Robert Hodgins was always curious and not afraid of venturing into the unknown.
The Wits Art Museum’s current exhibition, A Lasting Impression: The Robert Hodgins Print Archive, is a tribute to the late artist and, more specifically, an opportunity to show off its vast collection of the lesser-known printwork that he produced in the later part of his life.
The exhibition could only consist of a fraction of Hodgins’s prints because there are far too many to display at once. Spanning four decades, the archive includes works ranging from lithography, screen printing and etching to digital imagery and cliché verre.
There are slightly more than 400 prints in the collection and it is amazing to take stock of the sheer number of works that Hodgins, who died in March 2010, completed during his life.
A Lasting Impression can be traced back to two fortunate incidents. After receiving an honorary doctorate for his contribution to the South African art landscape in 2006, the then deputy vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Belinda Bozzoli, suggested that Hodgins should donate a few prints to the university’s collection.
But long before that, Hodgins’s close friend Hentie van der Merwe, an artist and lecturer in fine art at the university’s school of art, had also put forward the idea of creating an archive of his prints.
The ultimate goal would be an exhibition to accompany a catalogue to provide an impetus for further research into Hodgins’s work.
The catalogue, carrying the same name as the exhibition and consisting of essays, delves into the aspects that made Hodgins the artist that he was, his influences and outlook.
Writer and critic Sean O’Toole pays homage to Hodgins with a glossary of terms and names, each revealing an aspect of the complex character of the artist.
Of “fame”, he writes about “a recurring point of amusement, deliberation and perplexity for the artist”, and cites an interview in which Hodgins remarked that “I feel that the new generation of artists, with a very few exceptions, are interested more in money and notoriety — not even fame — than in the importance of art itself. And in the usual manner of South Africa, these attitudes have been picked up and become fashion here. I do not want and, fortunately for me, don’t need any part of it.”
It is widely known that Hodgins achieved fame very late in his career and perhaps one reason for this was that he was so unimpressed by it.
As a researcher into local visual art, I am also a contributor to the catalogue. In a way, it is on fame that my own contribution also turned, although the specific focus of it was on the artist as journalist and art as reportage. At some time early in his career as both an artist and an art teacher, Hodgins decided to take a break from art and give attention to journalism.
Returning to art a few years later, his art displayed a very visible shift in approach and a piqued sense of awareness.
This to me was a reminder of another artist who bears similarities to Hodgins. Constantin Guys, the subject of Charles Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life, also achieved fame late. It was his sanguine depictions of Parisian street life that found the most appreciation and not his realistic war scenes that remained with him from his time as a war correspondent.
Human acts of terror
Hodgins was also a correspondent, although he was certainly not as exposed to the terror of war as Guys was. Nevertheless his work, especially post-journalism and post-Ubu, a series in which he collaborated with William Kentridge and Deborah Bell, assessing states of war and apartheid in South Africa, provides a visual historical analysis that is a critical evaluation of human acts of terror.
Works such as the two-part print series of 2007, And In Another Room, evinces this with its representation of torture scenes.
In another work, Oct-29, from 1994, he grapples with a different type of power — money — by casting an eye over the events of 1929 that led to the Great Depression.
But Hodgins’s assessment of power and its abuse is not simply limited to historical analysis. There is the sense of a timeless formula that enables this motif in his work, a reminder that events of the past are in many ways always lurking in the present.
Perhaps of great significance is the fact that Hodgins never declared for a particular style. This is evident in his later works. His prints, including those that were computer drawn, such as his 2007 No Title (purple face on red), from Moments of Madness, betray in many respects the same deliberateness of action that his paintings do.
It is not the ideal of beauty in the conventional sense that his work illustrates but an almost recognisable alternative way of seeing things.
Hodgins was — and is — it seems, proof of the often quoted (and abused) adage, “an artist’s artist”. Perhaps one could go further and say that he is an art historian’s or even an art lover’s artist, because most of his oeuvre bears testament to an artist who consistently found pleasure in expanding his own position. Rather than sticking to the tried and tested, Hodgins’s work is indicative of undying curiosity and a willingness to grow and broaden his perspective.
A Lasting Impression: The Robert Hodgins Print Archive is currently on exhibition at the Wits Art Museum until April 6. Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a masters student at the university’s history of art department