Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Being astonished by Frances Hodgkins on St Patrick's Day

On St Patrick's Day I had the rare pleasure of running away. It's always a poignant day for me because my younger son was called Patrick, and he died 20 years ago when he was 18. But it's also a very longstanding friend's birthday.

As she has just retired and it was an amazingly fine day, we ran away up to Waikanae and to Mahara Gallery, which is showing Frances Hodgkins and Seraphine Pick. I hadn't remembered that this small gallery has a unique connection with Frances Hodgkins. Her sister Isobel's family lived at Waikanae, and her ashes were brought back from England to be buried there. The gallery has a collection of her work and from time to time holds carefully chosen exhibitions of it.

This one is small but striking, with paintings from 1869 to 1921. What I liked best were two side by side showing a mother and child.

The first one dates from 1906. It's a beautiful but still relatively conventional watercolour. The one next to it was painted just ten years later, in 1916, but the change is astonishing. It's full of movement and colour, and the mother and child form a pattern with the rich fabric of their clothes and the background.

I'm not putting this very well, because I don't know enough artspeak to describe how the painting works. The other thing that made it so striking for me was that I'd never seen it before, and discovering a previously unseen Hodgkins is a tremendous pleasure.

The sister exhibition by Seraphine Pick is full of pleasures too, although they are darker and more disturbing ones - especially as they so often evoke that scary decade, the 1950s. I remember seeing a very early exhibition containing her work - I think it was a series of small coloured-pencil drawings, including some of marching girls. (I could have this completely wrong and if so, Seraphine, I apologise.)

I wanted to buy one but didn't. That's the story of my life as far as buying art goes - I see something I really like (Pick, Nigel Brown, Shane Cotton, even Colin McCahon, back in the early 1960s) but get nervous and think I can't afford it, and then a few years later wish I had followed my instincts.

Well, in the case of the McCahon that's not true - it was one of the first contemporary New Zealand art exhibitions I'd ever seen and it never even occurred to me that I could actually buy one. Except for one couple who owned a Binney, I didn't know anyone who bought original paintings.

Go and see the Hodgkins and the Pick if you can - the exhibitions end 30 March. For details, go here.

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