Published  27/07/2006

Howard Hodgkin

Howard Hodgkin

Tate Britain, London
14 June-10 September 2006

My subject matter is simple and straightforward. It ranges from views through windows, landscapes, even occasionally a still-life, to memories of holidays, encounters with interiors and art collections, other people, other bodies, love affairs, sexual encounters and emotional situations of all kinds, even including eating …
(Howard Hodgkin)

Tate Britain is celebrating the career of Howard Hodgkin this summer. Regarded as one of the most important artists in Britain, Hodgkin at once pleases and perplexes his audience and critics alike. Notoriously reserved in discussing his work, Hodgkin succeeded in frustrating Alan Yentob in his BBC profile of the artist, by being almost mute. According to Nick Serota, who has curated the exhibition to span the career of the painter, Hodgkin does not get the recognition he deserves. Serota pointed out that Hodgkin missed out on recognition in the 1960s because his work did not fit into any of the categories popular at the time.

Serota admitted that critics have not always got on with Hodgkin's art. 'We have a habit in this country that when people become celebrated by the public the critics often slightly turn against them so the reviews are quite mixed.' The exhibition is part of the series by Tate Britain to represent the work of, 'senior British artists of exceptional significance' and follows Lucian Freud in 2002, Bridget Riley in 2003 and Anthony Caro in 2005. The new publication, Writers on Howard Hodgkin, published to coincide with the exhibition, however, gathers the responses to his work of a selection of leading novelists, travel writers, critics and poets. According to the publisher, Hodgkin's 'interest in attempting to capture and recreate moments of time and the fleeting impressions resulting from human interactions makes his approach in some ways more akin to that of the writer than the traditional painter. Perhaps for this reason his work has always had a resonance for those whose medium is primarily literary rather than visual'.1 In his review of Hodgkin, Christopher Reid observes:

Smallness of scale, which nowadays means domestic, has tempted a number of commentators to disparage Hodgkin as a latter-day Omega Workshop bibeloteur. Being related to Roger Fry and having a studio in Bloomsbury probably haven't helped, but the put-down is facile and misleading. Not only is he vastly more skilful than either Fry, Vanessa Bell, or Duncan Grant, but his understanding of what painting, can, and should do exceeds theirs as well. So what, then, if individual pieces happen to remind us of decorated tea-trays, mariners' chests, or biscuit tins?2

There is, nonetheless, a parallel Englishness that links Hodgkin to the Bloomsbury artists, via the literariness of English academics and artists. Further, Roger Fry, the art critic, was a cousin of Hodgkin and his sister Margery was an encouraging friend to Hodgkin as a boy. He remembers visiting the Fry's house, which was filled with furniture from the Omega Workshop. The extension of Hodgkin's painting onto the picture frame has a connection to the extension of painting by the Bloomsbury artists onto objects, furniture and walls. In spite of his following and his unique status in the British art world, this is the first exhibition of Howard Hodgkin's work that spans his entire career, bringing together 64 of his evocative and brilliantly colourist paintings from the 1950s to the present day, making it possible to trace the evolution of his vocabulary.

Born in 1932, Hodgkin studied in London and Bath. He first exhibited in 1960 and has gained recognition since that time. He was a Trustee of the Tate Gallery and the National Gallery, London. He represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1984 and won the Turner Prize in 1985. He was appointed CBE in 1977 and was knighted in 1992. In the 60s, he painted portraits of friends and interiors. By the mid-70s he was using the wooden panel and frame, defining and emphasising painting as object. By the 1990s, his work was looser and more gestural. A group of Venetian paintings from the 1980s and new works have not been exhibited before. Hodgkin insists that he has, now at 73, more painterly energy than ever.

Scale is a central issue with Hodgkin. In December 1990, a British Council Travelling Exhibition was 'Small Paintings 1975-1989'. In 2002, he exhibited 'Large Paintings 1984-2002'. The latter consisted of 20 large paintings produced over two decades, for which a small catalogue with excellent essays by Robert Rosenblum was produced. Director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Richard Calvacoressi pointed out that while Hodgkin's pictures are immediately recognisable, they do not hang easily together. The exhibition of small paintings in 1990 was hung so that each painting had its own wall, thus enabling it to be viewed in a self-contained situation. In the 2002 exhibition, the walls were painted a dark colour to create a space that is 'more amorphous, less immediately defined'. On the question of scale, Calvacoressi notes:

With small paintings he does not have to worry so much about the picture surface: 'It's easy to make a window, a hole in the wall, into which the viewer can look'. With large, human-scale paintings, Hodgkin is still trying to give the illusion of 'a space that is a box - a notional interior', but he also feels it is vital to manipulate the picture surface and the architecture of the painting in such a way that the viewer can relate to it piecemeal as well as seeing the whole thing.3

Hodgkin admits to only being able to manage a large picture space in the past ten years or so: 'You have to keep the picture surface alive "all over", in a way that you don't with smaller paintings. You can't pretend the picture surface isn't there on a large scale'.4 Hodgkin's working methods are not typical. Paintings sometimes take years to complete. He works out many aspects of a large painting in his mind - there are few preliminary works, few props or aide-memoire. Hodgkin works in an all-white studio in Bloomsbury without windows or a live model. He carries with him an extensive knowledge of other artists' work. He believes that the media-dominated culture in which we live is prompting a return to the lasting values of painting.

Working from his memory and imagination, he makes images evoking the transitoriness of life, in which forms are ambiguous, blurred, disintegrating. While the source for this may be autobiographical, private feelings are transmuted into archetypal pictorial statements through the impersonality of the artist's marks and brushstrokes.4

Recent paintings such as 'Undertones of War' (2001-03) have the immediate feel of drawing in paint on wood. The painting is extended onto the frame, which is characteristic of his work:

These frames seem to compress and intensify the pictorial drama within their boundaries. The drama, in fact, is almost literal, since the frames immediately set up theatrical expectations, like prosceniums behind which events or emotions unfold. And the play performed before our eyes is always so alive, so startlingly present that these fictional frames seem to respond in turn. Both inner and outer edges blur and heave, merging with what is taking place on Hodgkin's pictorial stage, elusive images of encounters and memories, both passionate and gentle, whose potency can dissolve any efforts to fix them forever in a rectangular box.5

The interaction between canvas or wood and frame continues the dialogue within time. Created over a long period, Hodgkin's pictures reflect 'the flux of life and memory'. The remembrance of things past - a Proustian experience, is here created in visual terms, supported notionally by titles such as 'Rain' (1984-89) 'Gardening' (1963) or 'Italy' (1998-2002) or 'Memories of Max' (1991-95). It is difficult to imagine how Hodgkin can allude to a particular 'Dinner in Palazzo Albrizzi' (1984-88) over five years; the juxtaposition of specific personal images, formal painterly considerations, fleeting moments. Rosenblum describes it beautifully:

Their intimacy and their focus on fleeting experiences remembered are basic to their visual drama. We are in the world of diary rather than a full-length autobiography, of a short story rather than a novel ... The heaviness and width of Hodgkin's fictional frames contribute to the intensity of his psychological chamber music, distilling the paths of emotions into ever-smaller spaces, like boxes within boxes. And the frames also distance the drama from the spectator, as if the realm of memory were seen through a reducing glass.6

The present Tate Britain exhibition has attracted great interest from the media. Waldemar Januszczak was scathing in his criticism. Finding it incomprehensible for the Tate to unveil the Hodgkin exhibition at the same time as Wassily Kandinsky, he described Hodgkin as feeble compared to the great Kandinsky. Writing about the two in the same article he found sacrilegious, 'forcing us to compare gold with washing-machine fluff'.7 Most critics have clearly felt more at home with their English Hodgkin than with Kandinsky, whose writings, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, have been met with hostile ridicule. Such a heated debate on art in England, on abstraction to be precise, is unexpected.

Hodgkin's abstract paintings evoke themes such as sexuality, loss and memory. Specific places are alluded to, moments of passion evoked. Colour is used powerfully and economically. The effect of dramatic weather is created, recalling the marvellous effects of Constable and Turner. An ancestor of Hodgkin was Luke Howard who, 'in the early nineteenth century, pioneered the science of meteorology, classifying and naming cloud patterns in publications that triggered the poetic imagination of Constable and his compatriots as well as of many Romantic landscape painters on the Continent'.8

British weather, for all its gloom and unpredictability, is a constant source of inspiration to Hodgkin who merges physical phenomena and psychological experience, for example in 'Rain' (1984-89). Turner has been a great inspiration for Hodgkin, whose fluid painterliness evokes emotional states. David Sylvester observed, 'There is a lyricism in his work that is very English and can be traced back to Turner. I think Howard is very steeped in Turner'. Hodgkin's work displays many influences, not only British. In 2000, the National Gallery, London, organised their millennium exhibition around the dialogue between contemporary art and the art of the past, using works from their famous collection. Some 24 artists were chosen for 'Encounters: New Art from Old'. Hodgkin chose Seurat's 'Bathers at Asnières', producing a dramatic and remarkable interpretation.

Hodgkin's vision is, in fact, closer to the private world of Vuillard, Degas or Bonnard. The glowing, seductive interiors, masterfully constructed in formal terms, which so transfix the viewer's attention, share something of Hodgkin's private, glowing worlds. Howard Hodgkin departs from his 19th-century mentors in his use of dramatic colour, that owes more to the Abstract Expressionists Willem De Kooning or Marc Rothko. Hodgkin visited New York in 1948 where he saw the early work of these and other American artists. In London, in 1959, he saw the pivotal exhibition 'The New American Painting', which influenced many British artists at the time.

The Hodgkin retrospective is accompanied by two Tate Gallery publications1,9 and two from Thames and Hudson. Marla Price has written Howard Hodgkin: The Complete Paintings10 and Liesbeth Heenk, Howard Hodgkin: The Complete Prints (with an introduction by Nan Rosenthal).11 Both are scholarly and beautifully produced additions to the Hodgkin literature and refute Serota's view that Hodgkin has not been given due recognition. Critical response is contradictory though, at times decidedly odd. 'Swooning hasn't been a fashionable response … but if anyone could bring it back today, it would be painter Howard Hodgkin'. Laura Cumming of The Observer concludes, however, that the worst of his paintings are, 'over-wrought, overloaded and obscured'.12 A refreshing response came from food writer Nigel Slater, on BBC Radio 4's 'Desert Island Discs': 'How can I explain why it should be Mr Hodgkin above all the other painters whose work I love: Chris Ofili, Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter or Jean-Michel Basquiat? And why something so shockingly different to the monochromatic stuff I collect? I could explain that it is as if 'Russian Music' were not just one painting but several, piled up layer upon layer … so that you feel you are peering into other pictures, tantalisingly, partially hidden. Or that the opulent orange frame gives off a heat that seems all set to consume the cooler aubergine, turquoise and jade that lies in the picture's calmer core … I could tell the simple truth that I find the sheer sensuousness of those hot pink and orange strokes deeply, wantonly erotic'. The new books on Hodgkin present his life's work beautifully; they are scholarly and fine publications, making cross-references easy. As Reid has described though, Hodgkin's work is both eloquent and unreadable. It can be mysterious and ravishing, but sometimes quite maddening, leaving one with a sense of incompleteness.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Juncosa E (ed). Writers on Howard Hodgkin. London: Tate Gallery, 2006.
2. Reid C. When all is done, not said: The eloquently unreadable career of Howard Hodgkin. The Times Literary Supplement, June 2006: 18.
3. Calvacoressi R. Introduction. In: Hodgkin H. Howard Hodgkin: Large Paintings, 1984-2002. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2002: 10.
4. Ibid: 10.
5. Rosenblum R. 'On Howard Hodgkin'. In: Ibid: 13.
6. Ibid: 14.
7. Waldemar J. Kandinsky. The Sunday Times, June 2006: 6.
8. Rosenblum R. On Howard Hodgkin. In: Hodgkin H. Howard Hodgkin: Large Paintings, 1984-2002. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2002: 14.
9. Serota N (ed). Howard Hodgkin. London: Tate Gallery, 2006.
10. Price M. Howard Hodgkin: The Complete Paintings. London: Thames and Hudson, 2006.
11. Heenk L, with an introduction by Nan Rosenthal. Howard Hodgkin: The Complete Prints. London: Thames and Hudson, 2006.
12. Cumming L. When he's good ...  The Observer, 18 June 2006.

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