During his military service in Egypt during WW2, Hodgins encountered the work of George Grosz in a millionaire’s library in Alexandria. It challenged his assumptions about art, although it was only much later, in the 1980s, that Hodgins synthesised the influence of Weimer-period German expressionism (1919-33) into his painting. Shunning his own “idolatry of Paris”, Hodgins found in Grosz and Otto Dix methods and solutions for rendering fitful times in painted image.
Commenting on what excited him about these artists, Hodgins defined it as the “atmosphere of insecurity, of uncertainty, of defiance,” and how this influenced their choice of scenarios and forms.1
Hodgins directly connected the “ruthlessness” of Weimer Germany to apartheid South Africa. His vehicle for expressing this ruthlessness was Ubu, a character borrowed from playwright Alfred Jarry, whom Hodgins used to explore themes of corruption, militarism and tyranny. His preferred Ubu archetypes were generals, lawyers, hangmen and politicians.2
In the 1980s Hodgins produced a series of portraits of hangmen, including The Hangman with the Hare Lip (1985-86), currently on view at the Javett Art Centre UP. Later in his career Hodgins shifted his focus from executioner to audience, perpetrator to witness. Indictment and mystery coincide in this work. What terrible spectacle compels these purple and brown hominids isolated in a tiled room?
1. Ivor Powell (1984) ‘One of my own fragments: An interview with Robert Hodgins’, in De Arte 31. Page 38.
2. Rory Doepel (1997) Ubu: +-101, William Kentridge, Robert Hodgins, Deborah Bell, Johannesburg: French Institute of South Africa and the Art Galleries, University of the Witwatersrand. Page 49.