Half a Century of Robert Hodgins at Strauss & Co

“Very few artists command the respect and admiration of their peers in the way Robert Hodgins does, a reverence often verging on cult status.” Kendall Geers

Strauss & Co’s June 1 auction of Important South African and International Art in Johannesburg features a unique and unprecedented selection of paintings by Robert Hodgins, one of the most compelling of South African artists. These works span the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st century and track Hodgins’ rise from obscurity to stardom and his development from young, inquiring artist to mature painter. Though Hodgins only started his full-time painting career in earnest at the age of 63 when he retired from his lectureship at Wits, he was a prolific artist and produced paintings with varying degrees of regularity and intensity throughout his life. Strauss & Co holds the top 12 consecutive records for Robert Hodgins, most recently R2,6 million which was achieved for the painting J’accuse.

The earliest example included in the June auction, titled Hidden Man (1) was produced during Robert Hodgins’ tenure at the Pretoria Technical College between 1954 and 1962. Still in the original artist’s handmade frame, this painting bears the thick impasto paint and linear marking typically associated with his early work. Following chronologically, the next painting, approximately a decade younger is titled Man with a Cup (2) which was displayed in the Gertrude Posel Gallery in the 1970s. Still typically dark and weighty, with characteristic Georges Rouault inspired black outlines and sombre line work, it depicts a solid, square figure very emblematic of his 1950s and 1960s work. In both of these early examples his use of colour is sublime. The images, overwhelmingly rendered on dark, almost black surfaces, emerge from the surface of the picture plane like a person stepping out of the shadows. 

Ubu in the Last Judgment Steam Baths (3), from the early 1980s, shows the introduction of the dry-brush technique producing the textured colour areas that blend and fluctuate between tones, in the manner that one sees in his late work. This painting also signifies the arrival of his iconic character Ubu, based on Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, whom Jane Taylor describes as ‘the central character … notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification.’ In this painting the central foregrounded character of Ubu has a triangular shaped head, reminiscent of a dunce hat, and large, leering, triangular eyes which hark to Jarry’s original woodcut depictions of the eponymous character.
Contemporary with this is Ubu and Mr America (4), a painting that unapologetically embraces the hedonism of the 1980s and marries it with the libidinous character of the central protagonist, Ubu.
Here, a dreamy-eyed Ubu, painted in a series of lines, swirls and flat planes of colour, gazes salaciously at the silhouette torso of the Speedo-clad bodybuilder flexing his bicep. In contrast to the foreground figure, the Mr America figure beyond is textured and rendered in warm, sultry planes of colour, replete with a manufactured texture of fine indentations, like the porous surface of skin. The form is tactile and appealing, a sincere reflection of the response of both the protagonist and the painter to the depicted subject.

Oedipus and the Sphinx (5) from the late 1980s moves towards the whimsical treatment of the human figure produced from smudges of colour with a strategic and economic use of line.
Excellent! (6)from 1996 shows an adventurous and experimenting artist venturing into new and unprecedented combinations of mediums. This painting-come-sculpture comprises painted wood, painted glass, and glazed ceramic tiles. Hodgins was extremely fond of the ceramic arts and went on to produce many ceramic plates, vessels and sculptures after accepting an offer from ceramicist Retief van Wyk to visit his studio in 1988. In the book produced celebrating Hodgins ceramic art output, Van Wyk states: ‘Hodgins is concerned with a unique artistic dimension of his own and turns to the simple ceramic vessel for the making of unusual artworks.’
Family Portrait (7)is more typical of the mature painter though relatively unusual in his use of hard-edged line work, possibly from a stencil. In the majority of his paintings the linear elements are produced free-hand and are consequently loose and often open-ended. The hard, clean-lined squares framing the suit-and-tie wearing figure in the centre, intensify his isolation and, through the title, scathingly interrogates the concept of the modern family unit. Hodgins, who had a troubled family life and no immediate family after his mother’s death, could very well have been painting a self-portrait.
The final work and most recent example, is titled A Cosy Covern in Suburbia (8). This painting shows the artist in full command of his faculties and at the height of his mature style. Though the sombre, heavy mark-making of his early 1950s and 1960s work has given way to a whimsical, light-hearted palette and textural effect, the presence of the dark, defining outlines to denote form and perspective are still present. For the most part, the application of the paint is much thinner and more sparing, although elements such as the highlights in the lamp at the left margin or the rainbow like form above the figures is painted in thick impasto paint redolent of his earlier style. A general simplification of form to the essence of that which is being depicted, as well as a reduced palette containing only select colours that are specifically chosen for their attributes pertinent to the intention of the painting, are effective strategies to achieve maximum impact.
The auction showcases many exciting works of art by other South African and international artists of stature. These include Kees van Dongen, Alexander Calder, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, Irma Stern, JH Pierneef, Robert Hodgins, William Kentridge, Jane Alexander, Penny Siopis, Deborah Bell, Walter Oltman and Athi-Patra Ruga. www.straussart.co.za

Important South African and International Art

Johannesburg, Monday 1 June 2015
The Wanderers Club, Illovo
Ballroom, 21 North Street, Illovo, Johannesburg (GPS Co-ordinates: S 26 08.123 E 28 03.454)
On View: Friday 29 May to Sunday 31 May from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
Walkabout: Sunday 31 May at 11am
011 728 8246 | www.straussart.co.za

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