Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery

The Tilsons by Howard Hodgkin, 1965-67, Private Collection, London © Howard Hodgkin.

According to a new exhibition of Howard Hodgkin’s work at the National Portrait Gallery, one of the artist’s principal concerns throughout his sixty-five year career was to ‘evoke a human presence in his work’. Absent Friends is dedicated to an exploration of Hodgkin’s portraiture in all its guises – an area of the artist’s work that curator Paul Moorhouse believes has been overlooked. Even those familiar with his work believe that the artist ‘does not make portraits’, according to Moorhouse, and the exhibition aims to tackle this conviction head-on. Nonetheless, an initial stroll around the gallery may well lead to puzzlement. Where are all the people?

The title of the exhibition, in evoking absence, is appropriate. Absent Friends is named after the very first painting on display, an abstracted work featuring a sweep of muted colour, pale green brushwork, and a painted frame within a frame. What it does not, ostensibly, feature is people. The note next to the painting explains that it ‘refers to people, but does so without resorting to the creation of a literal likeness’, drawing instead on the emotions conjured by memory. This is portraiture that stands in direct opposition to traditional examples from the genre, choosing to show sensations and associations evoked by the subject rather than literal physiognomy. Painted in 2000-1, it is one of Hodgkin’s later pieces; for those who like their portraits with a dash more realism, some of the artist’s first forays into portraiture offer more recognisable representations of people.

These early examples of Hodgkin’s work appear in the second room of the exhibition, which consists of portraits from 1949-59. Some of these were created while Hodgkin was an art student at Camberwell School of Art; he later studied at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham. Memoirs was painted when Hodgkin was just seventeen. With its dark outlines, block colouring, and the strangely large hands of its subject, a family friend of Hodgkin’s nicknamed Aunt Bette, it could almost be an illustration for one of the stranger Grimm fairy tales. While the artist is also depicted in the painting, a sense of absence is conjured by the photo frame at Aunt Bette’s feet, which shows the mysterious outline of a man in a hat. Other pencil sketches, torn from notebooks, also play with the exhibition’s theme of absence, with large areas of paper left untouched. Depicting in turn fellow students and Hodgkin’s landlady, these realistic portraits were drawn entirely from memory, highlighting the important role that recollection would play in the artist’s later work. The most striking image in the room, however, is the most abstracted one, a painting entitled Interior of a Museum. Set within the confines of the British Museum, the piece features figures who seem at once suspended and anchored in the thick, creamy brushwork. Gazing at a collection of ancient Greek pots, the people themselves seem object-like, set in their own spheres of space for our viewing pleasure.

Interior of a Museum by Howard Hodgkin, 1956-59, Tate © Howard Hodgkin.

The third room, centred on Hodgkin’s burgeoning abstract work in the 1960s, is by far the most dazzling. Dominated by The Tilsons, the image used by the National Portrait Gallery in much of its publicity, the room is a riot of colour, motion, and expressive brushwork, with all the paintings vying at once for the viewer’s attention. ‘Some are quite representational in a limited visual sense; others hardly at all, or not at all’, Hodgkin said of these paintings, which often use geometrical shapes to represent human beings. The Tilsons is a fabulous case in point, where the figures of British Pop artist Joe Tilson and his wife Jos blend in harmoniously with the triangular sandwich shapes and dart board imagery of the painting: the effect is joyous, playful, exuberant. These are paintings that are a delight to look at. Portrait of Rhoda Cohen is a fascinating mix of literal and expressive representation. The sitter’s body is recognisable from the neck down, and her legs are flung open in an image that suggests both sexual abandonment and physical ease. The fervent brushstrokes in this part of the painting give a sense of energy and movement, so that the subject, who is tipped backwards in her chair, seems to be caught in motion, balancing playfully between sitting and falling. Her one blue shoe adds to this nonchalant and joyful effect. Her head, however, has been replaced by a mandala – a Hindu and Buddhist symbol for the universe – contributing to the life-affirming energy that radiates from the painting.

Later portraits become more complex, weaving figurative and abstract elements together into coherent wholes. A painting of the artist’s friend Cherry Monro manages to look both like a woman and utterly unlike a woman at once. Hodgkin explains that the piece ‘commemorates a moment in March 1966, when Cherry stripped after lunch in the living room in order to put on a 1938 crêpe de Chine dress. . . . The blue disk behind is a mirror which was hung about a year later’. The flowing fabric of the dress is evoked by waves of blue and yellow paint, while Cherry’s arched back reflects the curves of the mirror behind her. The painting’s white background means that all attention is on the figure, and her dramatic transformation as she changes her dress; there is a strong sense of delight in appearance and the visual. There is also something decidedly erotic about the image – and indeed, about many of the works on show. It is perhaps for this reason that paintings such as R.B.K. feature bars painted across them, in an attempt to contain the bold energy and colour within.

Mr and Mrs E.J.P. by Howard Hodgkin, 1969-73, Tate: Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1996 © Howard Hodgkin

As I sat and considered a painting entitled Mr and Mrs E.J.P., which contains a yellow triangle, patches of red, a striped interior, and what looks like a giant green dinosaur’s egg, I was approached by a friendly and inquisitive couple. Did I think that it was important to consider the titles of the paintings as I looked at them? We discussed the merits of focusing on a painting solely for itself, with no added information from title or blurb. In relation to Hodgkin’s work, however, we concluded that the titles have huge import for the paintings. Would it be clear to the viewer that Mr and Mrs E.J.P is a portrait, without the sign post of its title? And is it enough to rely on a title to give us this information – or should a portrait take further, and more identifiable, steps to tell us of its status as a portrait? How you answer that question might well indicate the level of enjoyment you derive from Hodgkin’s interpretation of portraiture. My own sense is that if Mr and Mrs E.J.P accurately reflects the artist’s sense of its subjects, and gives an insight into their presence and personalities, then it is successful as a portrait.

Questions of abstraction and representation are taken to a new level by Hodgkin’s most recent work, which includes some of my favourite pieces – and perhaps some of the most controversial in terms of portraiture. The last room features just three works, completed before the artist died in March this year (sadly, prior to the opening of the exhibition, although he was involved in much of the preparation). Blue Portrait consists of several strokes of dark and light blue on a wooden board, capturing the moment Hodgkin sighted a friend ‘standing by the bar and wearing a brilliant blue dress’ at a retrospective exhibition of his work. The blue, dazzling against the wooden board, signals the immediacy and fleeting nature of the impression. Tears for Nan commemorates the death of a friend, the tears painted on in hot, quick flashes of yellow. Startling upon the dark background, they intimate a celebration of life as much as they do a process of grieving. This is Hodgkin’s gift – to distill the impression of a moment into paintings whose emotional force equals the vibrancy and vividness of their colouring. These portraits last in the memory long after the gallery doors have been shut.

By Suzannah V. Evans

Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends
National Portrait Gallery
23 March – 18 June