10 Questions with Mary Kisler


Q1: You’ve spent the last four years in the footsteps of Frances Hodgkins. In Europe you’ve eaten at some of the restaurants and cafes she ate at, stayed at the same hotels. Indeed, as you worked towards the big Auckland Art Gallery show and this book, you’ve spent so much time in her company that sometimes you must also have dreamt about her. So tell us, who was she?

Of course one can never say who someone is, really, but I do feel I have a much greater understanding of aspects of her character, as well of the way her painting continued to evolve, through this experience. Sometimes when you research someone you end up admiring them, but perhaps not really liking them, whereas I feel I would have loved Hodgkins, with all her quirks and idiosyncrasies, had I met her, as have so many researchers who have looked at aspects of her life and work.


Q2: Why is she such an important figure in New Zealand art?

She is of major importance, not only because she remains today perhaps our most famous expatriate artist, but also because she was a role model for artists, both in regard to her determination to be professional, whatever the cost, and because her evolving style of painting gave younger artists a sense of the modern revolution that had taken place in Europe.


Q3: And course she is significant well beyond New Zealand, isn’t she?

She’s significant because of her place in British art, and for the fact she was the first professional woman watercolour teacher in Paris, at Académie Colarossi, but what I’ve also loved about this project is that in so many of those villages (and they were mostly villages), the locals were delighted to see her paintings and proud that their locales had inspired her.


Q4: Your fondness and respect for her is palpable in this book. How so?

At a personal level, she reminds me intensely of my three favourite maiden aunts, who were highly independent, and although not artistic in a painterly sense, were obsessed with learning, literature and the world at large. Equally, as I’ve travelled with her letters as my companion, I’ve delighted in her descriptions of what she saw in all those places she travelled to. Travelling hasn’t changed much, in some ways, in that places are often better in retrospect, once we’ve forgotten the heat or cold, the uncomfortable beds, the language difficulties and the unfamiliar food. However, most of us just come home with a few holiday snaps and perhaps the odd bit of pottery, whereas everything Hodgkins saw fed into her creative life, this great memory bank of places and objects, sights and sounds that then coalesced on her canvases.


Q5: If she were alive now she would be getting support through arts grants and fellowships and the like. They didn’t exist in her day, and it seems a miracle that she got by, doesn’t it?

It think it took enormous courage and determination to do what she did, and often it took its toll on her physically and emotionally. Her rewards, however, were enormous, for she lived to see herself admired and respected in Britain, even if it took a bit longer for New Zealand to embrace her own particular form of modernism. And I cannot stress enough how grateful I am for the assistance that I have been given, in particular the Stout Trust, but also the Decorative and Fine Arts Society of New Zealand and NZ–UK Link. And the wonderful companions I have had on various parts of my journeys.


Q5: What’s one new thing you learnt about her when researching for the exhibition and the book?

Goodness, where do I start? I think in particular, I have become so much more aware of how the south of France, and later Spain, were real turning points in her approaches to form, but I’ve also been constantly reminded of both her sense of humour, and her empathy with younger artists, writers, composers – anyone striving to find their place creatively. While much has been made of the support, both financial and emotional, provided by friends and admirers, I’ve developed a much keener sense of the mentoring role she played in their lives.


Q6: What did you want to achieve with this book?

Firstly, I wanted to share with people the more hidden side of Hodgkins, but also to demonstrate just how important locations were to her constantly evolving work. I think it was Colin McCahon who once said that most artists have ten good years – well, that certainly wasn’t true for Frances Hodgkins. But also I hope I’ve been able to give a sense of this exciting and sometimes dramatic creative milieu of which she was a part.


Q7: You have been studying her for years. Why are you so drawn to her work?

It has always resonated with me, just as the writing of Katherine Mansfield has, and I’ve just been enormously privileged to have the opportunities I have had to explore this aspect of her career. I can’t remember exactly when I became aware of her work, but I was very lucky to have May Smith as my art teacher, and I sometimes wonder if it was she who first made me aware of Hodgkins. Certainly, Smith (or Mrs Hardcastle, as she was known at that time) taught us all how important and revolutionary modernism was.


Q8: Working on a major exhibition, its catalogue and this book all at the same time – exhausting?

My husband sometimes mocks me, comparing me to the character Yosser, in Boys from the Black Stuff. Constantly on the lookout for work, he often said, ‘Give us a job ... I can do that’. So ‘exhausting’ is possibly an understatement ... but as Hodgkins said near the end of her life, ‘Show me a train and I have to get on ...’


Q9: What’s your go-to remedy when the going gets tough?

I go back to her works, again and again, and they immediately transport me to those wonderful places she travelled to, and how rewarding the whole experience has been.


Q10: What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished reading a book by Virginia Nicholson, called Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900–1939. Pretty much everything I’ve read for the last six years, more or less, has been either about or around Hodgkins, and I never tire of it. I’m still waiting for a book about Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines to arrive – too late to learn more for this book, however.