Unattached

Many people have forgotten how to use solitude. We live in an age in which being alone is often considered a horror to be avoided. We have forgotten that solitude can be one of the most beautiful, intensely lived of all states. For some artists it has been essential for the continuation and quality of their art. Leonardo da Vinci said in his Notebooks (Volume 1), "While you are alone you are entirely your own master and if you have but one companion you are but half your own, and the less so in proportion to the indiscretion of his behaviour." In Britain, if not elsewhere, there is still a lingering social pressure which creates the feeling that "it is not quite right" for a woman to be on her own, so women artists have found it even more difficult than Leonardo. Frances Hodgkins is one woman who needed the kind of conditions that Leonardo prescribed, and she made sure she got them.

She was born in New Zealand in 1870 to a family that was involved with the artistic life of the colony. She was not considered to be the premier artist of her family, but her father tutored her in the use of watercolour and when her "more talented" sister married in the '90s she took over the role of artist of the family. She was subjected to the teaching of an eccentric Italian portrait painter named Girolamo Nerli. Of teaching he said: "In the morning I open the student up and then I go over to the public house and rest. In the afternoon I shut the student up. Good to get the salary but I do not like the Academia -- too much work." It is questionable whether she learned much from this singular character.

Frances Hodgkins was determined to go to Europe so that she might further her study of painting. She set about earning enough money to pay her way and in 1900 came to England. I cannot believe that the watercolours being done in England at that date would have furthered her education much, but she may have found some helpful pictures in museums. Around this time it must have become more obvious to her that her own talent held considerable possibilities.

In the late 1920s, she had an exhibition at the Claridge Gallery in London. The "art boat" was already rocking from the fresh ballast dropped in by the young talents of those years: Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Ivon Hitchens, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, John Piper and a host of others who were trying to steer the boat in a different direction. Although nearly 60, she skipped the generation gap to join them, but her life remained very private and her paintings stood alone, as unattached as she herself. Throughout her life she kept herself unencumbered.

She is best known for rhythmic, glowing landscapes. They are painted with obvious delight and are free from people or paradox. From earlier pictures of intent refugees and some unflattering (but good) portraits, she changed to the arrangements of toy-like buildings and trees that seem to tumble over the paper. She began to use long brush strokes; sweeping lines skid over the paper, the colours glowing with a little white as if they were lighted from behind. The freedom in these pictures sometimes reaches close to carelessness. They are not rooted in landscape but spring from it like wild flowers.

Portraits and still lifes, the vestiges of tradition, were shaken like dust from her feet; she left them all behind. She took her own colours: musty greens , fleshy pinks and indigo blues, and used landscape that allowed her to paint without attachments. Nature demands nothing in return, as Leonardo da Vinci -- and Frances Hodgkins -- have discovered; it never interrupts.

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