Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends review – hello, not goodbye
Source:theguardian Author:Rachel Cooke Date: 2017-03-30 Size:
The National Portrait Gallery’s new Howard Hodgkin show borrows its title from Absent Friends……

‘Big and sombre and unexpectedly free-flowing’: Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music, 2011-2016 by Howard Hodgkin.Photograph: © Howard Hodgkin

The National Portrait Gallery’s new Howard Hodgkin show borrows its title from Absent Friends, a picture (2000-1) in which broad strokes of black and brown gradually shade into stripes of muddy, fleshy white and then, finally, into a band of the artist’s favourite turquoise. To my eyes, this painting is not a portrait. Rather, it is an expression of what it means to miss someone: a visual ache in which longing is delicately balanced against the hope of return, the turquoise bringing to mind a summer sea as glimpsed from a far-off hill. Nevertheless, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate work with which to open an exhibition of what the gallery is quite determined to call portraits. Hodgkin died on 9 March at the age of 84, for which reason the exhibition, just like Absent Friends, is black-bordered, his loss running through the mind on a loop. But as you wander round, something else bubbles away too: an insistent, green-blue optimism. This, you come to realise, is hello again, not goodbye.

Absent Friends, 2000-1. Photograph: © Howard Hodgkin

Hodgkin was always deeply involved with the building of his shows, and this one was no exception: Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music (2011-16), which hangs on a (turquoise) wall in the final room, was completed with it in mind. Clearly, then, he regarded all of the paintings included to be portraits. Are they really, though? The exhibition’s curator, Paul Moorhouse, has had to perform some pretty high-level semantic gymnastics in order to justify its thoroughgoing use of that word. When, for instance, he insists that to focus (as Hodgkin’s definitely does not) on the surface of human beings is to give an “incomplete account of their essential nature”, my first instinct was to snort. Surely every portrait, whether realist or abstract, strives to suggest the complicatedness beneath; no one would ever describe, say, one of Goya’s faces as an “incomplete account” of the subject. But maybe this rubric is just a means of forestalling the confusion of National Portrait Gallery visitors about to see interiors, landscapes and a good deal of abstraction.

If so, it’s unnecessary as well as silly. It can only be a good thing that the exhibition’s parameters are set much wider than the poster suggests. In the end, it functions as a small retrospective with a special emphasis on people, whether recollected by the artist in terms of the emotions they evoked, or the places they haunted. The critic Anthony Lane once wrote that Hodgkin sometimes used to talk “as if paint were greasepaint – as if his works were a cast of characters, devised, directed and gorgeously costumed by him, then left on stage to find their own way”, a statement that baffled me when I read it. But at the Portrait Gallery it seemed suddenly to make sense. In spite of its title, Absent Friends is for the most part as noisy as it is contemplative. Here Hodgkin captures (in mood, at least) a bird of paradise, and here a voluptuary; here is someone enviably at ease with their body, and here is another rather more demure. One painting, a portrait of the journalist Paul Levy painted between 1976 and 1980, suggested to me a man with rather too many opinions, for around what we take to be a human head floats a cloud of blobs that look like nothing so much as fragments of yellowing paper.

Memoirs, 1949. Photograph: © Howard Hodgkin

After Absent Friends, the memorial to departure that greets arrivals, the exhibition proceeds chronologically, beginning with some rarities in the form of drawings and paintings made when Hodgkin was at Camberwell School of Art (1949-50) and Bath Academy of Art, Corsham (1950-4). Initially, Memoirs (1949) seems a world away from Hodgkin’s mature work: this is close to pop art, cartoony and flat. But it clearly foreshadows his later preoccupation with how so nebulous a thing as friendship might best be depicted in oil. The artist, yellow-trousered and red-tied, is listening to a family friend, Aunt Bette, who is lying on a couch (it was to her house on Long Island that Hodgkin was evacuated during the war). Her face cannot be seen, the eye falling instead on her witchy, taloned fingers. What is she saying? A look at the artist’s face suggests a certain fond indulgence. Painted from memory, the nostalgia at play here is unnerving given that Hodgkin was only 17 at the time. Some people, though, are born nostalgic, and he seems to have been one of them. Moving on, we find Gramophone (1957), a tender, sludgy sort of painting halfway between figuration and abstraction in which two friends are, apparently, listening to music. With its earth browns and aspidistra greens, it harks back to another time, when rationing was in, and people had still to cut up their blackout curtains. Is it just me, or are these two music-loving boys in flannel shorts?

Hodgkin found himself as an artist relatively early in his career. From the 60s on, there is progression, the collage effect of his way of painting becoming gradually more seamless, every element more finely balanced. Perspective shifts and wobbles, and space grows more ambiguous, at once expansive and enclosed. In the 70s, he began making the frame an integral part of the picture – or to permit the picture to colonise the frame. But no truly startling changes took place. The overwhelming impression, always, is of blazing colour, pulsing casts that most often dazzle and dance, but which also sometimes fall still, producing as they do a kind of metaphorical hum. Either way, they give off a tantalising heat. In front of Visitors (2002-5), a painting that is the obverse of Absent Friends in terms of tone, you might almost warm your hands on its plumes of orange and sienna.

DH in Hollywood, 1980-84. Photograph: © Howard Hodgkin

These are domestic, autobiographical, highly intimate paintings. Some will fall for the cheek of DH in Hollywood (1980-4), in which David Hockney appears as a rose coloured phallic symbol (Hodgkin painted him in his swimming pool). Others will be seduced by the exuberant stage set of Grantchester Road (1975), which evokes the home of the architect Colin St John Wilson and in which, if you look carefully, Hodgkin appears as a thin figure marooned behind a thick, black easel. But I was drawn to the more restrained Kathy at La Heuzé (1997-8), an abstract portrait of Hodgkin’s friend Katherine Sachs in front of a stone wall painted in shades of grey and yellow, and to A Small Thing But My Own (1983-5), which is impossible accurately to describe – a composition of green, blue and orange is set in a blue-black frame like jewels on velvet – but has an astonishing harmony. Occasionally, as when informed that I was looking at the collectors Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, “two very old friends of mine… below a small painting by Bonnard” (Dinner at Smith Square, 1975-9), I had to fight irritation (get you, Mr Hodgkin). But mostly I didn’t mind playing the eavesdropper, the peeping Tom.

Tears for Nan, 2014. Photograph: Prudence Cuming Associates/© Howard Hodgkin

For me, though, it’s the last room that makes this show really worth seeing. Here there hang just three pictures, late works that are each very different from one another. Blue Portrait (2011-12) was inspired by the dress of a Selina Fellows and consists, flashily, of two broad brushstrokes, one an Yves Klein blue, the other a shade of navy. Tears for Nan (2014) responds to the death of a friend, the curator Nan Rosenthal, with a shower of green-yellow blobs. And then there is Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music, big and sombre and unexpectedly free-flowing. As he painted it, Hodgkin listened to Jerome Kern’s The Last Time I Saw Paris, a song he must have known almost all his life and one that certainly explains the picture’s storm clouds and pigeon-grey streaks. Here are the rooftops of memory: mossy, distant, unreachable.

[Editor] 姜鑫

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