Before he died, Robert Hodgins donated some 400 prints from his personal collection to the Wits University art archives. He was inextricably linked to Wits, and A Lasting Impression, which opened at WAM in Johannesburg, reflects on both his work as a prolific printmaker, and his long connection to what is now the Wits Art Museum.
Hodgins’ work in print is like his painting – bold and experimental. His mixing of different techniques results in rich and dynamic prints, whose layers of ink and mark-making mirror his layers of meaning. Hodgins saw printing as a space to experiment, and test ideas and techniques. He also revelled in the element of surprise that exists between the finished plate and the first print. This is apparent in his prints, which embrace the chance and the unexpected, which is also an artistic response to life. Hodgins was always experimenting with new and different ways to better depict and represent the people who became his subjects.
His work has a sardonic wit to it that stems from his lifelong fascination with the human being as subject. His subjects are carefully nuanced caricatures that embody aspects of the human condition. This makes them immediately associable, but often in an unsettling way. Despite the bold and mostly bright colours, many of Hodgins’ subjects are dubious in nature, reflecting the more sinister side of life.
Over the decades, Hodgins developed a kind of visual code for the subjects he depicted. His generals, which are a favourite character, are undermined by their own uniforms, which rather than validating, ridicule in stead. This is continued in the pin-stripped double-breasted suit that appears in so many of his prints: He called this another kind of ‘armour’, replacing the military regalia to become the uniform worn by fat businessmen and politicians.
Hodgins was greatly influenced by silent movies, where a tension of meaning hung between image and text. This became a preoccupation in his work, often being the fulcrum on which his humour and irony turned an often acerbic screw.
Like the author Spike Milligan, Hodgins makes his most poignant critiques on society through humour, which is all the more sobering.