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Beyond the Surface: Howard Hodgkin, 1932–2017

9 March 2017

The painter Howard Hodgkin has died in London at the age of 84. Hodgkin, who is widely considered as one of the greatest painters to emerge from Britain in the postwar era, trained at Camberwell School of Art and Bath Academy of Art, where he later taught for many years. He was granted numerous major exhibitions at institutions including the Metropolitan Museum, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Tate, and the Reina Sofia, and represented Britain at the 1984 Venice Biennale. He was knighted in 1992 and made a companion of honour a decade later. In 2010, Hodgkin spoke to Martin Gayford for Apollo to mark ‘Howard Hodgkin: Time and Place’ at Modern Art Oxford. The full text of the interview is reproduced below.

‘When I had a big show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York years ago,’ Sir Howard Hodgkin reminisces, sitting in his big light-filled studio in Bloomsbury, I tried to talk to the people who came to it as much as I could. One was a wonderful black lady who said, “Did you do these all paintings by yourself?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “My daughter thinks you must have had a lotta help.” I took that as a great compliment.’

Whatever she meant by that unexpected remark, it can’t have been that Hodgkin‘s pictures look like hard work. This summer he has another exhibition, ‘Howard Hodgkin: Time and Place’, at Modern Art Oxford (23 June–5 September). The works on show, all from the past decade, will have an even less laborious appearance than the ones on show in New York in 1995.

Though often his pictures take years to produce, these recent paintings look as though they were executed in a few fluent and rapid sweeps of the brush. It is true that those marks are all made by his own hand, not because he has an objection to studio assistance in principle, as he explains, but for more unfathomable reasons.

‘I’m not a great believer in autograph marks, but I’m stuck with them. It doesn’t work when I get people to do it for me. Years ago I asked somebody just to cover a surface with blobs for me. I had to wash them all off again. Something was just not quite right about them.’

To an extent, of course, all truly original artists are loners. But that applies to Hodgkin with particular force. In solitude he has found his own lonely path in art, and stuck to it over a career that now spans more than six decades – he was born in 1932, and the first works reproduced in the Hodgkin literature, Tea Party in America and Memoirs, date from 1948 and 1949.

His work has occasionally had a superficial resemblance to movements and styles popular among his contemporaries. But on closer examination Hodgkin has nothing much to do with any of them. He once looked up his name in the index of a book about Pop artists, for example, only to read a statement that he wasn’t one of those.

That book was quite right. Hodgkin shared a number of influences with other artists who appeared on the scene in the years after World War II – Matisse and Rothko, for example. Hodgkin, however, painted from a sensibility very unlike that of Pop art, Op art, colour-field abstraction, Tachisme or Minimalism. A brief but not exhaustive list of his deeply unfashionable preoccupations would include the lingering atmosphere of hotel rooms, parties, flowers, landscape – especially that of certain places such as India and Venice – and fraught emotional situations of various kinds.

He is art historically unique, to the extent that after all this time and an imposing roster of achievements – a knighthood, a Tate retrospective in 2006, representing Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1984, innumerable other exhibitions – it is still oddly difficult to put one’s finger on exactly what it is that Hodgkin does.

His work is deeply paradoxical. For one thing, it frequently looks abstract at first and even second glance, but it is actually figurative and rooted in his experience. Hodgkin‘s titles, which are beautiful and evocative, are also teasingly elusive. Sometimes an object is quite clearly identifiable: a naked back in Waking up in Naples (1980–84) , for example, or a palm tree within In Tangier (1987–90).

Small Japanese Screen or The Japanese Screen (1962–63). © Howard Hodgkin

Small Japanese Screen or The Japanese Screen (1962–63). © Howard Hodgkin

A number of his paintings, notably the portraits and groups of people that he produced in the 1960s and 1970s (and much less subsequently), are fairly straightforwardly figurative. Small Japanese Screen (1962–63) contains a portrait of Hodgkin‘s friend, the author and art dealer Bruce Chatwin, who wrote a celebrated description of how that picture came about.

At the time, Chatwin lived in a flat behind Hyde Park Corner; he had been away on a journey in the Sudanese desert, and the sitting room with a ‘monochromatic desert-like atmosphere’ contained only two works of art, one being an early 17th century Japanese screen.

One evening Hodgkin, his wife and some other friends came to dinner. Chatwin described the event thus: ‘I remember Howard shambling round the room, fixing it with the stare I knew so well.’ The result was the painting, in which the screen is easily identifiable, but the other guests have become ‘a pair of gun-turrets’, while Chatwin recognised himself in ‘an acid green smear turning away in disgust, away from my guests, away from my possessions. . . possibly back to the Sahara’.

Hodgkin himself also remembers the occasion well, and confirms Chatwin’s account. ‘Oddly enough it was a very good likeness of Bruce in that period,’ he comments. But he gives a slightly different account of the emotional undertones. Chatwin read the image as himself turning away towards nomadic austerity. Hodgkin, though, recalls the context in another way. ‘He had written some not deliberately unfriendly, but nonetheless patronising remarks about my work. And that, I think, probably produced some of the sourness that was in that picture – my sourness.’

Small Japanese Screen is an unusually well documented Hodgkin, and consequently more easily decoded. More often things aren’t so clear, and one might spend a lot of time trying to guess what particular dots, bars, stipples and arcs of paint stand for.

This would be, in his view, exactly the wrong approach, which is why he generally refuses to cooperate with questions of the ‘What is that?’ variety. Except, as he relates in the following story, sometimes he does.

‘I remember being asked by the husband of the couple who bought a certain painting whether the object in the middle was a cock. He said his wife wanted to know. I said that as long as I can tell her myself I will. She just wanted to be clear in her own mind about what it was, and she was quite right. It’s the sort of situation that one might have thought pretty awkward. But it wasn’t. I was very impressed by her attitude – and his.’ ‘Was she right in wanting to know?’ I ask. ‘Or in her supposition?’ ‘Both,’ he replies.

This anecdote confirms what a number of his friends have observed, including Chatwin, who wrote: ‘Howard’s pictures have always been, more or less, erotic – and the more erotic for being inexplicit.’ Sometimes, though, they may be not so much erotic as sensual, in the sense that Lucian Freud intended when he described John Constable (though he seldom painted a nude) as a sensual painter.

Hodgkin himself has frequently emphasised that his work is filled with emotion. ‘The only way an artist can communicate with the world at large,’ he told artist and writer Timothy Hyman in 1978, ‘is at the level of feeling. I think the function of an artist is to practise his art at such a level that like the soul coming out of the body, it comes out into the world and affects other people.’

That being the case, it is tempting to look for clues to Hodgkin‘s art in his life. Tempting, but in the ways that biographers and journalists generally do so, misleading. He is weary, for example, of emphasis on his family – which he regards as a typically English diversionary strategy. True, his background is of interest to connoisseurs of social history. A medical ancestor, his great-great-great-uncle Thomas Hodgkin (1798–1866), had Hodgkin‘s disease named in his honour. Another forebear was the meteorologist Luke Howard (1773–1864), who devised the classification of the clouds into cumulus, cirrus, and so on.

None of this, however, elucidates much about Howard Hodgkin. Collecting is the only family trait he admits to, which he describes as a ‘Hodgkin disease’. His cousin Eliot Hodgkin, also a painter, owned seven Degas pictures; Hodgkin himself is renowned for his collection of Indian miniatures (a selection of which are on show at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 28 September) But this has little bearing on his own work.

When he talks about his upbringing, it is of a long struggle to discover his destiny as an artist. He was given stray clues by art masters at the various schools he attended, including Eton and Bryanston (he was always running away). And also by stray encounters in museums and via books. ‘When I was at a crammer’s in Wales during my inordinately drawn-out and patchy education, a great friend of my mother’s came to take me out to lunch on a very chilly day, and said, “I’ve brought you a present.” I thought, “Oh my God what is it?” And it was Gertrude Stein’s [book on] Picasso.’

It is moments such as these that are significant to Hodgkin – not just the revelation of Picasso but the whole mise en scène: the chilly day, his initial reaction, the surprise of the gift. His subject matter was there – in a way – right from the start. Those two early pictures, painted before he was 20 years old, are both interiors, filled with tense, jarring emotion. The problem was how to turn his subject matter, his feelings, into a series of vividly memorable brush marks.

Hodgkin is still fascinated by rooms: ‘What I like about them is the way that they are containers of memory and experience.’ (That applies of course to Small Japanese Screen). Similarly, he is intrigued by certain places, but what he finds in them are not so much views as emotional impressions.

‘I go to a place and accumulate things I’ve encountered – juicy human situations, that kind of thing. Then I come back and turn them into pictures, but it’s not as quick a process as painting watercolours on the spot would be.’ Indeed, the gestation of a Hodgkin is often a matter of years, most of which he spends not painting but ‘working out’ the picture in his head, particularly these days.

Hodgkin is an intensely emotional man. Famously, he is very easily moved to tears, which will strike unexpectedly, and not necessarily when he is talking about an obviously moving subject, but also – during our conversation – when describing a Corot still life once owned by his cousin. ‘It was just a vase with fresh flowers in it. Marvellous painting. It was one of only two still lifes Corot ever painted. Now it’s disappeared.’ And as he speaks his eyes fill at the thought of that Corot: its simplicity, its directness, its disappearance. Here is a clue to the meanings of his pictures. They are about intensely felt small things: the mood in a room, some flowers, an erotic memory.

Attempts to link his work with his life in a less subtle way – such as that his painting became looser and freer after the mid 1970s because he left his wife and came out – are, he insists, wide of the mark. For one thing, he is not sure the work did get looser at that point.

For another, if one really did want to find a turning point in those years, it might in fact be his discovery in 1976 of Liquin, a quickdrying medium – the answer to all his technical problems.

‘My life changed the day I discovered it. It means that you can use oil paint like gouache, watercolour, anything – and you can paint on top of what was there already, and again and again, without cracking.’ Recent paintings such as Leaf and Big Lawn – the latter apparently one single, impossible scrolling stroke of a wide brush – would not be possible, he says, without Liquin. (Both paintings will be in the Oxford exhibition). Liquin is not the explanation of Hodgkin‘s later style – that’s internal – but it is what makes it feasible.

He can’t say why he carries on painting. ‘It’s simply what I do. Recently, I woke up feeling rather low, and Anthony [Peattie, his partner since 1984] said, “Shall I bring you a pair of scissors?” I couldn’t work out what he meant, then I realised that I am at the age when Matisse took up papier coupé.’ The virtuoso flourish of his recent work, however, suggests that Howard Hodgkin is far from ready to lay down his brush.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Apollo.

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One comment

  1. Henry McMahon Mar 11 2017 at 2:19 am

    An interesting read on a difficult painter. Thanks for this. But surely Mr. Gayford doesn’t really consider it paradoxical that an “abstract” painting can in fact be “figurative” or “rooted in [the painter’s] experience”? From where else would it take root?

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