Ever since I was interested in art, I have always seen Howard Hodgkin as one of my artists who’s work resonates strongly with me. In this review of Howard Hodgkin’s Absent Friends exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, I want to explore, understand and put into words (if that is possible) what it is about Hodgkin’s paintings that has managed to turn mere paintings into objects of contemplation and hold my curiosity for so many years. At the same time say goodbye to another great artist; Howard Hodgkin died on 9th March 2017, two weeks before this show opened.
Howard Hodgkin was born in 1932. He studied at Camberwell School of Art between 1949-50 and Bath Academy of Art between 1950-1954. In 1985 Hodgkin won the Turner Prize and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. Since then he has gone on to exhibit across the world and has his work is in many private and public collections.
The art I expect to see at the portrait gallery normally refers to an anatomical likeness of a person in the traditions of pictorial realism. However, in this show, the paintings are titled as portraits that capture a memory of a person and a moment as a dematerialised idea imprinted on the mind. They are described by Hodgkin as ‘representational pictures of emotional situations’. The paintings capture realism as a complete expression of individuality, of both the artist and what he sees. Paint and colour refashions the world as he sees it. Hodgkin sees more than an individual likeness; he sees how the light falls to create abstract forms of intense emotion. He paints his thoughts from memory with swirls and splashes as a response to the flux of the world. The paintings are like a recording that captures a feeling, that took place between him and the person in the title.
Hodgkin once said, “Painting is like putting a message into a bottle and flinging it into the sea,” Observer article, 2001. Howard Hodgkin believed his paintings talk for themselves and often was reluctant to discuss the meaning behind his work. He was always happy for the viewer to see and interpret what they like from his deeply cherished moments.
The paintings are more like artefacts or an object rather than just paintings. Hodgkin worked slowly producing a maximum of 10 paintings a year. He laboured and agonised over them in an intense process, which is evident from the dates of the work and from listening to him discuss the torture he injured when painting. His artistry clearly lies in making something that took years look like it was made in a couple of hours.
“It’s very hard to keep all the things going on in a painting, the feeling, the emotion, the memory; they have to turn into something else. The problem really is making the painting stand up by itself. The memory has to turn into a thing, into an object. And that is a very slow process for me.” Howard Hodgkin, BBC Radio 4, Desert Island Discs.
It was always clear to Hodgkin when a painting was finished and complete, as it captured his original idea that triggered the picture. He painted on used blackboards, kitchen worktop and old picture frames rather than canvas. He liked pieces of wood that already had an identity and a life. When walking through the chronological hung exhibition, it is evident to see how Hodgkin developed a confidence with colour through his career. Each painting has a strong, unique, distinctive character of swirls, curves, dots and lines in vibrant pigment, a collision of pattern and forms.
The painting that sums up Hodgkin’s painting practice for me is ‘Mrs K’, 1966-7. It is a portrait of Jane Kasmin. It reminds me of being in a dark room as someone enters from the far end through a closed door. The sun floods into the dark room, and a bold form of a figure interrupts the light, as you adjust your eyes. The painting opens up heartfelt sentiments of solitude and vulnerability. The painting challenges your visual psychological space, it encourages you to learn something new about the world about what realism could be or should be. In my eyes, the painting is a more accurate and truthful interpretation of human perception than traditional pictorial realism.
The impressive show with many well-lit rooms of high-quality work was a pleasure to visit. The exhibition delves deep in Hodgkin’s practice of painting, asking questions about our human construction of reality in this seemly meaningless world. Every single one of the paintings in this show feels like a battleground between the artist, materiality and reality. They are an expression of individuality of the artist and its subject; they are self-portraits of the artist and subject portraits wrapped up in one. Hodgkin created paintings that outlast the subject and the artist himself. A makeover of the world in paint, with the paint being the carrier of vibrant and radiant feelings. It is a joyful farewell to an outstanding artist.