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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.”

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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