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Howard Hodgkin at the National Portrait Gallery
April 5, 2017
Stepping into the new Howard Hodgkin retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London, you’ll need to forget everything you think you know about a portrait. Throw away ideas of stuffy courtiers in ruffs and Kings on stallions, because Hodgkin redefined the art of the portrait.
A giant of modern British art, Howard Hodgkin (1932 – 2017) made a name with his luscious abstract paintings smeared with radiant colour to recreate intimate memories of loved ones and encounters in time. But these are no ordinary photographs of people and places. Hodgkin translated everything he remembered feeling in that moment into a riot of vivid paint. Awkward confrontations become flashes of colour and the memory of waking up beside a lover is transformed into a sensuous silhouette. For someone who was so notoriously standoffish, Hodgkin was pretty fearless when it came to projecting his most private thoughts across a gallery’s walls.
Take the title work of the show ‘Absent Friends’, a dark painting of languid brushstrokes masking a lightening strike of turquoise beneath. Hodgkin wanted this painting of muddied crimson and white to represent what it feels like to lose someone that you love. The result is something wonderfully unique and emotional, not least because this is also the final exhibition that Hodgkin had a hand in before his sudden death earlier this March. While the National Portrait Gallery certainly didn’t sign up for this swift weighty responsibility, it’s undeniable that the show rises to the challenge.
At 84, Hodgkin had become one of the giants of 20th century British Art. He had a Tate retrospective, Turner Prize, Venice Biennale exhibition and many other major international shows under his belt. However his lavish streams of colour spanning the spectrum of human emotion made him tricky to define under any movement. If anything Hodgkin was more like Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon or even the man-of-the-moment David Hockney, who is immortalised in this show with a tongue-in-cheek image of the artist emerging from his L.A pool. Hodgkin too was himself a curious character: married in 1955 to Julia Lane, he has since become a gay icon infamously riddled with self-doubt.
Of course, there is much more to Hodgkin than his painterly credentials. On display are examples from his early student days in New York, London and Corsham that reveal his experimental edge. The show then does a worthy job of setting a chronological course through Hodgkin’s career, navigating the 1960s and ‘70s when he first began to include a frame in his work. Splashing colour over the edge of the canvas, Hodgkin traps the rush of emotions inside his painterly borders. In to the 1980s, Hodgkin’s scrumptious self-portrait coated in green and bubble-gum pink feels like a glimpse at the answers to all the questions that he evaded during his life.
While Hodgkin has ebbed and flowed from popularity, this latest exhibition feels like a love letter to an artist that painted like no other. As a final bow, it is a last chance to understand this unique figure in British art before his memories gather moss and there is no one left to decipher them.
Words by Claire Phillips
Howard Hodgkin; Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery, 23 March – 18 June 2017.