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: timeslive.co.za, artnet.com, artvalue.com)
Art and politics are an unlikely combination, but in the 80s Hodgins used art to cut to the bone of inequality.
(photo credit: timeslive.co.za, artnet.com, artvalue.com)

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.