LONDON — Howard Hodgkin has been dead for three years. He was a difficult man when alive. I first interviewed him 20 years ago about his collection of Indian miniatures at his huge studio (a converted dairy) in Coptic Street, a hop, skip, and a jump away from the British Museum. The conversation — such as it was — left me feeling frustrated and furious. He was so unwilling to talk about anything, to answer questions of any kind. He batted me away so superciliously, as if every question was either impertinent or woefully under-researched. Perhaps a little of the two.
He was one of the Bloomsbury crowd, Roger Fry’s cousin. The voice sounded so plummy.
By the time I grew a little older, I had come to understand that this was Hodgkin’s way. He never really talked. He was prepared to frustrate and embarrass everybody and anybody, even an interviewer at the Hay Festival.
Why bother with words when you’re in the business of slopping paint around?
And then, in 2017, something odd happened at London’s National Portrait Gallery. It was his last major show, and it was called Portraits. He saw it, and blessed it, from his wheelchair. What was so revelatory about it was the amount of private information contained in the captions, about the circumstances of the paintings – what had happened when, and with whom. The man had opened up as never before. Or he had happily let others tell the tales on his behalf.
His reluctance to show his hand on that first meeting had been summed up by his attitude to his works in progress, the few of them that hung on the wall. I looked over there, of course, and saw nothing, because they were all turned to the wall.
This long preamble is to the point. The new show, Howard Hodgkin: Memories — the first of any importance since his death — seems to open him up even more than before. And his very absence from the scene helps that. The presence of the man no longer comes between. All we have of him now are these paintings, and they speak for him, they reveal him, as never quite before. The show is called Memories, and it deals with a very important period, 1978-99. Hodgkin is here in full flight, receiving all the accolades that were his due — representation at the British Pavilion in the Venice Biennale, the Turner Prize, exhibitions when he sees fit. Howard always wanted to call the shots …
Now when Hodgkin used to say anything at all, he would characterize his painting as follows: “I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.”
A tad baffling at first read, that statement, which he made in 1976 to the critic David Sylvester, in fact makes a good deal of sense in the longer run. He never wanted to be regarded as an abstract painter, but nor did he want to be painting recognizable forms. He wanted both to conceal and to reveal — up to a point.
You see, Howard was in fact a very emotional man — I discovered that when I interviewed him for a second time. By then we were more relaxed in each other’s company. He even spilled a few heartfelt words now and again. He was wary of using words, I could tell that by the pauses, the quality of his hesitations. Hadn’t he once remarked that words were the Englishman’s disease? He asked me to read his quotes back to him after I had finished writing the piece, which I did. But not what I said about them. He hadn’t asked for that.
During our interview, the moment of revelation came when, having pulled out a favorite novel by Somerset Maugham from the shelves, he read a passage out loud to me, and wept over it. What surprised me was that he was weeping over something that, in my opinion, was pretty second-rate. He had an unbridled emotional life after all.
In fact, in his paintings Hodgkin positively gushes with emotion. This new show pulls him out of the shadows in all his roaring weepiness as never before. How he lets the paint spill forth in these long, curvaceous sweepings over! How he steadfastly refuses to be fenced in by the frames, whose limitations he seems at first glance to be respecting by the act of employing such boundary markers at all.
The frames are often rackety old things — he often bought them from thrift shops — and he made it his business to make mincemeat out of them, brimming over and out, showing them what for, punching his mood into our faces.
Hodgkin always painted on board, and it often took him an awfully long time to finish a painting — often years. The board was absolutely necessary. Mere canvas, even when stretched taut, would not have had the strength, the stamina, the holding power, to deal with him. It was always a tussle, a fight to the death. Leon Kossoff painted on board for the same reason, but Kossoff was much messier than Howard. And no less taciturn.
So here we have it, in three rooms, paintings as rude, rough, and fierce as they come, brutal, joyous, cheeky, contested acts of making, and pretty well all of them magnificent in their way. The titles can be very good indeed as ways into half-describing the distillation of feelings — our feelings, and Howard’s feelings maybe. In “Learning About Russian Music” (1999), for example, he trowels over the frame with heavily layered paint, in which orange and yellow thickly mingle with red; through the window those strokes create, we peer into a recessive space containing bold diagonals that clash and banter — so much tumultuous orchestration!
There are so many tumbling, wave-like formations in these rooms, such fan-like over-spreadings, such a rat-a-tat of circular punctuation marks, so much smother and slather and emotional unrestraint, such camp plays of color, such seductive heat … How alive Howard is in death!
Howard Hodgkin: Memories continues at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert (38 Bury Street, London, England) through December 11. The exhibition is curated by Paul Moorhouse.
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