Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Howard Hodgkin, Absent Friends @ National Portrait Gallery

Howard Hodgkin, Absent Friends, 2000-2001
I imagined many visitors to the Howard Hodgkin exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery would be bemused by the claim that the works in display are actually portraits. My favorite piece in the exhibition consisted of two think brushstrokes in two shades of blue on a wooden support. How, I wondered, would that be seen as a portrait? Nothing about it resembled a replication of the human face. But the few people who shared this wonderful exhibition with me were much more art savvy and sympathetic than I had anticipated. All of which is to say, this is not a summer blockbuster. The National Portrait Gallery doesn’t bill it as such, but rather, but it is for the well-trained art viewer.
Howard Hodgkin, The Tilsons, 1965-67
Even though my expectations of the work were not so high, it still took me some time to get into the paintings. The opening image, Absent Friends (2000-2001)) which gives the exhibition its title, consisting of a handful of abstract earth colored brushstrokes, horizontally wavering across the canvas. The painting was contemplative and generous in its reflection on and memory of lost loved ones. But then, with the beginning of the exhibition proper we are taken back to Hodgkin’s early portraits. Like most young painters, the early work is heavily influenced by what is in his environment: most notably, the traces of German expressionism and, a little later, the postwar abstraction of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, followed by pop art. As he searches for his own style and visual language, Hodgkin’s work is not yet compelling.
Howard Hodgkin, Going for a Walk with Andrew,  1995-98
When Hodgkin comes into his own around the 1960s, he begins to do something quite unique in painting. Not only does he lead portraiture away from the human figure, to the point where in most of the works, the semblance of a face is nowhere to be found. But perhaps more profoundly, he finds the self and its identity in color and the variations of his visual language. Dots, lines, long brushstrokes become the expression of emotions, and atmosphere. The spatial organization of the image, together with the exciting colors, carry the revelations of identity and character. I don’t know another abstract painter who does this.  

Howard Hodgkin, Waking up in Naples, 1980-84
The colors in the substantial middle period (my categorization) move from psychadelic oranges and blues to muted earth tones. Even though the paintings are given the title of a person’s name, it doesn’t seem as though the physical person matters. What matters to Hodgkin is the memory of the emotions he experienced when he first saw the person. Or, in a painting titled, Waking up in Naples (1980-84), I imagine that the oranges and blues might be the world around the figure – the sea and the brilliant red sun setting on the Mediterranean coast. It could of course also represent the intensity of emotion that Hodgkin experienced when he saw the woman in the morning. However, we interpret them, these are not portraits that give any insight into the sitter. They do of course, reveal much about the artist and his concerns and preoccupations.
Howard Hodgkin, Souvenirs, 1984
One of the most interesting is his ongoing exploration of the object of painting. Throughout the exhibition, we see his use of the frame as a canvas for a vision that cannot be easily contained. Alternatively, layers of paint on Souvenirs, 1984, becomes a series of curtains or masks over the painting itself. It is as though the dots are a veil over the painting, hiding and the recoil from revelation to the world. In this way, painting itself might be said to be the sitter in these works.
Howard Hodgkin, Blue Portrait, 2011
As he gets older, the paint becomes looser, the abstraction becomes more intense, until the most provocative image: Blue Portrait (2011), a few broad blue brushstrokes on wood. The painting is said to catch a fleeting moment in which Selina Fellows appeared at the bar in a blue dress at an opening of his exhibition at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. To me it captures the abstract, aleatory nature of memory in its often nonsensical play with the world of reality. The small painting is tender and playful, whimsical and melancholic, all at the same time. Such complex expression of emotion, together with bold colors and elusive meaning, make these portraits unique among the work of his British compatriots in the 20th century.

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