Over 20 years ago I wrote about Giambattista Tiepolo in The Spectator. Shortly afterwards I went to visit Howard Hodgkin in his spacious, white, light-filled studio close to the British Museum. It turned out that he had read my column and was pleased that someone had been discussing this 18th-century Venetian, who was just his idea of what a painter should be: a subtle master of colour, poetic, sensual, a bit neglected — in other words, much as he saw himself.
The real subject matter of an artist such as Tiepolo, I suggested that day, is not really the Madonna or the apotheosis of some minor aristocrat. It is something more elusive and personal — such as the painter’s feelings about the charm of dogs, naked bodies or dreams of flying. ‘Yes,’ answered Hodgkin. ‘But who knows? You see, what one is left with is the thing.’ And that, roughly speaking, is how Hodgkin claimed his own pictures functioned.
When he died a couple of weeks ago, Hodgkin was widely described as an abstract artist, which would certainly have nettled him. He was emphatic on this point: ‘I couldn’t make a picture that was not “about” anything. I wouldn’t even know how to begin a picture without a subject.’ For the complete avoidance of doubt, Hodgkin flatly stated in a television interview from 2006, ‘I am not an abstract painter.’
What, then, was he — since it is often, at first glance, hard to make out anything in his works beyond brushstrokes, coloured patches and geometric forms? The exhibition Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery is helpful in that regard. It was not intended as a retrospective, still less as a posthumous one; but Hodgkin’s sudden death was announced on the day the installation was due to begin. In these sad circumstances this brilliantly conceived show offers insight into the evolution and essence of Hodgkin’s art.
Hodgkin was at the opposite end of the scale to the contemporary artists who like to tag everything they make ‘Untitled’. When, years ago, I asked him how important the names he gave his pictures were, his reply was succinct: ‘Totally.’
A surprisingly large number include the word ‘portrait’, including the last large picture he ever completed, ‘Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music’ (2011–16). This is a powerful painting, made up of sweeps of pigment with a brush as wide as a broom, dribbles, dabs, vertical stripes and even handprints. It is urgent, dramatic and poignant, in that these vigorous marks represent the movements of a man so frail that he had to be held up physically while he made them.
What it does not seem to be, in any straightforward way, is an image of Hodgkin himself. Instead, apparently, it is a representation of his mental state as he listened to a couple of favourite recordings: Jerome Kern’s ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ and the soundtrack of The Third Man. And for many viewers that’s quite a stretch.
This is why it’s helpful to go back, as this exhibition does, to the beginning. In 1949, at the age of 17, Hodgkin painted ‘Memoirs’, a little picture representing a man and a woman in a room. He is turned to her, she is lying on a sofa with her head — so to speak — out of shot. Her hands, conversely, are greatly enlarged. This, then, is a painting of an emotional situation: an interior, though not one that is depicted altogether naturalistically.
For decades afterwards, Hodgkin’s works were at least sometimes just as representational. ‘Interior with Figures’ (1977) could almost be a Vuillard of a room with wallpaper, windows and a lamp — plus, at the bottom, a couple of naked male figures less reminiscent of the French master, one dragging on a post-coital cigarette. Such pictures — ‘Bed in Venice’ (1984–8) is another example, with identifiable shutters, rumpled sheets and graceful nude — offer a way into Hodgkin’s works for those who like a few footholds in reality (as I myself do).
From quite early on, however, Hodgkin’s subjects might go through strange metamorphoses. The collector Ted Power, in ‘Mr and Mrs E.J.P.’ (1969–73), for example, has turned into a translucent green egg, symbolising his ‘enveloping conversation’.
With Hodgkin’s pictures from the Sixties to the Eighties, one often has the feeling one is looking at something without being sure just what it is. Once he was asked by the husband of the couple who bought a certain picture ‘whether the object in the middle was a cock’. Hodgkin felt, he told me, that this was a delicate situation. ‘He said his wife wanted to know; I said that as long as I can tell her myself I will.’
The answer was yes — and if the picture was ‘DH in Hollywood’ (1980–4), the question was scarcely necessary. There Hodgkin has clearly transmuted his friend and fellow artist David Hockney into a jaunty phallus with a flash of yellow at the end. The swimming-pool and surrounding garden, however, have been transformed into whorls, dots and bars. Presumably, water and vegetation turned into geometry as Hodgkin painted them again and again over those four years.
His work began with a memory, which he insisted he ‘visualised distinctly’. There is evidence at the NPG, in the form of some early drawings of people, that his visual memory must have been extraordinarily powerful. These are delicately precise in the manner of the Euston Road painters such as William Coldstream who taught him. However, they weren’t done from life, but afterwards by inspecting a mental image.
That’s what Hodgkin carried on doing — and even in some late paintings it’s not hard to grasp how it worked. ‘Kathy at La Heuze (Flame against Flint)’ (1997–8) began with a moment when a friend and collector stood in a yellow dress against the wall of a house in northern France. In the picture, Hodgkin dispensed with inessentials such as her face and body, leaving just the essence of the moment: gold and russet swirling against bobbily grey stone.
So he was correct. This isn’t abstract, even if that is how it looks. At times, the subjects Hodgkin pursued seemed ‘almost impossibly nebulous’, even to him: like trying to paint the Cheshire cat’s grin without the animal itself. As in the case of Tiepolo — or any good painter really — you often have to guess at the thoughts and feelings that might be embedded in Hodgkin’s paintings. But with artists you judge by results: the things we are left with. Often Hodgkin’s were sumptuously beautiful.
Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends is at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 June.