The gallery walls of the Level Two temporary exhibition space at Tate Britain are currently aflame with colour. The gallery is playing host to the first exhibition ever to span the entire career of Sir Howard Hodgkin (born in 1932), though there have been plenty of other shows of his work over the years. (Notable among them being displays at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 1990 and 2002, the Hayward Gallery in 1996 and the Whitechapel in 1985, not to mention numerous commercial shows in between.) Despite the dazzling white surfaces of the studio in which he works, Hodgkin often exhibits his paintings on coloured walls, and the Tate show is no exception. It begins with rag-rolled warm grey walls, transmutes into pale green and thence into subtle lemony-cream and brown, before ending up with old gold. The exhibition decor is almost a work of art itself.
Unfortunately, this does not help the paintings; in fact it maintains a constant level of visual competition, which frequently erupts into conflict. Hodgkin’s paintings at their best offer a complex interplay of colour, texture and mark, which requires close attention. If the gallery walls were one colour, or at the most two, and not so engagingly various, there would be less chance of distraction. And the parti-coloured walls of the Hodgkin display help to focus attention on his weaknesses rather than his strengths. The lack of intensity and structure of much of the work from the mid-1980s on is all too evident; perhaps the demands of international celebrity, which began to overtake Hodgkin with his Venice Biennale show of 1984, have had a deleterious effect on his concentration.
The exhibition begins rather impressively with early works that include ‘Dancing’ from 1959, ‘Brigid Segrave’ (1961–2) and ‘Acacia Road’ (1966). Bold patterns of thick lines, splodges and swathes of colour interlock or obscure one another. For all their abstract formal equipment, these are figurative pictures. Hodgkin says he paints representational pictures of emotional situations — social encounters in domestic or public interiors, often claustrophobic with suppressed passion. As you gaze at these paintings, you are confronted with evidence of their development: the underpainting, the reworking, the new surface patterns supplanting previous configurations. The visible layers of the paintings echo the layering of human experience and memory. In the early years, it was as if the painting process was available to the viewer as Hodgkin did his editing or eliminating by painting over what was already there on the canvas or board. Now the editing is apparently done in the mind’s eye of the artist, not on the painting. Perhaps that is part of the trouble with the more recent work — the viewer’s direct involvement with it has been
Hodgkin is known now for painting on wood, whether recycled bread-board, door panel or large constructed sheet. He is also known for painting his frames. He says that he sees the frames as ‘fortification for delicate paintings’, yet if they are painted they surely become part of the picture they are supposed to protect. The framing device — whether actual or painted — has become something of an idée fixe in recent years and now seems a mannerism. In the 1950s and 1960s he worked on canvas, then began to paint on wood in 1969, his definitive shift to wooden supports occurring in 1972. As he says of wood: ‘unlike canvas it doesn’t answer back’. Perhaps he should have another go at canvas: these days it seems that Sir Howard could do with a support which gives him a bit more cheek.
For the early works are so good that any subsequent falling off is immediately noticeable. The paintings of the 1970s are inventive, playful, plangent. Look at ‘Mr and Mrs EJP’, the powerful ‘Bombay Sunset’ or the hypnotic ‘Talking about Art’. Hodgkin risks the discordant in the search for a greater harmony. ‘Small Durand Gardens’ (1974) is a tremendous painting, as is ‘Ellen Smart’s Indian Slide Show’ and ‘In the Studio of Jamini Roy’. These pictures are daring for what has been blanked out, discarded and over-painted. You can see why people felt that looking at Hodgkin of this period for the first time changed the way they saw the world. And you cannot help but form the impression, perhaps unfairly, that he risks less these days, that there are not such brilliant, discarded paintings beneath the final one he is satisfied with and allows us to see.
A number of these paintings are like magical gardens, though the very beautiful ‘After Corot’ is more like a stage set. ‘Red Bermudas’ is a tough painting as against the lavish sensuality of ‘In the Bay of Naples’, or the mood which is at once marine and sultry of ‘Waking Up in Naples’ (1980–4). The old enchantment begins to thin out a bit after this. Revealingly, Hodgkin produced 160 paintings between 1957 and 1980, but nearly twice that amount (300) between 1980 and 2005. Not only has he speeded up, but he also seems to have thinned down. Yet there are still good later works like the potent ‘Lovers’ (1984–92), the tiny Valentine-like ‘Antony’s Blue Palm’ (2002), and the cool grey-green delights of ‘Evening’ (1994–5), owned by the novelist Julian Barnes. But to hang the latter next to such a comparatively feeble painting as ‘Fisherman’s Cove’ undermines the show’s balance. In the last room ‘Come into the garden Maud’ (2000–3) seems to be something of a return to form, as is the painting of a rainbow, but ‘Undertones of War’ is a muddy mess and ‘Wallpaper’ all lurid blobs.
The effectiveness of Hodgkin’s paintings depends to a certain (and crucial) extent on how much you believe in his honesty. Perhaps he finds it more difficult or painful to achieve truth to experience these days, and depends instead on camouflage, on concealing emotions rather than revealing them.
The lavish catalogue (£24.99 in paperback) contains a pithy introductory essay by Nicholas Serota, a long-time admirer of Hodgkin, and a less readable text by James Meyer. A couple of books have appeared concurrently. Writers on Howard Hodgkin, edited by Enrique Juncosa (Tate Publishing £14.99 hbk), features essays by such distinguished Hodgkin-watchers as Susan Sontag, James Fenton and Alan Hollinghurst, with a newly commissioned piece by Cólm Toibín. The 20 colour illustrations are not well-reproduced, but this is a text celebration, a feast of language. Nicely ironic, then, that Julian Barnes should end his seven-page hymn to Hodgkin thus: ‘For me, these paintings resist words — at least, words which can convey what happens inside me when I look at them.’ It almost makes one thankful for art historians. It’s a book for those already converted to Hodgkin, as is the vast catalogue raisonné of the paintings just published by Thames & Hudson at £60. It runs to nearly 400 pages, has more than 400 illustrations, mostly in colour, and is introduced by John Elderfield. It’s a hefty but luscious reference book compiled by Marla Price, director of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, and will inevitably fuel further discussion as to how much of Hodgkin’s work is rare and original, and how much pure fluff and navel-gazing.
Howard Hodgkin is at Tate Britain until 10 September, and travels to the Reina Sofia in Madrid in the autumn (18 October to 8 January 2007).