Robert Hodgins (1920 – 2010), A Distant Connection, oil on canvas, 120 x 90 cm, 1994
Image: Courtesy Warren Siebrits and the Art of Collecting ©The artist(s) or the artist’s estate Robert Hodgins (1920 – 2010), A Distant Connection, oil on canvas, 120 x 90 cm, 1994

"If you see a picture and it doesn’t somehow minutely alter your vision of life, then either it is a bad picture, or you’re not looking properly," — Robert Rauschenberg

This month marks the 22nd anniversary of what many consider to be the greatest exhibition of paintings by the artist Robert Hodgins (1920 – 2010), which opened at the Goodman Gallery in Hyde Park on 1 March 1995 and ran for the entire month. The exhibition was sold out very early on and paintings from this exhibition were bought by collectors of stature and the Johannesburg Art Gallery. In 2001 I was fortunate enough to purchase back my first seminal painting from this exhibition and this work, titled 'Darkness Falls From the Air', formed part of my joint exhibition with Johans Borman, 'Aspects of South African Art 1', in September 2001.

Recently I was lucky to acquire my second seminal painting from this exhibition at the November Strauss & Co auction sale. Not only did Robert tell me how much he admired this particular work at the time but it was also chosen by him to illustrate a magazine article and a small ring-bound book dedicated to his finest recent work. To my surprise, Strauss & Co missed both of these important references, indicating that the owner of the painting had no knowledge of these crucial details either. In my mind this suggests that the work had change hands a number of times in the course of the passing years before being consigned to the auction house in 2016.

The two references were Art Ventilator, Issue # 1, September 1994 and the illusive self-published, ring bound, Robert Hodgins monograph published in 1996. Hodgins selected 'A Distant Connection' and four other works to illustrate a three page interview conducted with his dear friend Ivor Powell for Art Ventilator. The painting selected for the full page illustration at the beginning of the interview was 'Darkness Falls From the Air', which was also used to illustrate the exhibition poster published by the Goodman Gallery. The interview titled At the Scene of the Crime makes for essential reading for anyone interested in the deeper implications behind Hodgins' choice and use of imagery. Two quotes by Hodgins taken from this interview sum it up for me:

"One thing one has always done is fought against middle-class loftiness...that all human nature is fundamentally evil and what can you do about it."

and

"I’ve been working with businessmen in suits. Now what are those suits? Are they protection, are they coats of armour, are they camouflage, are they sexual devices to show they’re successful? What are those suits really."

Having read this interview several times it has always been amusing, even after all these years, to see who ends up vying after these particular businessman 
paintings and where they are positioned in the homes or offices of collectors (almost always men as it happens). Of course many of these collectors are the last to realise that the status symbol they have paid so much for, is actually a parody of everything they hold dear, when thinking in terms of ego, status and power. This is what is meant by the artist with the loaded brush, for what you think you see and what is actually there are two different things entirely in Hodgins’s universe, which often retains a marvellous sense of humour, sometimes bordering on the sardonic.

In 1996 Hodgins collaborated with Sue Glanville of The Project Room to make a 32 page ring-bound book simply titled 'Robert Hodgins', illustrating what the artist considered at the time, to be 20 of his best paintings. The selection was made by Hodgins across a 12 year period from the time of his retirement in 1984. Again 'A Distant Connection' is illustrated, this time across a full page in colour, with the following quote by Hodgins referring to the work:

"I would like to pursue this open door idea...the idea of the door that opens into...what? Hell. Heaven. Nothing. Space. Negation. I very much want to pursue the notion of something absurd to the point of being slightly threatening happening into a picture that is otherwise fairly explicable."

The illusive self-published, ring bound, Robert Hodgins monograph published in 1996 which illustrates what the artist considered to be his best 20 paintings. A Distant Connection is illustrated full page in colour (see plate 17)
The illusive self-published, ring bound, Robert Hodgins monograph published in 1996 which illustrates what the artist considered to be his best 20 paintings. A Distant Connection is illustrated full page in colour (see plate 17)

He told me at the time that 'A Distant Connection' was about a sinister space, a space where bad men did bad things to other men, an interrogation space. With the dawning of a new era in South Africa, post April 1994 when this worked was created, it was now a space in the mind and hands of an artist, who saw it tinged with mild optimism as the ghosts of the past literally began receding into the walls. Two doors and a window are open, letting fresh air and light into a place, where there had only been darkness. Slowly the old vestiges of a bankrupt ideology were, quite literally, being swept away.

This work was one of the first he completed in a body of over 40 paintings that were on exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in March 1995. One knows this because it is dated 1994, whereas the majority of the works from this exhibition that are documented are either dated 1994-95 or 1995. Hodgins was notorious for painting most of his works just months, or sometimes even weeks before an exhibition opening, with his creative process catalysed by the pressure of self-imposed time constraints.

As Hodgins said in an interview with Sue Williamson during the mid eighties that was first published in Resistance Art in South Africa in 1989:

"The terrible crime of the Nationalist government is they’ve committed us to 300 years of counter- violence and counter-counter-violence...reflected by the guy who only knows one way to organise his life – direct brutal action...Interesting that it is always the left who produces great art – never the right. The right is just as much in turmoil yet nothing comes out. They don’t realise they are making history whereas the left do."

'A Distant Connection' might have been painted 22 years ago by a then largely unknown artist in a newly formed and fledgling democracy. However, with the aid of hindsight, one gets the idea, with the western world being plunged into a right wing spiral thanks largely to the 'Orange Man across the Atlantic', that the message and connections being made by the artist, are now more relevant than ever, if humanity is to avert another wave of intense counter-violence as a result of blind nationalistic and patriotic imperatives.


For more information about these works please email the author at enquiries@warrensiebrits.co.za

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