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The Rise of Robert Hodgins

When you think of Robert Hodgins, you are reminded of the artist, the expressionist, a man who earned the kind words his friends remember him with. Spending much of his life as a “working” man, he left his position as a Senior Lecturer at Wits to become a full-time artist.

Hodgins had done a number of exhibits from as early as the 50’s, even though his work was only recognised in 1981. Living in apartheid-South Africa, he used his art to make anti-apartheid statements. This was a trend followed by many artists. He particularly enjoyed satirizing figures of power. These expressions had a major impact on the social climate of South Africa. In response to this Standard Bank National Arts Festival hosted a major retrospective exhibition in 1986.

Robert Hodgins had quite a remarkable rise from his days of teaching painting and drawing in Pretoria to the much loved South African artist he became towards the end of his life. His biography reads like a novel, an inquiring artist who made his way through life and became an accomplished artists towards the end.

Some of his earliest works include “Hidden Man” which he produced during his time at Pretoria Technical College; he actually made his own frame for that painting. “Man with a Cup” made its way to the Gertrude Possel Gallery, Hodgins’ work at the time was characterised by dark lines and sombre line work.

Art and politics are an unlikely combination, but in the 80s Hodgins used art to cut to the bone of inequality. (photo credit:,,
Art and politics are an unlikely combination, but in the 80s Hodgins used art to cut to the bone of inequality.
(photo credit:,,

The early 1980s saw the arrival of the iconic Ubu character in Hodgins work. Ubu Roi was a character from one of  Alfred Jarry’s stories. Ubu became a central figure of Robert Hodgins’ art, especially during the 80s, when so much of his work was focussed on depicting the social wrongs of the day. In “Ubu and Mr America”, a dreamy-eyed Ubu, painted in a series of lines, swirls and flat planes of colour gazes lustfully at muscular bodybuilder. In contrast, the Mr America figure is painted with warm colours and textured with fine indentations, like the pores of human skin.

This was the real Robert Hodgins, the artist who was not content with the status quo, but chose to use his expression as a voice against injustice. He started building a loyal following, not only because he made a statement, but because he spoke their language.

Robert Hodgins: The Optimistic Old Sod

The life of Robert Hodgins does not just lie in his art, almost more importantly it lies in the hearts of those close to him. He is described by some as an expressionistic painter and others label him as a graphic artist. Regardless of where he fits, Hodgins’ art makes him a much loved figure in the history books of South African art.

Robert Hodgins was born in Dulwich, London. His earliest encounters with art woud be from his childhood; it has been noted that many of the city’s fine galleries became his hideout during the cold winters in his home city. He went on to finish his schooling career in England before immigrating to South Africa. As a young adult he joined the Union Defence Force and served in various African countries before returning to England where he was discharged at the end of the second World War.

The life of Robert Hodgins, marked with an honest interpretation of life around him.
The life of Robert Hodgins, marked with an honest interpretation of life around him. (photo credit: ,,

He spent the first few years of his post-military life studying teaching and art. After returning to South Africa in the mid-fifties, he embarked on a career as a teacher and journalist, culminating in the position of Assistant Editor at “Newsweek” and later on filling the position of Senior Lecturer in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Witwatersrand. The university was probably his last employer and ushered in the start of his career as an artist.

Robert Hodgins is revered among his peers, most notably by the South African conceptual artist, Kendell Geers who paid tribute to Hodgins with the following words: “Very few artists command the respect and admiration of their peers in the way Robert Hodgins does, a reverence often verging on cult status.”

Join us for part two as we explore is life as an artist.

Irma the Rebel, Irma the Red

Letters from the Artist 

Absolut Art Gallery - Irma Stern's Letters

Irma Stern is perhaps the absolute epitome of South Africa’s presence within the European movement of avant garde. (Read her biography here.)

As promised, we’re going to be looking at Irma Stern’s letters and how they revealed a dislocated and magnificent turbulence of the heart — reminiscent of Van Gogh’s experience of life, love, art and identity.
Stern’s identity can perhaps painted as a dichotomy of black and white, torn as she was between her deep identification with the Africa of her birth, and her European heritage as a German Jew.

This prolific letter writer was (in a sweet serendipity) born in a post office, deep in the Northern Province of South Africa. When she was three years old, her father was incarcerated by the British for his pro-Boer perspectives, and Stern’s mother whisked her two young children away to Germany until his release. With the explosion of World War 1, the family returned to Germany yet again, where Stern confessed to having felt trapped, cloistered, claustrophic and dislocated.

“… this divided upbringing leaves one with the feeling of belonging to nowhere.” 

Upon returning more definitively to South Africa as her true home, Stern’s avant garde Expressionism caused an uproar across the country, with a police investigation triggered by charges of alleged immorality surrounding her 1922 exhibition. Nothing, however, could break this strong woman’s fierce and passionate independence, and she diligently transgressed the conservative cliches of what it meant to be an artist and woman in South Africa. She travelled prolifically. She worked like a man. And in her own words:

“My appearance is that of a well-dressed lady, but inwardly I run more and more wild.”  

With a dogged ferocity that was then considered unfeminine, she closed herself up in her studio – coffee and cigarettes her only sustenance – and worked for days. She ran her business solely on her own: framing her paintings, packaging them and arranging sales. However, beneath this almost rebellious strength, was a highly sensitive, compassionate and humble heart which carried within itself raw wounds of pain, tragedy and grief. Excerpts from letters to her friends paint an emotionally evocative picture of her.
To her friend Max Pechstein, she wrote:

“You have made me so contented, so eager to work and happy, with a few words you cast down all the dark hours of despair and inner conflict.”  And after her first solo show: “I really can’t tell you over the telephone how grateful I am to you for all the good things you have done for me! I am truly always aware of it – how wonderfully you have helped me along – how you showed me what is true and good in my work and what is empty phrasing, and then how you have helped me with other people, have smoothed the path for me. For I know what human impediments you have cleared from my way through your interest in my work!”

(In a tender gesture of grateful reciprocation, Stern sent Pechstein food parcels during the war.)

After the war, she vowed never to return to Germany, writing to her childhood friend, Trude Bosse, 

“I have buried the past … It hurts more than one thinks. A country, its well-disposed people – all of this into a mass grave. Everything that comes from Germany is like a bygone century to me, like the echo of a sunken world.”

Art historians and theorists have judged, some harshly  and some more compassionately, Stern’s character, identity and heart – like Neville Dubow and Marion Arnold who said Stern was “quite highly talented, though sexually frustrated, emotionally drained, humanely ambivalent, politically disinterested and suspect.” And that her work was “the vent of a physically unattractive, unloved and unhappy woman” Perhaps more realistically, German curator Irene Below acknowleged Stern as “a sensitive, acutely observant, qualified artist who, from childhood, came to grips with her life and her experiences in two extremely different worlds.” 

Her boldly vibrant and exuberant colours antithetically mirror her dirtier, mournful colours  — like a self-portrait. Unlike her South African and European contemporaries who painted portraits of themselves in abundance (like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gaugin and Frida Kahlo) Stern declined. Why? 

We’ll be talking about this enigma of a woman on our Facebook page – and would love to hear what you think the answer might be. Click here to join the conversation!



  • Google “Beyond Black and White: Rethinking Irma Stern by Claudia B Braude” for deeper insights into Irma Stern’s life and work.
  • And click here to read more about her by acclaimed UCT art academic, Clive Kellner.