(Howard Hodgkin, 1932-)
The main event of the past two or three years [this article was written in 1982 - MH], as far as the New York art world is concerned, has been the "rebirth" of European art mainly young, German and Italian, expressionist in mode and flirtatiously eclectic in tone. The spectrum of achievement runs from mere operators like Salome to deeply serious artists of the caliber of Anselm Kiefer. The fact that an American audience is paying attention to European painting once more comes as a relief, but before attention gets wholly stylized as fashion, it is worth remembering that England is part of Europe and that some English painters have more to offer than other, more loudly promoted figures of the day. One of them is Howard Hodgkin, whose exhibition is now at Knoedler & Company.
Hodgkin is fifty this year: a diffident man with a tough, discursive mind and a long background in art history, collecting and teaching. His work comes directly out of the French tradition known as Intimism, which coincides with the rise of middle class life as the cultural norm and runs (roughly) from Chardin in the eighteenth century to Bonnard, Vuillard andMatisse in the early twentieth. It assumes that the ordinary, day to day relationships of an artist's domestic life - his family, his parlor, his cook, his cat, the almond tree that can be seen in flower if you crane your neck a little bit to the left of the studio window on this particular day in early May - is deeply interesting as a subject for painting. Not because it is lent grandeur by being part of the stage of an artist's life - that kind of egotistical silliness is quite alien to the Intimist tradition - but rather, because it shows that life obliquely, in its ordinary quality, just like yours or mine, and then slightly transcends its commonplaceness, thus giving us hope of meaning, by analogy, in our own lives.
Hence, Intimism shuns the grandiose. It argues, without getting polemical about it, that painting can reasonably leave the demands of public declamation the world of David or Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, ofIngres's Apotheosis of Homer or Picasso's Guernica or, in our day, the reflections of Kiefer on German romanticism and German guilt out of the picture. It has no need for allegory or moralizing. It wants to get one thing right at a time. The subjects of the artist are all around him, in his private life. Quite a small corner of that life can be enough. The scale is rarely big because you don't need bombast in the Intimist context - all heroics look forced - and the merits are closeness of feeling, modesty of scale, and a witty accuracy about place and character. Intimism likes the interior view. It is apt to see the world from inside the house, through a window a frame within the frame. Objects tend to take on the role of characters, which appear over and over again: the dusty bottles and rustling bouquets of paper flowers in Morandi's studio, the striped wallpaper in Vuillard's sitting room, Matisse's curly black iron balcony, the funny little dachshund on his mat in Bonnard's bathroom. By the same token, people have the permanence of objects: Bonnard's wife, Vuillard's invalid aunt.
Intimism is sociable art. But it does not take off from society at large. Now all these characteristics are part of Howard Hodgkin's work. Its special aura is an intimacy that verges on voyeurism, whose details are somewhat muffled by abstractness and generalizing, but whose sense of place and even social ambience comes through quite clearly once you have grasped the general drift of the work. Hodgkin grew up in libraries and gardens. His family was related on one hand to the intellectual clan of the Huxleys, and on the other to Roger Fry, the great English critic who gave Post Impressionism its name when holding the first English show ofCezanne, Matisse, van Gogh and others at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1910. One of Hodgkin's most vivid childhood experiences was being taken to visit Fry's sister Margery, whose house was full of brightly painted furniture from the Omega Workshop: this had a deep effect on the tablets of painted wood that constitute Hodgkin's grown up work. His grandfather was a medical scientist after whom Hodgkin's disease is named. His father was a garden designer. In dealing with Hodgkin we are not dealing with a naif, a painter with a self made culture, but rather with a highly sophisticated man in whom the pastoral and the empirical mingle in sometimes rather unpredictable ways. And a literary background led him to think visually in terms of a certain scale: the page of a book. For Hodgkin a very big picture is three feet square. There is not a more educated painter alive, and it would be hard to think of one whose erudition was more exactly placed at the disposal of feeling. His paintings look abstract but are full of echoes of figures, rooms, sociable encounters; they are small, "unheroic" but exquisitely phrased. The space they evoke is closed, artificial, without horizon or other legible reference to landscape. One seems to be looking into a box full of colored flats and wings - a marionette stage, behind whose proscenium the blobs and cylinders of color glow with shivering, theatrical ebullience. "Curious," as English art historian Lawrence Gowing remarked in a recent essay on Hodgkin's work, "that no one has recognized in Hodgkin a God-given stage designer, a man with a mission to the theater of enrichment and augmentation."
Because Hodgkin's type of abstract flatness admits the eye some way into the picture and identifies the surface as an imaginary opening, it has nothing to do with the idealized flatness of sixties American color field painting. It hovers on the edge of scenic recognition, tricking the viewer into the thought that just one more clue might disclose a particular room or restaurant, a familiar scene. Sometimes it will. The most spectacular painting in the current show, In the Bay of Naples, 1980-82, presents itself as a soft hive of colored blobs, blooming and twinkling in rows, against a dark ground. Lit windows? Strings of restaurant lights? A view from a terrace? Then more specific things appear: a pinkish vertical, another stage flat, turns into a stucco wall; a cobalt patch at the center, where the vanishing point would be if there were any perspective, resolves itself as a glimpse of sea; the S of creamy green paint that lights the whole painting with its contradictory glare, leaping against the more tentative and modulated speckling of the rest of the surface, is the wake of a speedboat, tracing its phosphorescent gesture on the night water.
There is a strongly private, autobiographical element in Hodgkin's work; it refers to friendships one does not know about, to conversations in rooms long since quitted. But it resists transmission as anecdote. "The picture," Hodgkin says firmly, "is instead of what happened. We don't need to know the story; generally the story's trivial anyway. The more people want to know the story, the less they'll look at the picture." Likewise, the paintings are full of references to other art, usually of a rather arcane sort. But they seem casually, even inattentively deployed, coming out not as formal homages to this or that master but as a function of temperament. Like Bonnard, whose work he reveres, Hodgkin is a fidgety peeper into secular paradises and controllable realms of pleasure. But as befits a painter who makes no bones about his belief in the continuity of past and present, part of the pleasure lies in the conversation between his work and its sources.
One of the main sources (a parallel text, as it were) is Indian miniature painting, of which he has long been a collector. The jeweled colors and flattened space of the court miniature, the way all natural detail is filtered by artifice, and above all the sense it provides of looking past the edge of the ordinary world into a privileged domain all this is echoed and modified in his own small paintings.
But such influences are melded into a wholly modernist idiom. Hodgkin does to the Indian miniature what Matisse did to Islamic decoration; the source is not simply quoted but also transformed. The miniaturist's precision of edge and line is replaced by a fuzzy, affable kind of formal system nursery toy versions, almost, of the sphere, cube and cylinder, those intimidating platonic solids of programmatic modernism. His pigment, however, has an extraordinary range of effect. His work sports in the transparency, density and sweet pastiness that only oil paint can give. Surfeited by color, twinkling with fields of dots (like enlarged details of a Seurat, betokening light), its casual surface can look clumsy; but that is only Hodgkin playing with the idea of clumsiness, extracting an educated pleasure from the babyish joys of daubing. In fact, his taste rarely fails, and his talent as a colorist is unsurpassed among living painters. Both place his paintings squarely in the tradition whose praises they modestly sing.
- From Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical