Art Chronicles: Howard Hodgkin – Absent Friends

I’ve always taken with a slight pinch of salt, Hodgkin’s assertion that his are not abstract paintings, but representations; representations, if I’ve understood him correctly, of place, people and emotions. Sometimes this works, it seems to me, sometimes it doesn’t.

Hodgin 1

Howard Hodgkin: Going For a Walk With Andrew 1995-98

In the case of Going For a Walk With Andrew its easy enough to see the green infused orangey yellow as the land being walked and the varied shades of blue as the sky above. What of the figures (?) in red and pink bending forward slightly at one side? The artist and Andrew?  Objects in the landscape? Ephemera? Trees?  Emanations from the spirit world? If this is representational painting, it is so at its more basic; if it is abstraction, it is abstraction as fused with landscape painting as in the work of Helen Frankenthaler or Joan Mitchell.

In its current exhibition, Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends (till June 18th) the National Portrait Gallery seems only too aware of the need to hedge its bets. Portraits? Mmm, maybe. On the day I was there, there were quite a lot of confused people walking round the gallery, looking, some of them I suspect, for something that isn’t there. The exhibition, the NPG says in the very attractively produced handout, explores Hodgkin’s development of a personal visual language of portraiture, which challenges traditional forms of representation. Quite. And one would have to say that, as paintings, as works of art, the stronger that challenge, the more successful, more rewarding they are.

The early pieces on display here, painted between 1960 and 67, and under the influence, in part, of pop art, strike me as clumsy, almost self-consciously ugly. Unsurprisingly, the more mature the work, the finer the result, and there are, I think, some of Hodgkin’s very best paintings here, ones in which he has found a way of marrying representation and abstraction with a richness and complexity and a brilliant use of colour that repays repeated and prolonged viewing.

Hodgin 2

Howard Hodgkin: Patrick in Italy 1991-93

Hodgin 3

Howard Hodgkin: Portrait of the Artist 1984-87

The ambiguity that exists in the work, as the wall text in the gallery suggests, is one of its strengths, combining, as it does, (and I’m paraphrasing here) literal description with metaphor, within a situation that is not immediately recognisable. This is sensuous art and should be enjoyed as such: don’t strain for meaning, let the meaning, the emotion, come to you.

Near the end of the show there’s one of my favourite pieces, one almost entirely given over to metaphor. Two broad brushstrokes, swipes, if you like, down and across a piece of wood, Hodgkin’s memory of Selina Fellows, standing at the bar in a brilliant blue dress at the Museo Nacional Centre de Arte Reina Sofia in 2006. The painting was made in 2011-12. I love it.

HODGK-2012.0015-Blue-Portrait_crop-1280x1220

Howard Hodgkin: Blue Portrait 2011-12

 

 

 

 

Howard Hodgkin 1932 – 2017

I first became really aware of Hodgkin’s work towards the end of 1995, the beginning of 1996, when I was able make several visits to a major retrospective of his paintings, first at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then at the Hayward Gallery in London. It was difficult – nigh on impossible – not to be dazzled, delighted, impressed – the richness of colour, the seductive brilliance, all those glorious swirls of paint – echoes of other favourite painters, Bonnard, Vuillard.

It was only when visiting a late exhibition, at Oxford in 2010, that some doubts arrived, not about the earlier work, which I still loved, but the more recent. Had there, with age, been some kind of falling off, and if so, was that not perhaps inevitable? It’s a  question I asked myself about my own work at the time, and which I ask myself now, seven years later, seven years older, and some 20,000 words into a new novel. Is it, can it be, as good as the best of what’s gone before?

Early readers [we’re talking strictly family here] have noted what they see as a possible change of style towards something tighter, more propulsive, faster moving – anxious to get it finished, perhaps, while I still can.

Here’s the piece I wrote back in 2010, after visiting the exhibition in Oxford …

pa393

Having walked round the Hodgkin exhibition at the Gagosian with my youngest daughter a couple of years back, I asked her what she thought. “Okay, but not as good as his early stuff.” She was all of 10. Challenged, she dragged me out to the foyer and a copy of the book we’ve got at home showing work from the early to mid-1990s. She had a point.

I remembered this standing in one of the upper rooms of Modern Art Oxford, which is hosting Time & Place, an exhibition of new Hodgkin paintings, dating from 2001 to 2010. Uncertain of my initial responses, I wondered aloud to my companion about the perils of continuing to work into the latter year’s of ones life and producing work that was less good than what had gone before, thus risking the sullying of one’s reputation.

It seems to me, she said, somewhat wisely, that you’re talking about yourself, not Hodgkin.

And she’s right. There have been times in the past – even before, in my mind at least, the age thing became an issue – when, having written something I thought pretty good – not great, but about as good as I could manage – I was cautious of moving on to something else for fear it wouldn’t be as good. I felt it after writing the first of the Resnick books, Lonely Hearts, aided on that occasion by my then editor telling me, in so many words, it had turned out rather better than he’d dared hope.

I’ve also felt, an analogous feeling, that I’d written (and worse, had published) something so poor that the next thing had to be bloody good in order to take the taste, as it were, out of my – and my readers’ – mouth(s).

But back to Mr H0dgkin. In the catalogue essay, which I read on the train home, Sam Smiles writes interestingly about the notion of ‘late work’. Vasari, he notes, having visited the elderly Titian in his studio, deprecated the fact that Titian had carried on working, harming his reputation as his creative powers “inevitably waned”. This, Smiles asserts, is not necessarily the case (check out Beethoven’s late quartets, Picasso, de Kooning et cetera, et cetera). What you can find – and what Smiles finds in Hodgkin – instead of ‘late work’ is a ‘late style’. And yes, these paintings are, on the whole, less busy, less baroque, less full, less likely to confound and astonish the eye; what you have instead is something simpler, more direct, more content with a simplicity of image, of stroke, of colour, of line. Marks that have the appearance of being quickly, urgently made. The single, supple swirl of “Leaf”; the fierce bands of light and cloud in “Yellow Sky”; the force and gravity of “Spring Rain”, a brisk and sudden downpour of oil of wood.

Late work, good work. Work that gives the heart a lift.

And here- for the second time on this blog, but hey, I like it! – is my poem based on one of Hodgkin’s paintings, After Corot

unknown

After Corot

‘After Corot’ 1979-1982 by Howard Hodgkin

the train turning into the bay
enough to bring tears to your eyes

sleeping, your skin ivory
reach & fall of your breathing

your hand

in the painting everything is
at a distance: cliff, harbour,
sea, sky

tight within a frame
within a frame

only wait
and the light breaks white
on the horizon, mastheads etch
contours green beyond the wall’s bulk
and as a small boat painted red hoves into view
the land slips another foot into the sea

you throw up your arm

untrammelled
blue seeps under the edges of the frame
refusing to be bound

the rocking of the train
as it rounds the slow curve

your waking breath

the sea

Birthday Poem for Howard Hodgkin

 

Unknown

After Corot

 ‘After Corot’ 1979-1982 by Howard Hodgkin

the train turning into the bay
enough to bring tears to your eyes

sleeping, your skin ivory
reach & fall of your breathing

your hand

in the painting everything is
at a distance: cliff, harbour,
sea, sky

tight within a frame
within a frame

only wait
and the light breaks white
on the horizon, mastheads etch
contours green beyond the wall’s bulk
and as a small boat painted red hoves into view
the land slips another foot into the sea

you throw up your arm

untrammelled
blue seeps under the edges of the frame
refusing to be bound

the rocking of the train
as it rounds the slow curve

your waking breath

the sea

This poem appeared in Bluer Than This (smith/doorstop, 1998) and, perhaps oddly [I imagine it didn’t tickle the editors’ fancy] failed to find a place in Out of Silence,  last year’s New & Selected (smith/doorstop, 2014). Shame, really.

But Happy Birthday, Sir Howard, 6th August 2015! Great work, sir! 83 years young.

COV_bluer