"Paintings can be one-night stands or lifetime love affairs - you never know until you get cracking."
Robert Hodgins's work hangs in private collections and important galleries including MoMA. I spoke to some of the people who were his adopted family and knew him best in the small South African town of White River, which was the closest thing to a hometown he ever had.
In 1938 he was offered a job of sorts with a relative in South Africa. He sprang at the chance to widen his horizons. Apart from some to-and-fro for military service and studies, he would return to spend the rest of his life in South Africa working as an art lecturer, journalist, and critic. In the Fifties he took up a teaching position at the Pretoria Technical College School of Art. He spoke of it as "a golden time." At last, he belonged among a milieu of like-minded people "Who lived well, were healthy and tanned." He struck up a friendship with a fellow lecturer, Zakkie Eloff, who rose to prominence as a wildlife painter. Their lifelong friendship became central to Hodgins' life.
In 1958, 19-year-old Rene van Zyl was a First Year student in Hodgins' painting class. Now an elderly artist living in the Lowveld region of South Africa, she recalls, "He was terribly intellectual. He was very knowledgeable and could talk about anything from Dickens and Shakespeare to current affairs, films, anything."
Far from eroding the friendship between the two men, the marriage expanded to accommodate it. Eloff recounts, "He sort of came on honeymoon with us." Coert Steynberg, the great South African sculptor, was a contemporary and also a mutual friend, had lent the newlyweds a cottage on his farm near Vaalwater northwest of the capital.
"It was beautiful. Simple. There was a hot spring with wild ginger growing all around. The cottage was one big, open room with a big bed at each end and a fireplace. About ten days into our holiday we went to buy supplies at the Pretoria market. I remember we bought these great big juicy watermelons. As we were leaving town I spotted Robert at a bus stop. He was dressed from head to foot in black and was hunched over looking completely miserable."
The newlyweds pulled up in their green VW Beetle. Eloff wound down the window and called, "Robert! What on earth is the matter? At which he leapt to his feet and dived past me through the window. He planted himself on the back seat and said, 'where are we going?"
They drove straight back to the farm, stopping only to buy the gatecrasher a pair of shorts and a toothbrush. For the rest of her honeymoon Rene was woken very early each morning by "A figure wreathed in clouds of cigarette smoke paced impatiently up and down, eager for us to get up so we could all go off and do something together."
This was the impulsive, exuberant Hodgins his friends remember. I chatted to Rene Eloff in the home she and Zakkie built on the outskirts of White River, a small town near the Kruger National Park. The house shoulders into the indigenous bush giving magnificent views towards the Mozambique horizon. The subtropical climate and colours of the region appealed to Hodgins. After the couple settled here his visits became frequent events in which he combined intense episodes of work punctuated by flamboyant forays onto the local social scene. His infectious enthusiasm and irreverent humour made him a popular guest. "He always wore a cravat, drank martinis - shaken not stirred - and snatched at any opportunity to boogie. I think we were his family. He was always looking for a place to belong."
Robert Hodgins 1920 – 2010