A memory, a place, a smell, a lover’s touch: Howard Hodgkin captures the emotion of a moment with spectacular intensity. Sue Hubbard explores the evocative world of Britain’s most sensual painter
Of all Baudelaire’s poems it is Corres-pondances, originally published in Les Fleurs du mal in 1857, that speaks most articulately of what he considered to be the task of the modern painter. It is a poem that particularly illuminates the work of Howard Hodgkin.
I quote the poem at length because it will give those unfamiliar with Hodgkin’s paintings an accurate sensual image of his work. The world is both concealed and revealed in his colourful, swooping brush marks, and they show a synaesthetic correspondence between scents, colours, sounds, tastes and tactile sensations.
Tate Britain’s landmark Hodgkin retrospective, which opens next month, brings together for the first time works spanning his entire career, from the 1950s to the present day. It traces the development of his distinctive visual vocabulary, from early portraits and interiors through to the gradual loosening of his style in recent years. The exhibition offers an insight into the development of his work over four decades, demonstrating the qualities that have made him one of the most popular painters of his time with cognoscenti and punters alike.
Hodgkin is a very poetic painter. I do not use the word to mean beautiful, though his paintings, rich in col-our as any stained-glass window, are indeed beautiful. He is poetic in that his paintings, like poems, conjure the emotions of a moment, a memory, a place, a smell, even a lover’s touch. He paints what eludes verbal expression, concentrating on feelings rather than facts.
Hodgkin’s paintings are not, however, cathartic outpourings. Only very occasionally in his later work, in a painting such as Italy, 1998-2002, does he come near to true expressionism. Rather, the residue of feelings is the stuff of his art. Emotion is his fuel but, as Wordsworth said of a good poem, it is “emotion recollected in tranquillity”.
There are other ways in which these paintings resemble poems. Hodgkin’s brush marks have a sense of their own weight and rhythm. His paintings are self-contained worlds. Like a poet, he creates framed spaces which are not narratives but where emotion, incident and meaning can occur. In Snapshot, 1984-93 a dark border, which functions like a proscenium arch, directs the eye to a space beyond the picture frame, one that is luminous, pastoral in its suggested forms, yet also inchoate and ecstatic. It conjures many things: a sacred space, a lost domain, a paradise out of reach, or even a mood. All this is articulated with a huge sensual and visual intelligence and an understanding of the materiality of paint. The green here is, as Baudelaire writes, as “green as any grass”, while the vibrant yellow orb and the red and purple zones imply the power of “infinite things”.
Colour is, of course, what characterises a Hodgkin painting. Seductive and jewel-like, it is never simply there for its own sake. In this he belongs to a distinctively European tradition, with the French post-impressionists Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, and with Henri Matisse. As Susan Sontag pointed out, he is mindful of the ancient quarrel between Michelangelo’s preference for disegno over Titian’s for colore. It is as though he wants, she said, “to give colore its most sumptuous exclusive victory”.
Undertones of War, 2001-2003
Hodgkin’s paintings could not be mistaken for anybody else’s. He has created an immediately identifiable choreography of marks, spots and stripes. The harsher, more geometrical forms in his earlier work give way to looser, bravura curves and lyrical swirls, which allow him to occupy the border between figuration and abstraction. His titles – Haven’t We Met?, Counting the Days, In Central Park and Venice, Evening – read like song titles and remind us that all his paintings start as an emotional rather than an intellectual response to a situation. There is lovemaking, as depicted in the fecund curve and comma of Lovers, 1984-92; there are dinner parties, India, Italy, gardens and Venetian glass, as well as the small, the incidental and the commonplace, observed in the little grey painting Dirty Mirror, 2000. And there is war.
Undertones of War, 2001-2003, a canvas more than six feet high and eight feet wide, is different from anything else in the exhibition. Bare wood surrounds the painting, as if it had been stripped of all lyricism. The marks are urgent and tortured, truncated rather than flowing; the colours are muted, muddy blues, blacks and browns with a touch of red. There is enormous force behind the marks, as if Hodgkin had lost patience with his own visual language. In its looseness and determination to work against his natural virtuosity, it reminds me of late Picasso. It is a potent and tragic statement. There, amid all the brilliant colour, among the sweeping crescendos and diminuendos of red and blue, seems to be Howard Hodgkin’s Guernica.
A Rainbow, 2004
Though Undertones of War suggests a more introverted, questioning and tragic “late” style, the trajectory of the painter’s career is not so clear. A Rainbow, 2004 returns us, with its raindrop splodges of green and yellow, to the joy of the sensual.
These paintings speak first to the eye, then to the heart, and finally to the mind. They stir memories of particular times and places, of smells and sounds and emotions. They conjure spring rain, or the partial view from the window of the sea; they suggest rooms where lovers have loved or friends have met. Like poems, they capture the intensity of a moment: what it is to be sentient, erotic, conscious and alive.
Howard Hodgkin opens at Tate Britain on 14 June 2006
Howard Hodgkin: a life
1932 Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin is born into an artistic Quaker family. Sent to Eton, where his teacher is Wilfrid Blunt (brother of the art historian Anthony). He hates it, and runs away. Later attends Bryanston, Camberwell School of Art and the Bath Academy of Art.
1940 Taken to America to live on Long Island with his mother and sister. On leaving Eton, he persuades his psychotherapist to recommend that he return to the States.
1955Marries Julia Lane, with whom he has two sons.
1962 First solo exhibition at Arthur Tooth & Sons, London.
1964 Visits India, which begins a lifelong obsession with art from the subcontinent. It is to have a profound influence on his work.
1976 First major exhibition of 45 paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and the Serpentine Gallery, London.
1983 Meets and falls in love with the musicologist Antony Peattie, who has been his partner ever since. Hodgkin has come out and separated from his wife several years earlier.
1984 Breakthrough year. Represents Britain at the XLI Venice Biennale, and is nominated for the first Turner Prize. Malcolm Morley wins, but Hodgkin claims the prize a year later.
1992 Awarded a knighthood.
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Howard Hodgkin 2006
Published in New Statesman