Howard Hodgkin, Absent Friends, National Portrait Gallery, 23 March-18 June 2017
FRANCESCA ALBINI writes:-
When we think of portraits, we tend to think in terms of figurative work, we imagine a portrait to show the features, the likeness of the subject. Not Howard Hodgkin. During his 65-year-long career, Hodgkin explored the idea of portrait in a completely different way, reaching the apogee of his progression in the virtually abstract Absent Friends, the painting after which the exhibition takes its title. Interestingly, this is also the first picture shown, and the only work hanging in the first room. Absent Friends does not refer to individuals, it’s a recollection of ideas and emotions connected to friends who are not present, and captured by expressive, but totally non-figurative, brushstrokes.
Hodgkin’s fascination with portrait started early on in his life. Memoirs (1949), made at the age of 17, depicts the artist listening to a friend who is lying on a couch, as in a psychoanalytic session. Although still highly figurative, this painting has in nuce most of the themes that will develop later: the autobiographical aspect of any portrait, the choice of family and friends as ‘sitters’, their interaction with the environment, the role of memory.
The progression of the artist’s relationship with portrait, on the whole, is very linear and chronological. Walking from room to room in sequence, we can see the gradual but constant shift in priorities. The human figure becomes less prominent, more like a hint, a few pink pieces of a puzzle in which the human subjects and their environment are of equal importance, in total absence of hierarchy. The environment, in the earlier works, is depicted using a style that resembles the subject’s vision. For instance, in the case of Mr and Mrs Robyn Denny, the blue and white background is a quotation of Denny’s geometric compositions, and Mr & Mrs Patrick Caulfield could easily be a painting by Caulfield himself. All of these double portraits are also very interesting, the subjects are often couples from the art world, and we can see, perceive rather, their interaction.
Hodgkin’s concern with portrait is also with the identity of the artwork as self-contained, independent of the subject. In the artist’s words, ‘The paramount difficulty is to make the picture into as finite and solid an object as possible in physical terms and to include nothing irrelevant or confusing.’ The shift continues from the subjects’ perspective of themselves and their environment, to the emotions inspired by them, to an increased presence of the artist himself, in terms of recollection, feelings, interpretation, even self-portrait. From the mid-Sixties, Hodgkin starts ‘framing’ his work with colourful brushstrokes, ‘…so that [the emotion] will remain protected and intact’. Although to protect and contain was the artist’s intention in adding the frames, the expansion of the brushstrokes onto the real wooden frames can also be an expansion of the painting into the viewer’s surroundings, drawing us in, compenetrating our space. We too blend in, in this recollection, in the accumulation of experiences gathered, or provoked, by the subject portrayed.
Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music (2011-2016) is the artist’s final work, commissioned by the NPG, and shown here to the public for the first time.
Howard Hodgkin, one of Britain’s greatest artists, passed away peacefully, age 84, only two weeks before the opening of the exhibition.