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Robert Griffiths Hodgins

Internationally celebrated as one of South Africa’s most extraordinary and compelling artists, Robert Giffiths Hodgins consistently receives enormous critical recognition and widespread popular appreciation. His life story and creative output have inspired students, artists and art lovers for nearly half a century, most emphatically in his dedication to the act of making representational paintings, and in his commitment to education.

Hodgins was born in 1920 in London, left school at the age of 14 to become a newspaper delivery boy, and immigrated to South Africa in 1938. War broke out, and after completing his matric Hodgins joined the Union Defence Forces in 1940. He describes his soldiering experiences as dreadful, but during his service in Kenya and Egypt he discovered for the first time people who took art seriously and who helped his secret passion for art and literature to flourish. In 1944 Hodgins returned to England and was discharged from military service a year later. He completed and Emergency Teacher-course in London in 1946 and taught in London’s East End while studying part-time at Goldsmiths College, London University. It was at this time, at the age of 26 and surrounded by much younger students, that Hodgins began painting and drawing for the first time. In 1950 he became a full-time student and in 1951 Hodgins was awarded and Arts and Crafts Certificate, followed by a National Diploma of Design (majoring in painting) in 1953.

Unable to find a job teaching art in England, Hodgins returned to South Africa and started lecturing in the School of Art at Pretoria Technical College (now Technikon Pretoria) in 1954. He won the New Young Artist Award at the Pretoria Centenary Exhibition that same year, and his first solo exhibition was two years later at the Lidchi gallery. He continued to exhibit regularly in Pretoria and Johannesburg until 1962 when he began working as a journalist and art critic for Newscheck magazine and the demands of deadlines interrupted his making.

Hodgins enjoys writing and his erudition is evident in the sharp wordplay of his titles, his irreverent wit, his subject matter and the many allusions in his work to literature. He leaped at the opportunity to return to teaching art four years later, when Heather Martienssen offered him a part-time post at Wits University. Appointed as full-time lecturer from 1967, he remained at the University until his retirement in 1983 when for the first time in his life, he became a full-time painter.

During the 17 years he taught painting, printmaking, art criticism and art theory at Wits, Hodgins inspired generations of students. Former students include Ruth Rosengarten, Tony Starkey, Terry King, Karel Nel, Joachim Schonfeldt, Jane Alexander, Ansel Krut, Deborah Bell, Neil Goedhals, Pamela Melliar and Mark Hipper, Many of whom have become internationally acclaimed artists. Many of his former students also became his friends and collaborators, and even after his retirement Wits students such as Kendell Geers and Hentie van der Merwe have continued to seek him out. Few artists experience the respect and admiration that Hodgins enjoys across the generational divide.

In an era in which forms of art such as abstract art, conceptual art, object art and new media art have claimed centre stage and the death of painting has been regularly proclaimed, Hodgins has steadfastly continued to exploit the expressive possibilities of the human body canvas. His paintings are often sinister, funny and poetic and he is widely acclaimed for his many interpretations of Ubu Roi, which belong to the most menacing - and humorous – depictions of power in our time. His work can both grotesque and poignant, illuminating human frailty and exposing the delusions of power in a glorious, confident, vibrant use of colour. During the 1980s he produced a significant body of memorable work containing ironic and hard-hitting but often oblique comment on the politics of apartheid, of which the threatening A Beast Slouches (with a reference to WB Yeats’ The Second coming) in the Wits Art Gallery collection is a prime example. His ongoing film and printmaking collaborations with William Kentridge and Deborah Bell have resulted in major projects such as Hogarth in Johannesburg, the Little Morals Series and Easing the Passing (of the Hours).

Although he had exhibited steadily for 30 years, it was really only after his retirement that Hodgins? career as an artist became an ongoing celebration of immense creativity, leading to the stellar status he currently enjoys. Central to his trajectory perhaps was the recognition inherent in the invitation to be the Guest Artist at the Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts in 1986, which launched a retrospective touring exhibition to all the major South African art Museums. A string of awards and sell-out exhibitions followed. Hodgins won the quarterly Mutual Life Vita Award Now Awards in 1986, 1990 and 1992, and was the overall winner in 1987, the year he first exhibited at the Goodman gallery, where his work could be seen regularly ever since. He was awarded the Helgard Steyn Award for painting in 1995, and was the Aardklop festival artist in Potchefstroom in 2001. This exhibition went on to travel to Stellenbosch, Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg in 2002 where it was hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand Art Galleries. Hodgins also has a growing international profile with increasingly frequent exhibitions in London and America. A major monograph on Hodgins’ was published by Tafelberg in 2002: a rare recognition of the importance of his work in the arid world of art publishing.

Robert Hodgins is extensively represented in major public art museums and corporate collections throughout South Africa, as well as private collections across the world. The Wits Art Galleries has significant holdings including several major paintings donated by the artist to the university where he has inspired so many by his work and teaching.

The University takes great pride and pleasure in conferring on Robert Griffiths Hodgins the degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa.