Making colours sing

Making colours sing

Different strokes

Making colours sing
Three years ago, The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones had observed how “far from relaxing or resting in his 80s, Hodgkin – in spite of an illness that knocked him sideways a few years ago – is painting with staggering energy and power.” The celebrated British artist was quoted as saying: “Once I stop painting, they should start measuring my coffin.”

Howard Hodgkin’s passing away last month (on March 9, 2017) in London, aged 84, seems particularly unkind because not one but two important shows of his were just coming up. ‘Absent Friends’, the first survey of his work in portraiture, was slated to open at London’s National Portrait Gallery on March 23. More than 50 paintings were beginning to be installed in the gallery when the sad news of his death filtered in.

The importance of the exhibit was immense; and Hodgkin was personally involved in the planning of the show. “We’ve got the very first painting he ever made, and the last painting he made,” revealed curator Paul Moorhouse, “and so the entire career is now framed.”

Covered by critics
Scheduled to conclude on June 18, ‘Absent Friends’ has already attracted wide interest and critical consent. Philip Henser (Daily Mail /March 25, 2017) has called it “a wonderful farewell to the greatest English painter of our time”; while Mark Hudson of The Daily Telegraph echoed: “a wonderful send-off for the man who made colour sing from the canvas.” For Michael Glover of The Guardian, the show was a pleasant surprise. “Who would have guessed that he had made so many portraits, and so consistently throughout his life? It’s a much better show than the Tate retrospective of 2006, sharper, more singing.”

‘Painting India’ is the second Hodgkin exhibition coming up this summer at the Hepworth Wakefield (July 1 - October 8, 2017). Displaying more than 35 works painted over the last 50 years, this would be “the first comprehensive exhibition to explore the enduring influence of India on Hodgkin’s work, a place he returned to almost annually, since his first trip to the country in 1964, over 50 years ago.”

According to the gallery, the paintings in the show characterise “the colour and warmth of India and capture the artist’s sensory impressions of the country — from fierce blazing sunsets to heavy oppressive rains, landscapes and cities he has visited, and portraits of the people he has befriended.” The show would also present rarely seen photographs and documents from Hodgkin’s personal archive; along with the journals kept by him documenting his journeys in India, to be displayed publicly for the first time.

Indian subjects
Hodgkin’s ardent admiration of Indian colours, culture, landscape and people is well known and has been written about. While returning to partake its ‘colossal majesty’ every year, he often admitted that even his very first trip to India had proved a revelation. “It changed my way of thinking and, probably, the way I paint.” Going further, he once told an interviewer: “I can’t paint without a subject. Coming to India gave me many subjects.”

Personal encounters and experiences prompted Hodgkin to produce a steady stream of India-inspired paintings which carried titles such as ‘The Terrace, Delhi’; ‘Autumn in Bombay’; ‘Indian Waves’; ‘Indian Sky’; ‘In the studio of Jamini Roy’ and so on.

The country also inspired him to build an extraordinary collection of Indian miniatures. “When I collected Indian miniatures, I was never obsessive about their condition. That meant I could occasionally afford to buy masterpieces.” Over time, his collection expanded so much that it turned out to be among the finest in the world. “The Indian miniatures haven’t influenced my paintings,” he once revealed, “but collecting has made me very aware of quality, and increasingly demanding of my own work.” There is even a popular story that Hodgkin once sold 60 of his own paintings to fund the purchase of a solitary Indian work. Apparently, he was not one to look for bargains and discounts. “Don't collect bargains, collect masterpieces” —that was his avowed mantra. 

Hodgkin, who won the prestigious Turner prize in 1985 and was knighted in 1992 had some unique personality traits. According to an observer, he was a maddeningly difficult man to engage with in conversation – high-handed, taciturn, rude, maddeningly obtuse, unforthcoming. “He is a man who loves and hates with a passion, and is very emotional,” recalled Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery who curated Hodgkin’s first museum exhibition in 1976. “He will cry very easily and flares up, both in terms of colour and temper, very quickly. That can be quite disturbing and it is sometimes quite difficult to deal with. But it is because he holds his convictions so strongly.”

When he chose to, Hodgkin was very erudite and expressive in words as with his paintings. Throughout his career, he took pains to explain that his paintings were not abstractions but representations.   “I’m a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.”  He was not interested in being a story-teller either. “The more people want to know the story, the less they’ll want to look at the picture.”

Hodgkin painted very thoughtfully and slowly, some paintings taking years and even decades to complete. His signature style included stripes and bands, swipes and dots rendered in glowingly radiant colours which often stretched across the frames. Eminent art critic Howard Hughes once described Hodgkin’s work as, “feelings declared in colour.” 

In his final years, when forced to move in a wheel-chair, Hodgkin remained active and painted using long, specially-made brushes. “My life is gradually coming to an end,” he told an interviewer. “I don’t know how much time is there. But I have to proceed with modest caution and try to make the most of what time is left.” Asked if his art gave him pleasure; his answer was cryptic and emphatic. “No, it doesn’t. Because I always think it should have been better. It shouldn’t be as inadequate as it often seems to me to be.”