Frances Hodgkins

Frances Hodgkins

Frances Hodgkins painting in her studio in Bowen Street, Wellington, circa 1905.

Hodgkins' Belgian Refugees (1916) is probably the second best-known image produced by a New Zealand artist during the First World War – after Horace Moore-Jones’ Private Simpson, D.C.M., & his donkey at Anzac (1918). When war broke out in August 1914, Hodgkins was teaching a summer art school in Concarneau, Brittany. Classes were abruptly disbanded and Hodgkins left for England, where she would remain until after the Armistice. Like many others, Hodgkins was initially enthusiastic about the prospect of war but quickly became disillusioned. On 15 October she wrote to her mother: ‘It has been a black week. The fall of Antwerp a great blow … The misery and horrors are too awful – Belgium is a mere skeleton of herself, two-thirds of her population are flocking to England, penniless and starving.’

Moved by their plight, Hodgkins made several studies of the Belgian people who had arrived in Britain, including Belgian Refugees. She was not alone. The German invasion and occupation of Belgium was a favourite subject of recruitment and fundraising posters made throughout the First World War by artists such as Frank Brangwyn and Louis Raemaekers. While it is unlikely that Hodgkins produced Belgian Refugees as explicit anti-German propaganda, the painting does provoke a strong emotional response. The agitated texture of the swirling background paintwork sets the forlorn family group in a pseudo-warzone environment. A prominent gap in the triangular composition highlights the lack of a father figure who may be away fighting for the freedom of Belgium or could have died during their escape. Empathy for the suffering of these displaced people is intensified by the pitiful haunted eyes of the little girl that stare directly out of the canvas to confront the viewer.

Hodgkins continued to be fascinated by refugee subjects after the war had ended, though the mood surrounding her interest became much more positive. Belgian Mother and Child, painted around 1920, shows a significant return to brighter tones, lighter brushwork and a style more closely associated with her prewar watercolours like the whimsical Summer of 1912.

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