Saturday, 9 August 2008

Howard Hodgkin

Howard Hodgkin, Realism

I have always wondered why people paint if they don't like the stuff. True, there is an element of mere luxuriance in oil paint that goes against some grains and it may be that Howard Hogkins verges on what certain branches of society regard as de trop. Too bad. Can't be helped.

I like a bit of askesis myself, share some of the instinct for it, but Hodgkin gets to me. I can't be bothered to resist him. Not even tempted to. I welcome those gorgeous splodges of his. Not that he is a great epic artist like, say, Kiefer. He is not a whole desolate land soaked through with history. There is little outside world for him. He is an exotic plant in the corner of the room. A voluptuary.

He comes to mind now because I have been writing, or trying to write, a series of short poems about his work, partly as a result of the welcome prompting of a magazine. I have four poems now, all written very fast, including one about, or out of, the painting above. I still regard it as a draft. I don't quite know what I'm doing in fact. But that, of course, can be a good thing.

So what is it about this particular painting?

There's the spillover for a start, the rich bourgeois frame invaded by a heady colour that billows over it. The application is soft-handed, the paint pressed, almost pushed on. The turquoise verges on aquamarine. In the middle it blurs and muddies, then sharpens to a vivid streak of orange that suggests both flame and leaf. The whole is autumnal. The hint of sky and horizon behind the orange has a heroic feel as if Emil Nolde had been looking over Hodgkin's shoulder. Echoes of Nolde run through Hodgkin's work. He is a more pervasive presence there than those Indian miniatures people compare Hogkin's work to. The miniatures are delicate and spiky. Hodgkin is blunt. More Nolde. Nolde, of course, is more bitter, darker, more about premonition. Hodgkin is about memory, or rather nostalgia.

Nostalgia at its least sentimental is the sense of having been somewhere we had to leave for one reason or another. You get it in Elgar, in the Cello Concerto. You get it, much more poignantly and tragically in Schubert. Even in Verdi.

OK, let's not get too swoony, to twerpish about this. Hodgkin is a sensualist, that's all. HH in melancholy afterglow in a prospect of flowers. But the senses are what we work through and denying them does no one any good. They are something to hold on to, to celebrate. You don't get them for ever, not even for that long.


Mark Granier said...

"I have always wondered why people paint if they don't like the stuff."

I've sometimes wondered that too, as I have wondered how 'poets' can write while clearly displaying a contempt for language (or for meaning anyway, which is an intrinsic part of language).

Anyway, that's a nice tribute, and an interesting painter to talk about. He is certainly a voluptuary/sensualist, someone in love with the modus operandi of oil painting.

I was introduced to Hodgkin's work some years ago by my friend/cousin Pat MacAllister, an excellent painter himself. I've spent the last half hour or so trying to pinpoint exactly whose work Hodgkins' colouring and brush-strokes puts me in mind of. You mention Nolde as a presence. Maybe, though I wouldn't have thought of him. I wondered if it might be Soutine, but no. Van Gogh to some extent, another sensualist, a master of the numinous shimmer. And Van Gogh has a brilliantly "Autumnal" 'Still Life With Fruit' (which leapt out at me when I visited the VG Museum in Amsterdam) in which the paint brims over to take in the flat wood frame. But there is that dreamy sense of deja vu that prods me when I look at Hodkin's work. Maybe it is that element of nostalgia you speak about. I don't know. But it is a part of the pleasure.

Another interesting tribute by Robert Hughes (from 1982, before Hodgkin started on larger paintings) here:
A more recent review, from a 2007 show, here:
The review includes a short slide show of good reproductions. Check out 'Old Books'. A remarkable painting, you can SMELL the aromatic dustiness.

George S said...

Many thanks, Mark. I am not sure about the Van Gogh comparison. Vincent seems chunkier, drier, and more neurotic - almost furious in his application, but I'll take another look at the autumnal one you mention. I can see what you mean about Soutine. And thanks for the Hughes link too. I'll definitely check that.

My impression over various visits is that Irish painters are generally much more painterly than the ones here.

Anonymous said...

George, how exciting to have comments open here! I've always loved Hodgkin. It never occurred to me that he might be too much for people, as such, maybe only that they might not "like him" - for whatever reason. I just instinctively love him - & your melancholy appreciation of hos exuberant nostalgia pretty much hits the mark. Did you see the Tate show two years ago? It was incredible, I had to leave and come back again.

George S said...

I do love Hodgkin. He is one of the last resorts for those who really really like paint, much as I used to when I was a painter (though nowhere near as good as he is.)

It's an English thing - maybe a kind of residual protestant suspicion of anything that gets too gorgeous. I seem to remember that he came under fire from some corners of the cultural studies school of criticism that equated the personal and voluptuous with bourgeois degeneracy. He wasn't critical enough of late capitalist hegemony for them.

On the other hand it could be just what I first said.

Or indeed something else.