From Chapter 14: "Dreaming About Appearances"
The works which the painter has created since the mid-1990s announce a second turning-point in his career, comparable to that of the mid-1970s. He has “deepened the game” in a multitude of ways, painting more freely and more fluently, and often on a much larger scale. At the same time his art has been more widely exhibited than ever before, both in Europe and America. Enthusiasm for his paintings, among art critics and historians, art collectors and the general public, has never been greater. Whether this has had any effect on the work itself is impossible to say, but it has certainly not arrested its development. Hodgkin’s painting has continued to change and evolve.
The pictures have become both more open and more expansive. The marks from which they are formed are more blatant than ever. “This is paint”, they seem to say, so forcefully at times that one can almost hear the thud of brush on panel as one looks at them. They also continue to evoke lived experience, albeit in yet more allusive ways than before.
To compare a picture completed in 1980, Red Bermudas, with one completed in 1999, Autumn Foliage, is to begin to see just how much has changed. It is not that the later picture is less “finished”, exactly. But it does indicate the artist’s increasing technical boldness, and his readiness to exploit the eloquence and suggestiveness of certain types of mark which, at first glance, can seem almost inchoate. The viewer is not invited to focus on the discrete elements which make up the image, whereas in the case of Red Bermudas the temptation is almost to inventorise them, to count the swipes and number the blobs of paint, and to work out, mark by mark, what it might all add up to. Autumn Foliage asks to be experienced as a whole, working on the eye less through an accumulation of detail than through modulations of tone and atmosphere. It is more Guardi than Canaletto. Yet it also catches its stated subject beautifully, and with an appearance of effortlessness which is characteristic of the later paintings.
Among the pictures under consideration here the most recent, Seurat’s Bathers, begun in 1998 and finished early in 2000, might seem to be the odd one out. But in many ways it is exemplary of the change that has taken place in the artist’s work. The painting was created in response to an approach from the Director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, who asked Hodgkin if he might like to make a work inspired by a picture in the museum, to be included in an exhibition called “Close Encounters”. The artist had wanted to paint a picture after Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres for more than three decades, so he readily agreed.
Hodgkin has painted several other homages to the artists of the past, including After Corot, After Degas, After Morandi and After Matisse. But those pictures were all based on memories of particular groups of works by the artists in question. Seurat’s Bathers takes a single picture as its starting point. It is painted on top of a carefully drawn transcription of Seurat’s picture of men swimming and relaxing by the Seine, executed by Hodgkin’s studio assistant. It is, in addition, almost identical in size to Seurat’s painting.
Seurat’s Bathers is unique in Hodgkin’s work in that it allows the viewer to compare the artist’s donne with the painting that he produced from it. We obviously cannot go back in time to sit at dinner with Hodgkin in the Palazzo Albrizzi in 1984 and compare his perceptions of that particular evening with his picture, Dinner at Palazzo Albrizzi. But we can compare the Seurat – there it is, on the wall of the National Gallery – with what he has made of it. Seurat’s Bathers is therefore a picture which makes the artist’s working processes unusually visible.
Seurat’s painting seems to aspire to the timeless monumentality of a fresco by Piero della Francesca, whereas Hodgkin’s reworking of it pushes it in other directions. What was still becomes mobile; what was fixed becomes glanced; what was reserved becomes sensual, and vehement. A world where everyone and everything seems to exist, melancholically, in a perpetual state of apartness, has become a world where all touch and blend, where man and land and river and city have all become part of a continuum. A reflective modern pastoral has become a kind of bacchanal, where even if the figures themselves remain still and in their pre-ordained places the paint itself is dancing. Certain elements in Seurat’s painting, such as the dog, have been eliminated altogether, while others have been given an altogether greater prominence. The smoke from the distant factories in Seurat’s picture has become a great swipe of flesh-coloured pigment – this is the Industrial Revolution made palpable and turned into a great exhalation of human energies – while the still surface of the Seine has been churned into waves. Seurat’s picture is designed to hold the viewer at arm’s length, but Hodgkin’s picture invites the viewer to strip off and dive in.
What originally began as a dialogue between Hodgkin and Seurat became a conversation in which other painters’ voices can be heard. In creating his free variation on Seurat’s work, in possessing it and making it his own, the painter has clearly borne in mind the work of nearly all the other great French painters of the early modern period. Degas and Van Gogh and Renoir; Vuillard and Bonnard and Matisse – it is almost as if each in turn has been allowed to try his hand too at reworking the Bathers at Asnieres. The result is a riotous, exuberant work, a carnival celebration of art and life and the alchemical transformations wrought on the one by the other.
Although it is very unusual, taken in the context of the artist’s oeuvre as a whole, Seurat’s Bathers may also be seen as a kind of resume of his recent development. It is a picture in which the artist seems himself to be meditating on the nature of his own vision of things, acknowledging some of those who have helped him to arrive at it, while also measuring the distance which he has travelled.
In transforming Seurat’s masterpiece, Hodgkin has also created a kind of model or microcosm of the changes which he has wrought upon his own work since the mid-1990s. He has moved increasingly from drawing to gesture, from line to colour, from statement to suggestion - from a vision which depends on the perceived separation of man and that which he experiences to one which draws its very life and energy from a deep sense of their interconnectedness. The buzzing, pulsating world of Seurat’s Bathers seems to express a sensibility fascinated to the point of enchantment by the mysterious nature of everyday existence. In this, it is not at all the freak or sport which some might take it to be, but the very epitome of the later pictures. Like so many of them, it calls to mind Charles Lamb’s remark on the actor Munden: “He stands wondering, amid the commonplace materials of life, like primeval man with the sun and the stars about him.”
It would be wrong to present the later pictures as something entirely new. They are not. The questions that have driven the work all along have never changed. But those questions seem to have come back with renewed force, and greater clarity. What is a self? What am I? What is the nature of human experience? How can I paint it – and how can I make, from a painting of it, a monument in defiance of time?
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“Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else.” (Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest)
The Heat of the Day is a brilliantly concise expression of its stated subject matter - a few liquid stripes of red and green and yellow, swiped across a panel of wood, to conjure up noonday shimmer. Many of the artist’s later paintings have been straightforwardly pictorial in this way, particularly those - such as Evening Sea, Twilight and Seascape - which take experiences of landscape, weather and the times of their day as their themes. What you see is what you get, these works seem to affirm. But there may be more to them than meets the eye. Old Sky, for example, is a picture which immediately complicates the relationship of these frankly meteorological pictures to nature, since it seems to distil an essence of skies not as seen in life, but in art. Looking into this essence of Old Masterly atmosphere we come face to face with, so to speak, the varnished truth.
Few of these later paintings of weather and natural phenomena could be said to be directly mimetic. They suggest a growing interest in landscape as a theme, while simultaneously embodying the painter’s central preoccupation. They are among his boldest attempts yet to chart a particular part of the territory of selfhood, somewhere on the borders of memory and present vision. A picture such as End of the Day abstracts from perceived reality, while substituting its own equivalent reality of colour and form, in a considerably more extreme way than the pictures he was painting ten years earlier.
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Goethe wrote in his diary one day in 1833:
“I had entered an inn towards evening, and, as a well-favoured girl with a brilliantly fair complexion, black hair, and a scarlet bodice, came into the room, I looked attentively at her as she stood before me at some distance in half shadow. As she presently afterwards turned away, I saw on the white wall, which was now before me, a black face surrounded with a bright light, while the dress of the perfectly distinct figure appeared of a beautiful sea-green.”
Goethe was interested in colour theory, and intrigued by the way in which the experience of staring at one colour can subsequently produce the sensation - once that first colour has been removed or, as in this case, has absented itself - of staring at its complementary. Thus, green being the complementary of red, the figure in the scarlet bodice still registers on the eye, after she has left the room, as an after-image of “beautiful sea-green”.
But for all the acuity with which he describes the striking effects of complementaries, Goethe hardly emerges from the inn that evening as a model of empirical objectivity. He writes about staring at a pretty girl. In other words, he writes about what emotion can do to visual experience, and about the ways in which feeling - as well as the laws that govern perception - can complicate and alter what you see, or think you see. After all, if Goethe had not been staring so intensely (if the waitress had not been so pretty) he would never have experienced the phantom figure of the complementary. The experience doubtless changed in the remembering of it, too.
It is moments such as this, when vision, and inner vision, and emotion merge, which Hodgkin’s paintings continue so powerfully to evoke.
Many of the later pictures offer – as the title of one of them has it – a kind of Dark Mirror. Looking at them can sometimes feel like trying to look at what you see when your eyes are closed. Perhaps Lawrence Gowing was on to an important truth about Hodgkin’s work when he remarked - in a characteristically light but penetrating aside - “Ah, his paintings make me dream about appearances.”
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Ever-increasing directness of form and colour has been accompanied by an ever-decreasing interest in direct, one-to-one representation. In the 1970s and 1980s the artist would fairly often intrude recognisable shapes into his pictures: the outline of a figure or a building might emerge like a sudden apparition from the circumambient painted universe of bars, spots and veils. That practice has subsequently been more or less abandoned, so that every mark on the paintings is inimitably his own. It is as if the artist has come to accept the pictorial language that he has invented for himself in a new and fuller way. He has taken possession of his own devices more completely than ever before and has decided to allow them, and them alone, to carry his subject to the viewer. This has made it easier than ever to see that the experience which these pictures set out to capture is not vision pure and simple but contemplation.
There is evidently little point in trying to hunt out Max Gordon’s face in In Memory of Max Gordon. He is not present in the picture in the same way that Terence McInerny, say, is present in the artist’s considerably earlier portrait of him. The memories that lie behind the later work have been too fully transformed into a language of visual equivalents for that to be the case. The painter’s feeling for a friend has been translated into an object, and the kind of truth which it communicates is primarily moral and emotional. In Memory of Max Gordon is one of the largest of the artist’s pictures, one of the most sternly ordered, and one of the most welcomingly three-dimensional. It is a painting which frankly invites the viewer to enjoy an experience of light, space and form. (Max Gordon, not incidentally, was an architect.)
The American novelist Nicholson Baker, in his book U and I, has some interesting reflections on the theme of memorials, epitaphs and obituaries:
“The intellectual surface we offer to the dead has undergone a subtle change of texture and chemistry; a thousand particulars of delight and fellow-feeling and forbearance begin reformulating themselves the moment they cross the bar. The living are always potentially thinking about and doing just what we are doing: being pulled through a touchless car wash, watching a pony chew a carrot, noticing that orange scaffolding has gone up around some prominent church… Even when the dead…have died unexpectedly and relatively young, we give them their moment of solemnity and then quickly begin patronising them biographically, talking about how they ‘delighted in’ x or ‘poked fun at’ y - phrases that by their very singsong cuteness betray how alien and childlike the shades now are to us. Posthumously their motives become ludicrously simple, their delights primitive and unvarying: all their emotions wear stage make-up...”
Hodgkin’s memorials to his friends remain uninfected by the epidemic condescension of posterity - the “official” tones of regret familiar from newspaper obituaries - because they are painted epitaphs which have been designed to allow the dead as much unruly, unpredictable life as the living. In Memory of Max Gordon does not solemnly remember a man who “delighted in architecural form”, as one of Nicholson Baker’s patronising biographers might express it. Instead, the painting re-enacts such delight, embodies it - and thus offers up a very different (and very much more alive) form of memorial.
The scale of the picture would once have made it exceptional in the artist’s oeuvre - but not any more. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the painter’s art in the late 1970s and early 1980s – an era of overweeningly large canvases – was its relatively modest scale. But many of the most impressive works of Hodgkin’s later career – including such diverse paintings as Evening Sea, Night and Day, Memories and After Matisse – are large pictures, painted to the scale traditionally reserved for mythological or biblical subjects. The effect, however, is not one of aggrandisement but of an enhanced intimacy.
The painter has taken as much care as possible to preserve the compression and concentration of his smaller works. Some of his stratagems have been purely practical. He has used much bigger brushes for example, so that each individual brushstroke – such a vital element of his pictorial vocabulary – reads just as emphatically even though the scale of the painting might have been dramatically expanded.
For many artists, painting large pictures is a sign of enlarged ambition. In Hodgkin’s case that is manifestly not so because the ambition is always the same, to paint life. Enlarging the scale of his work is a different means to the same end, as well as a way of recognising that large pictures can involve the viewer in certain ways that small pictures cannot do, because they are nearer to the scale of sociable human life. While Hodgkin’s larger pictures may not offer the literal appearance of life-size figures, they do offer experiences, within them, which relate to human scale. They can be intoxicating, sensual and extravagant, in the manner of a Baroque altarpiece or Rococo fantasy; and it is fair to say that they expand the repertoire of his art considerably. But still the artist’s old suspicion of the grandiose or the bombastic persists. In his own words, “In the case of a successful large picture, it is as if we’re in this together.” He was referring to Drouais’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, in the National Gallery, but the remark applies equally well to his own work.
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In Memories the painter revisits once more the central theme of his art. It is a work which seems to belong to that category of pictures which represent not a moment of life but a particular aspect of consciousness - conjuring a state of mind, or a part of the way in which the mind works. Leaning columns of paint simultaneously animate and frame a recessive landscape at the centre of which we may fancy we see the opening to a cave. The handling of the paint is violent but expressive, almost suggesting a botch that has turned out, against the odds, to say what the painter wanted. Things in this world are mystifying but vivid, bright forms clustered and broken - seeming almost to dance and clamour, like inchoate versions of the figures in a Poussin bacchanal - around a void that is drawing them in.
Edgar Degas used to say he wanted to shoot all the industrious plein-air painters, toiling away devant le motif in Post-Impressionist Paris - not just because they were spoiling the view for everyone else, but because they had missed the point so badly. For Degas, the attempt to paint only what the eye sees was always doomed to failure (and dull failure, at that). Art’s subject should be what the mind’s eye sees, always a memory. Hence his opposition to nineteenth-century academic art education, which held that the more accomplished the student of painting became, the closer he should be placed to the model. Degas believed the exact opposite:
“If I were to run an art-school I should take a tall house, and I should put the model and the beginners in the top storey; and as a student’s work improved I should send him down a floor, until at last he would work upon the level of the street, and would have to run up six flights of stairs every time he wanted to look at the model.”
Howard Hodgkin is a graduate of this imaginary art academy.
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To the relative fixity and theatricality of traditional portraiture or narrative art, the painter continues to oppose his own more fluid and evanescent alternatives, painting pictures such as Escape or Fatherland which attempt to make introspection palpable. The latter - part flag, part wound, part seascape - glancingly recalls Samuel Johnson’s aphorism about patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel. Such paintings have, themselves, the living qualities of half-surfaced thoughts and feelings.
John Elderfield, in a correspondence with the painter subsequently published in the catalogue to his 1995 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York , asked him if he was familiar with the work of Proust and Freud. The answer was a fairly blunt no, which was not necessarily to deny that those writers have shaped his work in some way (after all, their ideas about memory, dreams and subconscious thought have been so pervasive that they are now simply part of the scenery). Nevertheless it may be more fruitful, in considering the notion of self to which his paintings give expression, to look back further in time than the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
It is difficult (and not altogether advisable) to try to put a date to the origins of what might be called modern self-consciousness. The Confessions of St Augustine mark a great shift in the Western conception of identity, and it is possible that if they had never been written we should not talk about “ourselves” in anything like the same way that we do now. But it was the French sixteenth-century writer Montaigne who, more than any other philosopher of the post-antique world, set the seal on a distinctively new and mobile conception of the self - and in so doing decisively reversed the direction of antique, classical thinking about human nature. Ancient thinkers were almost unanimous in the belief that beneath the ever-changing desires of the unwise soul, and standing firm against the flux of external reality, man’s true nature, his reason, was an unshakeable foundation. But for Montaigne,
“there is no constant existence, neither of our own being, nor of the objects. And we, and our judgement, and all mortall things else do uncessantly rowle, turne, and passe away… We have no communication with being; for every humane nature is ever in the middle between being borne and dying; giving nothing of itself but an obscure apparence and shadow, and an uncertaine and weak opinion. And if perhaps you fix your thought to take its being; it would be even, as if one should go about to grasp water…”
Standing in a room full of Hodgkin’s later paintings, it is tempting to believe that such a conception of existence has been given a visible form. There are other artists of whom this might be said, even one or two other British artists: Francis Bacon, for example, who in his most expressive works (his portrait diptychs and triptychs of the early 1960s, for example) snared the truth of being caught “in the middle between being borne and dying”. But whereas Bacon painted what the truant sense of self or human identity might look like from the outside, almost as if in a cartoon or caricature, Hodgkin has set out to paint what it feels like from the inside. In other words, looking at his pictures we are presented not with images of man but with analogues for experience. This was true of much of the earlier work, but it seems even more intensely true of later pictures such as Come Back Dull Care, or Once More with Feeling. Perhaps this is because they are works in which the traces of their own becoming are preserved with such delicacy and freshness. “As if to grasp water”: it is like seeing the shiftings of sensibility hung on a wall.
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I was in Rome a few years ago, sitting in a taxi with the window down, when a man and his girlfriend roared past on a motorbike. It was a moment that stuck in my mind. That couple speeding through the city, too fast for me even to fix on them, seemed somehow to embody life and hope and energy and pleasure.
How do I remember that moment, thinking about it now? I remember a warm wind blowing through the car window; a motorbike flashing past; people smiling in the street as if to applaud; the silhouette of Bernini’s Triton fountain; and the green graffiti of the Hotel Bernini - BERNINI - shining in the sky. I remember all of these things, but merged and blended one with another.
Just as Turner taught us to look at sunsets, or at least taught us to pay them a different quality of attention, so too - I believe - Hodgkin has called attention to an aspect of human experience often previously overlooked. He has made us see the relationship between memory and feeling and vision in a new light. He has opened up a rather mysterious part of life and helped us to think of it afresh.
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Charles-Nicholas Cochin, in his memoir Essai sur la vie de M. Chardin, published in 1780, tells the story of Chardin’s growing annoyance with an artist of limited gifts and a “cold, overworked style”, who loved to boast about the purity and the perfection of his colours.
“Who told you that an artist paints with colours?” Chardin asked him.
“What else does one paint with?” came the surprised response.
“One uses colours,” said Chardin, “but one paints with feeling.”
Hardcover: 232 pages
Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd; 2Rev Ed edition (Mar 2001)
Product Dimensions: 27.8 x 23.6 x 2.6 cm