William Hodges turned the Pacific into an idealised Europe. If only he’d trusted his eyes, says Waldemar Januszczak
I can immediately prove Hodges was underendowed with both traits via a quick description of one of his supposed views of Tahiti, painted in 1776. Against a backdrop of huge mountains tall enough to be Alps, a band of fat, pink, naked nymphs has decided to go skinny-dipping in a river. One thrashes about heavily in the water, another contorts herself on the bank in the pose of a twisting classical river goddess: a classical river goddess with a very large arse. Who are they? Are they supposed to represent the natives? Why are they so brightly and Flemishly pink, when the real inhabitants of these shores are so beautifully and evenly golden? The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, a venue hard-wired to explore humanity’s central exploration impulse, is an excellent venue for this fascinating unveiling of Hodges’s heartbreaking shortcomings. As the first painter to visit Tahiti, and then India, he had an opportunity to make some of the most vivid and exciting art ever painted anywhere by anyone. But he fluffed it. He was, in the end, too much of a second-rate artist, too seriously infected by the civilisation worm, to give what was there a good looking-at. Sir David Attenborough, that quietly bubbling fountain of contemporary outdoor goodness, describes Hodges in the catalogue as “the most unjustly neglected British painter of the 18th century” and hopes that this compact retrospective of Hodges’s eventful career will right this wrong. It doesn’t. What the show proves instead is that Hodges, alas, deserves most of his neglect.
The exhibition is actually housed in the Queen’s House, an overrated piece of architecture, I have always felt, but nevertheless, as the very first classical building in England, completed in the 1630s, a site of real civilisational sig- nificance. Since the Queen’s House was converted back into a gallery, just recently, its compact and boxy interiors have proved to be a mysterious and lovely venue for art. Sure, you cannot always see clearly what’s there, but the bad lighting doesn’t diminish the inherent sense of importance boasted by these fine spaces. I find that knowing you are in England’s first Renaissance building gives any visit to the Queen’s House an extra charge. Certainly, it bigs up the William Hodges show and endows it with tons of added civilisational import. The gloom helps him out as well, bringing a kind of visual hush to the proceedings, and hiding some of his clunkiness in the shadows.
Hodges was born in London in 1744, the son of a blacksmith. When he was 14, he was apprenticed to the leading British landscape painter of the times, Richard Wilson, and from Wilson he learnt how to “correct” a landscape, to make it appear bigger, more sublime. It was the fashion of the age. Pure landscape wasn’t enough. A mania for improvement was whistling through every corner of the Enlightenment. Every landscape had to have something more grafted onto it, a larger meaning, a grander contrived mood.
Hodges learnt all this from Wilson and, unfortunately, never un-learnt it. When Cook set off on that remarkably brave search of his for the suspected southern continent, in 1772, Hodges was employed to accompany him and to provide pictures of what they encountered. He didn’t really do that. What he provided instead was a set of tremulous and sometimes silly imaginings that cast the South Pacific as a tropical outpost of the classical world and that used a vaguely Tahitian backdrop as the setting for some wonky views about the process of civilisation.
Although Hodges sketched with pencils and oils during the voyage itself — the best things in the show — most of his set-piece paintings were completed after he and Cook returned to England in 1775. They are, therefore, works of the European imagination. That’s their problem. Having been to Tahiti while making a film about Gauguin — who really did manage to capture the colours and moods and scale of these places so tangibly in his paintings — I simply don ’t recognise the Tahiti that Hodges proposes for us. His mountains are far too high and glacial, his rivers far too wide, his palm trees too tall and lonely, his air quality too northern. His colour schemes are plain wrong, too. These pale greens and greys and soft beiges are the colours of northern Italy, or even Switzerland. Where are the fierce yellows, the wild reds, the unmediated electric blues? When Hodges paints a wild sea roughing up a Pacific coast, it’s like Turner painting Scotland. The waves are the wrong scale. They pound the coast at rocky angles, when it’s sand that’s being bashed. When Hodges remembers a wide South Seas bay with canoes being rowed across it, he manages to make Tahiti feel exactly like Venice. Even a contemporary reviewer complained that Hodges painted the tropics in “Canaletti’s stil” (sic), which he does. His birds are the wrong colour and grotesquely wooden.
However, it’s the figures of the natives that he gets most wrong. They’re horrible. Buxom barmaids from Brussels seem to have posed for the fleshy pink girls, while the blokes are quite extraordinarily all-purpose and indistinct. In some views you see overweight prehistoric hunter-gatherers skulking about the shadows of the forest in a furtive manner designed to highlight their fake primitivism, while the ones manning the canoes seem to possess the body type and, indeed, the clothes sense of marsh Arabs. As an observer of international differences, Hodges is scarily unscientific.
His anthropological insights are worthy of the Black and White Minstrel Show.
There are good things as well — only a few, all of them done on the spot during the voyage rather than on his return. Some very strange rocky monoliths in a barren landscape turn out to be the first views of the giant heads of Easter Island, seen, unusually, from the back. Among the drawings, a spare and lonely Antarctic iceberg is such a remarkable sight that Hodges’s urge to record it immediately outweighs his need to improve it. The result is a radically simple image: just the iceberg and the water. If only he had shown this sort of pictorial courage in the main body of his work.
When he went to India for another three years, at the behest of the East India Company, he returned with even less that feels true. India seems to have struck him as a particularly grotty and crumbling outpost of the Roman empire. The light is the light of the Roman Campagna, while the omnipresent ruins are coated with an entirely un-Indian nicotine tar of melancholia. A once great civilisation is being accused of moral and physical degeneration. “I flatter myself with an influence that shall never be acknowledged,” he wrote in 1795, believing his art would result in “juster habits of Thought, and Conduct consequently improved”. The poor colonial fool.
Not that any of this should stop you seeing the show. Go tomorrow. Because Hodges’s failings are just as revelatory as his successes might have been. The exhibition dips us like lobsters into the boiling waters of European civilis- ational expansion during its heyday. Cook’s sensational Tahitian voyages are perfect displays of the West’s sense of superiority towards the East. We are watching a process that claims to be exploration, but which on this incontro- vertible visual evidence was actually driven by the mad impulse to colonise. That Hodges allowed himself to become so fully involved in this process is another sign of his essential weakness and proves why he wasn’t, in the end, a true enough artist.