Howard Hodgkin: Painting India is at the Hepworth, Wakefield, 1 July – 8 October 2017
We shall be rewarded, albeit poignantly, with no less than three exhibitions of Howard Hodgkin’s work in 2017. The NPG show, ‘Absent Friends’, has been and gone; ‘Painting India’ is currently on view in Wakefield; and the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath opens in mid-October with a display of works on paper, including prints.
For Hodgkin, Fate’s proverbial bus of arrival of events certainly came along this year. The first event, sadly, was the ultimate departure as we all mourned the artist’s death in March. Significant media coverage provided a fitting range of positive reviews of his career and of his achievements as a painter of emotions, with imagery often dominated by the impact of colour, permeating all commentary. The sometimes acerbic, but on this occasion generous Jonathan Jones in the Guardian proclaimed Hodgkin as “the finest colourist in painting since Mark Rothko”.
Utter nonsense, of course, but the attraction of Hodgkinesque colour usage has some credence, as combined with notions of colour as something powerful in and of itself there is an indefinable emotive appeal. Characterised by expressionistic painting gestures, the oil medium is applied in a way that becomes visually seductive and affective – though what those emotions are for the observer cannot replicate whatever they were for Hodgkin. Is ‘emotive’ the correct term to use here? ‘Emotional appeal’ sounds like a cop-out term for inadequate communicative terminology, but I am struggling to define and defend these clichéd words in relation to Hodgkin’s work. Best look at the paintings.
At The Hepworth Wakefield a selection of paintings from a period of 50 years of almost annual visits to India by Hodgkin are on display. Walking up the stairs to the main galleries a hand-knotted Persian yarn wall hanging (appropriately entitled, ‘Rug’) is displayed, but this medium does not prepare the visitor for how oil paint can deliver colour – so physically and so embedded in the materiality of paint.
An entrance space/vestibule, containing three Indian miniatures from Hodgkin’s personal collection, a short video of the artist in conversation, a gouache design for a mural for the British Council HQ in New Delhi is not entirely successfully (it seems inadequate and piecemeal, leaving me wanting much more – or less – of such material). There is also a display cabinet containing a few photographs, a typed Bruce Chatwin article, a magazine and two of Hodgkin’s notebooks. Given a bigger venue it would be interesting to read more of this material in a space (or book) of its own – but it’s the paintings that bring us here.
The 37 works (including a triptych) displayed in five rooms are displayed with ample space between them, as Hodgkin typically insisted upon, and some readers may recall the Whitechapel show of 1985 (two paintings – ‘In A Hot Country’ [1979-82] and ‘Bombay Sunset’ [1972-73] reappear here). The exhibition is a very comfortable size, neither too large nor too small, and a quick recce around the five main rooms to get an overall feel for the show is easily managed.
In fact, over two visits in three days this was my modus operandi in looking at and taking in the exhibition. The sequential trawl from picture to picture in the arranged order (more or less chronological) was briefly attempted, but whether it was the ample space to roam about in or the influence of the architecture I am not sure. Perhaps it was the inherent nature of the works, where one could pop in and out of paintings as if visiting a marketplace before the crowds arrived. On one such foray, ‘The House of Bhupen Khakhar’ [1975-6] in Room 2 was almost avoided, but I was drawn in nevertheless. Viewing distance is crucial. From 3 metres I almost dismiss it. Initially, this painting felt piecemeal and dismembered – and I wrote “speculative’ in my notebook. Then, close-up – 1.5m away seemed about right – it fused together. The disparate shapes locked in. Habitually attempting to read the painting figuratively, a tabletop viewed from above came to mind. (Measuring about 1.2 x 1.45m this made some sense.) Then I thought of a still-life arrangement as the various shapes cluttered up the pictorial space. Around this patchwork of colour-shapes the dominating framework of a dark blue and a lemon yellow band established the framed, window-like image onto the gallery wall. The figurative ‘reading’ started to diminish.
Then, like a kind of anchor point, a blue, brick-shaped, rectangle in the centre of the painting floats forward, pushing three green rectangles aside. Above and behind the blue shape are several thinly applied red areas on a yellow/orange ground. There are six vertical, straight and wavy edged brush marks, plus two diagonals to the right and two concentric rings. This geometric reading momentarily moves towards the abstract, until the perspectival, receding plane of a slightly darker red area above, imposed on a flat orange plane, suggested a tabletop within the painting. On this implied domestic surface sit two brown/pink segmented melon-shaped forms – although they appear to float away from the actual surface of the wood support until the lemon-yellow frame pins them down. Looking at this painting in the catalogue later on, the reds I noticed first crudely represent a figure at the table. The blue ‘brick’ might be the back of a chair – or just a blue rectangle. The same blue on either side of this figure now reads as shadow under the supposed table. Two of the three green rectangles that I sensed as displaced by the central arrangement of reds now read as the table edge. The strong green takes on a double-identity as the inherent power of the colour-shape also denies a figurative reading and becomes detached from identification. Hence the importance of the term ‘speculative’ – which may well describe this middle-period of Hodgkin’s work. (A photograph in the catalogue shows that the table of my imagination might be the raised floor in Khakhar’s studio and the green rectangle a supporting column in this space.)
Was Hodgkin a figurative or an abstract painter? It hardly seems to matter – as no one could deny the balanced portrayal of the figuratively visible world or the abstract, formal qualities of, say, Matisse. Hodgkin’s painting project shifts from figuration towards abstraction (with Cubist and Hofmannesque traits?) over many years. No doubt, the debate between conceptions, and perceptions, of representation and abstraction (in non-figurative painting) will continue long into the future – and Hodgkin’s example might be central to this discussion. Add the artist’s denial of abstract intent and there may never be any resolution. But these are discussions around the paintings and are parallel to the original works (though not secondary – or we had better just shut-up).
To buck the trend in Hodgkin appreciation, it might be an idea to forget the paintings’ titles and the artist’s references to ‘memories’ so that the images are seen more clearly for what they are as paintings. A healthily broad view of abstract art generally predominates on Abcrit and so any doubts about reporting on the ‘Painting India’ show in Wakefield had already been assuaged by reading Richard Ward’s review of Hodgkin’s exhibition at the NPG earlier this year. Ward quickly pointed out Hodgkin’s skill in using colour and moved, appropriately, on to space and framing. In viewing, ‘Painting India’ I had this same sense of spatial concerns dictating attention in the work – despite expecting a veritable colour-fest. Not that the colour was unimportant – the sophisticated and skilful fusion of colour, shape and positioning is (arguably) incontestable. (There is crudity at times, such as when HH gets carried away with too much red – see ‘Indian Summer’ [2010-14].)
Colour is important but not absolute in Hodgkin’s work. The visual impact after the colour has hooked you in seems to be materially based on brush marks aligned with the push and pull of implied spatial constructs. The shapes of colour, typically translucent or solid over dried backgrounds, or formed of intermixing pigments as one wet area is brushed into another, are drawn by the use of broad, quickly executed brushstrokes – and I’m not so sure that this corresponds with Patrick Heron’s demand for brushwork that is spatial in a context of abstraction that does not allow any allusion to an external source. For this emphasis on the drawn/painted-shape see for example, ‘Small Indian Sky’ . The two greens at the centre of the rectangle contrast (typically) with the surrounding red/orange framing devise. In reproduction the larger, darker, swathe of green looks almost incidental, despite being centred and proportionately large within the composition. Yet, in the flesh every part was integrated and in the gallery-viewing situation the experience told me that that this is a beautiful painting: it’s perfect in its imperfections. Which is just so corny and clichéd – but that’s my reaction. I shouldn’t care about the title either – and if Hodgkin was recalling a sunset over a green vista; or a dark cloud set against the dawn sky I still don’t care. But I may have to because it’s someone’s memory of a place and an event – and like all of you abstract painters (and sculptors) who might be reading this – you will have witnessed similar views and the ‘real world’ of perception could worm its way into your own work, however surreptitiously.
Or was the greater occasion getting to me? The added ingredient for visitors to this, and the aforementioned exhibitions from this year, will be one of a sense of mourning. Which is really bad timing. The experience of looking is, undoubtedly, affected by previous knowledge, and physical and emotional contexts – or some little bit of information. Think of John Berger’s example in ‘Ways of Seeing’ when a b/w reproduction of Van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ is repeated on the following page with the declaration that this was his last painting before committing suicide. The emotional hit is undeniable and presents a lesson in warning of often-unavoidable contingencies and preconceptions that the viewer (or a text) brings to the experience of looking at a work of art (though this was not Berger’s only point – as observers we do not necessarily ‘see’ what the painter wanted us to perceive).
Emotion can cloud vision – but in the right context does not distort. Curatorially straightforward, but effective nonetheless, was the display of wall mounted information in the final room which included this verse from the Stevie Smith poem, ‘Mr Over’:
“Mr Over is dead
He died fighting and true
And on his tombstone they wrote
Over to you”
There’s another emotional hit.
Looking again at the painting, ‘Over To You’ [2015-17], one of Hodgkin’s final works, it’s difficult not to be affected. Superficially, the composition consists of little more than a smear of red on green. The red is pink in some areas; then I notice white paint underneath the red brush mark – more of a wipe in fact as by this stage Hodgkin was painting from a wheelchair and used long handled brushes. The white does not appear to mix, wet into wet, with the green background and so was not executed in one fervent session as it might appear. Getting a little more technical now, close observation reveals another coloured ground beneath the green. By the end of a long career, Hodgkin’s work is deceptively simple in appearance. But this process is calm and measured; the wood panels are worked on all in good time and thought about carefully – not knocked out in a hurry. Even the simplest paintings need time to ponder for the observer – most probably over a lifetime.
Looking up Stevie Smith on the Poetry Foundation website, the poet David Smith is quoted:
“…not only does she belong to no ‘school’ – whether real or invented as they usually are – but her work is so completely different from anyone else’s that it is all but impossible to discuss her poems in relation to those of her contemporaries.”
The same might be said of Howard Hodgkin.