‘I think there’s something of a split personality … outside the studio, I think I’m not much: a cheery bloke, full of anecdotes and jokes, wise saws and modern instances, light and agreeable on the palate. But the painter in his studio: altogether something else. As alert and bright-eyed as a ferret down a burrow, tense lest he lose a twitch, failure-anxious, even success-anxious. At the same time, to mix metaphors and go back to where we started, an old man concentrating as he fingers his string of beads … ‘ (Robert Hodgins interviewed by Robert Hodgins 2002:31)
‘I feel as though I sweated this exhibition rather than having consciously created it,’ Robert Hodgins declared at the exhibition, Watercolours 2009, on Saturday 7 November 2009 at Gallery Art on Paper (AOP), 44 Stanley Avenue, Johannesburg.
‘I often work on as many as four artworks at a time. I wander off and do some gardening, chores or cooking, back and forth. When I begin to have a sense of where a work will lead me, I begin the process of developing it,’ he explained.
Pure energy radiated from Robert Hodgins’ keen sky-blue eyes. There was little to suggest that the spirited man with the craggy face and ready, jagged smile was in his ninetieth year. Framed in his light brown shirt over an ochre T-shirt and comfortable corduroy trousers, the agile Hodgins seemed to defy age. He darted from group to group captivating his audience with infectious enthusiasm and humour.
I was joined at the exhibition by art loving friends and before long Hodgins began expounding on his life and work, mesmerising us with his anecdotes. He was clearly delighted that the exhibition was sold out before his arrival for the 11.00 opening, but mindful that some of his supporters may have been disappointed that they failed to acquire a work.
‘Please will you tell me about a work that I find particularly intriguing?’ I urged. Quick as a flash we swooped across the room and were stationed in front of a small watercolour, Untitled 27. He generously elucidated on the development of the watercolour and how the pencil work on the woman’s face marked her beginnings, before the menacing male character began to emerge. The resignation and pervasive pathos of the female character is unsettling and is further accentuated by the intense black and signature emerald wash of her dress. The predatory male figure is cast in paler green hues but, as the artist suggested, it is unclear whether either or both characters are predatory. Hodgins adds to the disquiet of the scene by swathing both figures in a glowing red bleed, insinuating a violent undercurrent. One of the major strengths of the watercolour lies in the manner in which it has been stripped down to a few essential lines and colours.
Hodgins seized upon the theatrical quality of the setting possibly playing out in a public house and dramatically bathes the entire scene in a golden hue emanating from four overhead stage lights. The theatrical effect is further affected by the outlines of the proscenium. Hodgins remained intrigued with the theatre since a school outing to the West End in London to see Henry V. This experience gave the young Hodgins his first inkling that is there is something magical, rich and strange that has no obvious purpose ‘like a pair of shoes’. At once he knew that this ‘something’ exists beyond the everyday and is a powerful and wonderful thing.
He would later recognise this undefined realm as art. This moment of discovery in the theatre would shape much of his life and eventually set him on the path of an artist. He recalled how as a young newspaper delivery boy in London he was able to come up with the nine pence for the cheapest seat in the Old Vic theatre. The two and six charged at the New Theatre was however beyond his means. He was nevertheless enthralled to encounter on his rounds some of theatre’s greats such Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peter Ustinov, and many more, leaving or arriving at the theatre or frequenting actors’ hangouts.
I have to wonder whether this work is indicative of Hodgins’ view of the relationship between his mother and his father as, without pause, he transported us to his inauspicious beginnings. Sadly Hodgins never knew his father, and he tells us that his mother was not particularly forthcoming with the circumstance of his conception. In his early twenties, after some considerable persuasion, he established that his biological father was a married Canadian, father of two, who had stayed behind in Britain after World War I – and ‘some canoodling obviously took place’. Already having one family to support he would rather that his mother’s pregnancy be terminated. To a remark that we are delighted that his mother decided to keep her child, Hodgins’ moment of solemnity instantly dissolved and he retorted with gusto, ‘And so am I!’
Hodgins related how his working class mother lived with a lesbian lover and that he was placed in foster care at a very young age. At the time foster parents could claim 10 shillings a month for each child in their care. He was sent off to live in the country and fondly recalls this period with a caring family as a happy and carefree time exploring the English countryside.
Meals in the country were sparse and one of his most endearing memories is when the family purchased a live rabbit for sixpence. Skinned and cleaned, the animal was transformed into the most delicious rabbit pie he has ever eaten. He was never again able to recapture the taste, texture and smell of that mouth watering pie.
Young Rob’s stay in the country was rapidly terminated when his mother felt that the foster family had become too close to the young boy – and particularly as they had made overtures to adopt him. She responded by returning him to the city.
Hodgins was emphatic that there is no such thing as coincidence. One day on a railway station platform in London waiting for a train he was struck by a name on a signboard advertising the engineering firm that had built the line. It was his father’s name. He went to the local library and made some enquiries but it would emerge that the man in question would have been too old to have fathered Hodgins. He was then referred to a dingy Dickensian legal office where some details and the whereabouts of his actual father and relatives were located. Sadly his father had died three years earlier. Hodgins wrote to the family and they compassionately offered some form of compensation to his mother. She, however, was outraged that he had betrayed her and gone behind his back to make contact with the family of the man who left her in the lurch. For the time being he let the matter drop, but not in his artistic expression.
The theme of the predatory male remains a recurring one in Hodgins’ work, and is present in many of the 48 works that were on view. The figurative watercolours, often with faces not fully defined, resemble ‘visual versions of stream of consciousness’. They encapsulate the sinister, yet smug, pinstriped master of the financial universe with his animal-like features; the solitary male or female; a couple on a park bench or two or three characters poignantly interacting in a scene – often stripped bare rendering them vulnerable and exposed.
The relationship between Hodgins’ characters is frequently ambivalent, leaving us wanting to know more about the individuals. The scenes are executed with an extraordinary deftness and economy of line and colour in a typically unpredictable medium, the watercolour.
Yet he managed to create a series of watercolours that ‘culminate in a calamity of seemingly clumsy bodies all of whom exhibit a wry sense of humour and self-irony, as well as a quiet dignity’.
A week later I returned to purchase an exhibition catalogue and Hodgins was seated in a comfortable chair in the gallery, sipping coffee and signing the publication. Hodgins claimed that he was recovering from ‘flu and his effervescent spirit remained undiminished. He declared that his ‘temporary illness is a damn bore.’ Ever alert and interested, he wanted to know all about me and my imminent graduation – and made me promise to get a copy of my research report to him.
Sadly Robert Hodgins passed away with ‘quiet dignity’ on Monday 15 March 2010. His joie de vivre will be missed by all whose lives he touched.
 Fraser, Sean (Ed.) 2002. Robert Hodgins.Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town
 Wilhelm van Rensburg. Watercolours 2009 Gallery AOP and Robert Hodgins, Johannesburg
 As above