Sir Howard Hodgkin’s debt to India is mostly marked by the number of pictures it has inspired, says Giridhar Khasnis
Twenty-five years ago, when Howard Hodgkin represented his country at the Venice Biennale, noted art critic Robert Hughes observed in Time magazine: “Not since Robert Rauschenberg’s appearance at the Biennale 20 years ago has a show by a single painter so hogged the attention of visitors or looked so effortlessly superior to everything else on view by living artists.”
Sir Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin who turned 77 on August 6 has been acknowledged as one of the most significant international artists of his generation. The London-born painter, printmaker, furniture/costume/set designer has had a long and fruitful artistic career, ever since he held his first one-man show of paintings at Arthur Tooth and Sons, London, in 1962.
Hodgkin became a trustee of the Tate Gallery (1970-76), was appointed CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1977, won the prestigious Turner Prize in 1984, and was knighted in 1992. Incredibly, he was just nine years old when he first said I am going to be an artist.
Hodgkins pictures are instantly recognisable by their striking forms, colours and intimacy. I’ve always felt that my pictures are for just one person at a time. They’re from me to you. His subjects are simple and straightforward; and they range from views through windows, landscapes, even occasionally a still-life, to memories of holidays, encounters with interiors and art collections, other people, other bodies, love affairs, sexual encounters and emotional situations of all kinds, even including eating...
Critics have frequently recognised a strongly private, autobiographical element in Hodgkin’s work. “It refers to friendships one does not know about, to conversations in rooms long since quitted. But it resists transmission as anecdote,” wrote Hughes in Time (A Peeper into Paradises, 1982). There is not a more educated painter alive. His paintings look abstract but are full of echoes of figures, rooms, sociable encounters; they are small, “unheroic” but exquisitely phrased. The space they evoke is closed, artificial, without horizon or other legible references to landscape. One seems to be looking into a box full of coloured flats and wings a marionette stage, behind whose proscenium the blobs and cylinders of colour glow with shivering, theatrical ebullience.
On his part, Hodgkin affirms that his pictures are about events that have happened. “We don’t need to know the story; generally the story’s trivial anyway. The more people want to know the story, the less they’ll look at the picture. It is often forgotten that paintings are what they are made of. Painting is a very physical thing.”
Hodgkin is known to work very slowly; he has a habit of reworking on his paintings over and over again; most of them take years to complete, even though their size is generally small. He is said to have taken as long as seven years to complete a single painting!
He is, for many, Britain’s greatest colourist. One particular incident is often quoted to describe his colour sense. On visit to Italy with his friend Julian Barnes and Barnes’s wife, Hodgkin saw a black towel in a shop window in the small town of Taranto. He wanted to buy one and went inside the shop. The shopkeeper showed him several towels of the same colour but none of them satisfied Hodgkin because they were not sufficiently black. Eventually Hodgkin forced the shopkeeper to take out the towel from the window and give it to him. This towel was very, very slightly blacker than the others. But Hodgkin would buy only that since it was the black he wanted!
Another distinguishing feature of his work is how Hodgkin deliberately includes the frames as part of the painting as if to fortify them before they leave the studio. The more evanescent the emotion he wants to convey, the thicker the panel, the heavier the framing, the more elaborate the border, so that this delicate thing will remain protected and intact. His paintings are often mistakenly seen as abstract, but Hodgkin explains that he is “a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.”
An accomplished printmaker, Hodgkin considers his prints as being totally different from his paintings. My prints are more like posters that you just hang on the wall as a thing. The last thing I want them to be is substitute paintings. One of the advantages of printmaking is that it forces you to do things like the cat sat on the mat. Prints are an invitation to banality. Sometimes they are a relief from the complexities of painting.
It is quite well-known that Hodgkins art has had a long and enduring connection with India. His interest in Indian art is said to have been first inspired as a child when he saw a rare English 18th century Indianoiserie wallpaper with hand-painted flowers.
According to art critic John McEven, Hodgkins debt to India is most marked by the number of pictures it has inspired. He aspires to the compositional order and methodical anonymity of European classical art, but the brightness of his colour, the inclusiveness of his interest, his eye for a border and a pattern all surely speak of his love for Indian art; and for him the influence of India is undeniable. Hodgkin revered Indian artist Jamini Roy; among his Indian commissions was a series, ‘Indian Leaves’, of dye on rag-paper paintings for the Sarabhai family in Ahmedabad.
Hodgkin first visited India in 1964, has frequented the country many times since then, and has been a long time collector of Indian art. His Indian experience, encounters with people, and general tempo of life have obviously influenced his paintings. Hodgkin does to the Indian miniature what Matisse did to Islamic decoration, writes Hughes. The source is not simply quoted but transformed.
Despite all his achievements and accomplishments, Hodgkin is known to be a tortured soul, an emotional person, who loves and hates with a passion, and will cry easily and flare up. “I have never enjoyed printmaking, he once told an interviewer. But I equally hate painting. I am growing old and I do what I can.”