is not usual. So to draw a full-size life figure and on top put it around a corner is adding to one’s store of knowledge of things that are possible. I like it very much. I like imaginary spectators deploring the works they are looking at… I like drawing people.”
Never one to be interrupted, Rob, still lazing in the late winter light, continued apace.
Robert Hodgins, exhibition at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, 2008
“I tell you what everyone misses: the influence of [French artist Honore] Daumier. I was passionate for him when I was a student; I am still passionate for him, both as an artist and a caricaturist. I love to death those wonderful French faces deploring everything. I can see when I look at some of my work – I can see such a strong influence.” To which he added, as an afterthought: “You know, it’s not cool to make caricatures anymore. Who cares about cool?”
Cool. The idea irked him. Cool. The way it has become a defining feature of the art world.
“What I miss is a sense of enthusiasm. Everyone is being so cool. They make these cool works. You know, it’s like being at a party where everyone refuses to get drunk.” Never afraid to venture an opinion, he singled out locals Zwelethu Mthethwa and Sam Nhlengethwa as being beyond all this. “I feel a great enthusiasm at work there.”
It was nearly time to hang-up. Rob, though, wanted to tell me about another artist he liked, Philip Guston, the Canadian born American painter who ditched the gestural silliness of Abstract Expressionism to make grotesque painterly caricatures.
Stated Rob: “I’ve always loved a big painting of his I saw in Boston. It is a pile of what you might call studio, um, equipment. It was his boots and the bones and the horse, piled-up into a big canvas. At the top was his testicles and penis, very small, but like a cherry on the meringue. I loooovvved that! I loved the enthusiasm that made him do that. I loved the enthusiasm it aroused in me.” Enthusiasm. Rob felt it, even in his decrepitude, but, crucially, he also gave it back, in huge, fulfilling measures. Goodbye, my friend.
Opening image: Robert Hodgins at studio in Brick Lane, London, 2003