“I am not an abstract painter,” declared Howard Hodgkin in 2006. Take a look at his work, currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and you might wonder if he wasn’t having you on. With their thick swathes of colour, his paintings look like works of abstract expressionism. Yet Hodgkin, who always insisted that he was a figurative artist, described the paintings at the NPG as portraits.
Abstract artists have often had an ambiguous relationship with figurative painting. Kazimir Malevich’s “Red Square” (1915), one of the foundational works of abstract art, was originally named “Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions”, and was only later granted its more famous moniker by the public. With names like “Mrs Nicholas Monro” (1966-9), Hodgkin’s works are similarly tied to people and landscapes, even when they contain few recognisable figures or objects (not for nothing is the exhibition named “Absent Friends”). To Hodgkin, all that was needed to capture a figure was a stroke or two made by a brush dipped in pink, say, as in “Grantchester Road” (1975). He painted from memory – even his more conventional early portraits are painted without a sitter – and his hand was often guided by his recollection of the emotions he felt at the time. In Hodgkin’s portraiture, the subjects aren’t people but rather his thoughts about them.
Compared to the more straightforward work of his contemporaries Patrick Caulfield and David Hockney (the latter depicted by Hodgkin as an enormous pink phallus), Hodgkin’s paintings are difficult to decipher. Their power is in their sensuous colours and forms: at their best, they are intoxicating. An intelligently curated survey of his career, “Absent Friends” is a magisterial show that has also come to act as an epitaph: Hodgkin, who was involved in its conception, died a few days before it opened.
Made at the age of 17, this painting depicts a scene from 1947 when Hodgkin was spending the summer in Long Island, New York with the family he had boarded with during the war. Looking “through the eyes of memory”, as he put it, Hodgkin recalls listening to Aunt Bette, a family friend depicted from the neck down. Curiously, he shows his childhood self as a bald man of an uncertain age – a decision that lends the painting an enigmatic character. Hodgkin was already repudiating the lessons of William Coldstream and Claude Rogers, his tutors at the Camberwell School of Art who prioritised realism and direct observation and would influence a generation of British painters. Though different from his mature work, the painting’s stylised aesthetic, with its vivid block colours and thick black lines, was a sign of things to come.
“Mr and Mrs Robyn Denny” (1960)
Many of Hodgkin’s early works depict contemporaries from Britain’s post-war art world, in this case Robyn Denny, an abstract painter, and his wife Anna. The couple are reduced to simple heads and shoulders – another stage on Hodgkin’s own journey to abstraction. Robyn’s open mouth suggests a nervous smile, while Anna seems to be grinning gregariously. The billowing blue-and-white background could be a cloudy sky or, in the way that it echoes Robyn’s shirt, an extension of this charismatic painter.
“Mrs Nicholas Monro” (1966-9)
This captures both a subject – Cherry Monro, whose husband was a Pop artist – and an incident: an afternoon in 1966 when Monro stripped before modelling a vintage dress. Hodgkin turns her into a sinuous slick of colour, with the blues and greens draping her lower body serving as a counterbalance to the fleshy pinks and reds of her bare chest. The blue disc in the background, representing a mirror, was only hung in the Monros’ house a year after the encounter, a sign of Hodgkin’s willingness to discard fidelity to physical details in favour of personal impressions.
“Grantchester Road” (1975)
In the mid-1970s Hodgkin began to combine various techniques into complex compositions. In “Grantchester Road”, pointillist spots share space with straightened geometric forms and striped swoops. The speckled border prefigures his later habit of painting his frames, making them part of the picture. “Grantchester Road” depicts a place rather than a person: the interior of the home of Colin St John Wilson, an architect who designed the British Library and a friend of Hodgkin’s. Standing in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas, though, is a single pink figure. Whether that represents Wilson or not, the roomscape is nonetheless charged with his presence.
“In Bed in Venice” (1984-8)
By the mid-1980s, Hodgkin had settled on the abstract style that would persist for the remainder of his career: rough swathes of colour, paint spattering out onto the frame. “In Bed in Venice” typifies this development. The eroticism of the picture is rare in Hodgkin’s work: one can just make out a nude, bedsheets, shuttered windows. The painting tells a personal tale: in 1975, after 20 years of marriage, Hodgkin revealed that he was a homosexual. The nude is Anthony Peattie, a music writer whom Hodgkin met in 1984 and lived with for the remainder of his life. This painting is imbued with the first flush of a long-term romance.
“Absent Friends” (2000-1)
With its voluptuous flows of thick, layered colour, this painting is typical of late Hodgkin. There is no attempt to create a likeness of the friends referred to by the title. Instead, he paints them as he remembers them, as he feels about them. Is it a portrait or something else entirely? Gaze into the paint, and it hardly seems to matter.
Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends National Portrait Gallery, London, until June 18th