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With Hodgkin the titles of his pictures are integral to the images themselves. By learning to read the colour harmonies, it might just be possible to pick up on some of the sensations contained in paintings such as Going for a Walk with Andrew, Dinner in Palazzo Albrizzi and Portrait of the Artist but it is the titles that gives the whorls and gestures a meaning. Without the titles the viewer interprets the paintings through their own emotional experiences; with the titles their focus switches back to Hodgkin. In this light the NPG’s exhibition also functions as a sort of autobiography: here are his 1960s, when he felt himself to be a low-achiever compared to his peers; here is the Venice of the 1984 Biennale which really established him as an artist; and here is India, which he has been visiting for decades and where he now lives and works during the winter months. And here too are the friends he associates with these times and places.

Hodgkin is sometimes dismissed as being merely a colourist — poetic but essentially lightweight. The NPG’s exhibition shows there is more to him than that. It is one of three Hodgkin exhibitions in public galleries this year, with shows of his Indian paintings and prints following at the Hepworth in Wakefield and the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath. While the NPG focuses in part on just what it is that constitutes a portrait, the three exhibitions together will give a much better idea of what constitutes Howard Hodgkin.

Over the past few years the Ashmolean in Oxford has become increasingly ambitious and imaginative in its exhibitions (indeed in 2012 it showed a selection of Hodgkin’s high-grade collection of paintings from Mughal India) and its latest is Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France (until May 7). This is not, however, just another retelling of a familiar story — the segue from the Impressionists to Cubism — but a broad overview using 100 works on paper of exceptional quality from the collection of the Chicago art dealer Stanley Johnson and his wife Ursula.

In the how-long-is-a-piece-of-string methodology that is often applied throughout art history the exhibition takes the time frame right back to 1800 and the great Neoclassical painter David. While he was indeed a man with an eye on the future of society (as a friend of Robespierre he voted in the National Convention for the execution of Louis XVI), to see his crisply-delineated Greeks and Romans as the direct precursors of Picasso’s demoiselles, or indeed Delacroix’s thick colours as the inspiration for Dufy and Léger, is stretching things to breaking point. Manet and Degas, for example, saw themselves as modern Old Masters — and why, after all, start with David and not go back to Poussin?

Whether or not the argument is persuasive, the real point of the show is to allow the viewer to make connections. Correspondences are everywhere among these 100 pictures — a Delacroix pastel of a woman’s face, for example, appears to nod both at a Degas pastel of a woman drying herself after a bath and a Cézanne watercolour of male bathers. No line that links Géricault with Van Gogh and Chagall will be a straight one, and certainly not one that shows Modernism in France beginning at point A and ending at point B. If, as with Hodgkin, the titles are all-important, the title of this lovely show is a bit of a distraction.

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March 26th, 2017
7:03 PM
Timothy Morton`s article `Charisma and Causality` over at ArtReview online has what Charles Saumarez Smith couldn`t say in his Standpoint article ` The sacred and secular in contemporary art` . Morton is an object-oriented ontologist. The art example he uses is Rothko`s Chapel. With over 350,000 people en route to expose themselves to the paintings of David Hockney and thousands more off to the Hodgkin exhibition Morton`s article makes sense. Koons has been described as the Donald Trump of the art market. Koons announced he`d voted for Hilary Clinton. Hirst wants to be Koons. Hirst voted Remain. Morrissey,John Lydon and Julie Burchill are pro-Brexit and it`s glorious chaotic dawn. Brit popular culture and politics leads the world. Stella Vine`s `Melania and Barron` painting is also as great as anything by Hockney or Hodgkin. It was Camille Paglia who first described stopping to look at paintings, reading a book,watching a film,listening to music etc as magical activities. Our pagan modernism. Voting Leave can be included. It`s true there are no politics or religion in Hodgkin`s paintings. He`s not Clovis Trouille or Sarah Maple. Hodgkin`s final painting `Portrait of the artist listening to music` is an existential masterpiece.

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