Howard Hodgkin’s paintings are instantly recognisable: it’s the colours (lots of characteristic orange, blue, and green), brushwork, arcs, spots, and painted frames or frames painted over. His portraits are as strong as any of his paintings, but, particularly in his later ones, you struggle to see even the hint of a figure.
In his exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, I was amused by a painting commissioned by a couple to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary; unusually they posed for him, but despite the posing they ended up as simply entwined brush strokes. I’m sure, however, that they weren’t disappointed.
When Hodgkin painted a portrait he painted not a recognisable face or figure but an impression, a collection of memories and associations. There were initially marks recognisable as faces or other parts of bodies, but they mostly disappeared as his style developed.
I’m reading a biography of Picasso, and Cubists–long before Hodgkin–would include in the portraits what were little more than hints of people and then build the picture around them, usually with a restricted palette. But I don’t think that they were explicitly painting memories and associations of the people, although they perhaps were unconsciously. What else could they paint?
Hodgkin said that the more delicate and transitory the memory he was painting the more he needed to surround it with a dark, thick, strong boundary or frame–to protect it. You could see that in his painting of absent friends at the beginning of the exhibition.
Several of the paintings were erotic, and you could clearly see that they were. In Bed in Venice reflects the rich colours, warmth, and luxury of Venetian palazzos and the green of the canals with the couple on the right hand side.
Another painting was of what he called “a moment of unclothed sensuality,” and his picture of David Hockney emerging from a swimming pool seems to have a phallus at the centre–and is that green fountain around the phallus water he’s shaking off or an ejaculation? Chicken didn’t like the symmetry of the painting.
The exhibition included one self-portrait in which a ghostly Hodgkin peered through a curtain of spots, but Old Man Listening to Music, a large painting and one of the last he painted, is surely a self-portrait. Famously Hodgkin agonised over paintings, constantly changing them, which is surprising as they look both fresh and spontaneous. But he said that late in life he began to do all the painting and repainting in his head before he put brush to canvas. As I looked at Old Man Listening to Music I thought how hard that must be and what an extraordinary visual memory he must have had.
Hodgkin died just before the exhibition opened, and so the exhibition is a summary of more than 60 years of painting portraits. Will his work stand the test of the time? I think so.