Walking around this remarkable exhibition of work by Howard Hodgkin:Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery you can feel the presence of the artist very strongly. Less than two weeks ago we heard that he had died, just as the first of 50 portraits were being put in place at the gallery, a sad irony. However, Curator, Paul Moorhouse, said that Hodgkin had been delighted to hear that his portraits were being assembled for a major retrospective, “at last”.
Hodgkin has been a central figure in contemporary art for some 60 years. Clearly he was prodigiously talented as a child and his family encouraged his artistic interest. Not much from his early years survives but some fascinating sketches have been included in this exhibition. Looking at them you would think that they must have been done from life but no; apparently they were done from memory some time after the event. What concerned Hodgkin was the idea of memory and how memory selects what feels important about a person, a scene or an experience. As Hodgkin’s work evolved he developed a very individual ‘language’, a way of conveying emotion, memory and sensation through the bold and colourful use of oil paint.
It was fascinating to learn that so many of Hodgkin’s portraits were made at a distance; not for him the studio ‘eye-balling’ of his contemporary, David Hockney. Hodgkin’s aim was to conjure the personality, the feeling and the environment of the person or people in the portrait. Although the gestural brush strokes and strong, clear colour give the impression that his portraits might have been done in a whoosh of energy over a short span of time, the opposite is true. He took his time over each picture, apparently putting them away to revisit it at a later date, building up the layers of paint to create texture and deepen colour. His use of colour opposites too, for instance combinations of red and green, make your eyes dance when gazing at the pictures.
The portraits are mainly of his friends, colleagues, confederates or people he loved or encountered in his life. The idea of creating a literal likeness did not interest him. He wanted to go deeper and create pictorial spaces which ooze personal resonance and capture private or shared experiences.
The last room in the show contains his most recent work and is dominated by a very moving self-portrait. Paul Moorhouse asked Hodgkin if he would like to contribute a new work to this important show. The result was a vast canvas which Hodgkin had started work on some years ago but revisited towards the end of 2016. He was too frail to stand up and his gallery assistants supported him so that he could paint with a brush on a long stick and then smear the paint with his hands. The result feels visceral and immediate. And indeed it turns out to have been a fitting final piece from a remarkable artist.
(I apologise for my rather out of focus picture of this piece)