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Whorls with meaning: “Portrait of the artist” (1984-87) by Howard Hodgkin (©HOWARD HODGKIN)

What is Howard Hodgkin doing at the National Portrait Gallery? The idea of Britain’s greatest abstract artist having an exhibition there, as with Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends, (March 23 to June 18) seems at first glance to take the counter-intuitive to new extremes. However, although his work from the 1970s onwards has been entirely non-representational, that doesn’t make him an abstract artist. All those rich, sweeping, colour-laden brushstrokes that draw no distinction between panel and frame show no obvious forms or shapes yet they nevertheless contain something recognisable.

Hodgkin’s work has been always been about the personal. Indeed, that closeness to himself has, he has said, “stopped my trying for something bigger”: there’s no politics or religion in a Hodgkin picture. He sees himself as “a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.” Portraiture, when there is some form of connection between artist and sitter, is concerned as much with capturing that emotional situation as physiognomy. Hodgkin’s pictures, so resonant with memory and the recollection of people and places, therefore represent a type of portraiture, just not as we know it.

In the first part of his career, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s (Hodgkin is now 84), he did paint pictures that equate more to traditional portraits. He was part of a stellar generation of British artists that included David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Peter Blake and Patrick Caulfield, all of whom he painted. Even then though the pictures don’t concentrate on faces or features — which, when they do appear, tend towards the cartoonish — but show vaguely humanoid forms usually in brightly-coloured interiors: if they have an inspiration it is Matisse’s Moroccan pictures. Within a decade even these rudimentary shapes had disappeared, replaced by luscious broad strokes and precise stippling.

In these works he reduced the physical forms of his friends to something more essential — the feelings and memories they engendered in him; what was left, in other words, when the meeting between painter and subject had passed — and the vehicle for this emotion is colour. In 2014, for example, Hodgkin produced a series of prints dedicated to his dealer, Alan Cristea. In his attempt to express fully what Cristea meant to him, in all its complexity, he printed For Alan in seven different colours — each one carrying a different emotional nuance. As Hodgkin put it: “I think really I couldn’t decide what was his personality or not.”

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