At Tate Britain

Peter Campbell

It’s elephant time for our cherry tree. Ripe fruit glistens among dark green leaves. A flock of starlings – some black, glossy and speckled, some buff-brown juveniles – land and scramble, mostly unseen, among the leaves which rustle and move with their comings and goings. They peck at the fruit. A pair of wood pigeons – soft grey backs, pink-buff breasts, white collars – land and cling unsteadily to twigs too fragile for their weight. They almost fall as they reach for cherries which they swallow whole. It is late on a warm afternoon. We watch the birds.

The titles Howard Hodgkin gives his pictures – In a Hot Country, In a Crowded Room, Waking up in Naples, Fisherman’s Cove, In Raimund Stecker’s Garden, Come into the Garden, Maud – record their beginnings in feelings and facts specific to a time and place. They address, that is to say, moments like my moment in the garden. I can even make an imaginary Hodgkin from it, one in which strong green and black is patterned with splodges of cherry red, in which broad single brush strokes of pigeon-breast pink and pigeon-wing grey are broken by a speckled slab of starling-wing black and a small, pigeon-collar comma of white. There is no way of knowing how common that kind of literalism is in his pictures. Nor need there be. The feeling of a moment can take on the colour of a mood as much as the colour of the garden you remember. But if a reading is not expected, why the titles? The encouragement they give to Pateresque excursions into narrative commentaries is, perhaps, one reason Hodgkin has had more perceptive and appreciative attention from writers than from art critics. In a book of pieces published to accompany the exhibition at Tate Britain (until 17 September) there are writings, culled from various sources, by Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Susan Sontag, William Boyd, Bruce Chatwin, Bruce Bernard and Colm Tóibín (Barnes has also made a loan to the exhibition). Some are affectionately biographical. Comparisons between Hodgkin’s art of memory and Proust’s are made.[*]

The pleasure the pictures give – which is considerable – has a strong relation to pleasures arising from the juxtaposition of colour and pattern in the natural world – in flowers, feathers, lichens, minerals, sunsets, the brilliant green of a pool of stagnant water, a stain left by rust, the grey veil of distant rain – and in fabrics and works of art, like the Indian pictures Hodgkin has collected, in which pigments and dyes are allowed to express their character, unmodulated by mixing and grading. Hodgkin’s paint, too, often seems to come straight from the pot. His art is to juggle his elements until, as with a particularly happy turn of a kaleidoscope, they fall into a pattern in which they sing together. Or, to put it differently, the pictures are like sentences in which the dabs, swipes, curves and so on are words.

Reading these pictorial sentences turns you back to the look of ordinary things. On the way you find links between the effect Hodgkin’s paintings have and the look of other English pictures: Ivon Hitchens’s landscapes, for example. Those are not abstract – every mark on his canvases records something about the colour and shape of a seen object – but the references are so generalised and the broad swipes with a big brush often so like Hodgkin’s that the resemblance is striking. Or go downstairs at Tate Britain (the Hodgkin exhibition occupies rooms upstairs) and look at the Constable sketches. There are passages in those which not only record a moment recollected, but do it with paint that has been brushed onto the canvas so generously that it has a more exuberant life than the thing it represents. Hodgkin’s big marks are much more like those in such English pictures than they are like those in, say, de Kooning’s paintings, which, no matter how abstract, still have the character of a line which is describing a shape. Hodgkin’s slabs, dabs, splodges and curves are in a different gestural tradition, distant descendants of pictures which do not describe objects by drawing them, but by way of coloured patches which are equivalent to coloured elements in the visual field.

When so many marks shade into and overlie each other in ways which demand, or at least allow, a three-dimensional reading, it isn’t possible to maintain the integrity of the picture plane, to reject any hint of implied space. Another reason Hodgkin’s pictures read as views is the frames. Not just the actual picture frames which are often painted and thus part of the work, but framing bands of colour within that frame (the green border in In Raimund Stecker’s Garden, for example, the brown one in Italy). You look out through them, they encourage spatial readings of what (the frame implies) lies beyond.

These affecting but undemanding pictures – many are quite small – look best hung, as Hodgkin likes them to be, with plenty of space round them. The colour is often intense; and although there is plenty of evidence of overpainting, of one layer almost obliterating another, the intensity and opacity of the brightest colours is striking. Jo Crook and Jacqueline Ridge’s discussion of technique in the catalogue records Hodgkin’s use of a proprietary quick-drying medium which must make this build-up of discrete layers less long-winded than it would be with traditional oils and varnishes.[†]

They are pictures all sorts of people can imagine happily owning. It is odd that in some commentaries this is regarded as a weakness, the launching ground for asides on mere decoration. Yet surely ‘mantlepiece pictures’, a label of Hodgkin’s own, which is what many of his pictures are, aspire to a degree of attention, to intimacy over a long period, which points up the limitations of the idea that visited pictures are better than ones lived with, and that museums are the ideal home for them. On the other hand, domestic scale does say something about the borders within which Hodgkin’s art lies, and doubts arise when he looks beyond them. Undertones of War (2001-03) consists of scribbles in red, blue and a purple mix of those colours within a muddy frame. This, like all the pictures in the exhibition from the 1970s onwards, is painted on wood. Here, and in other recent paintings, quite a lot of wood shows through. The red scribbles read too easily as flames, the purple ones as smoke; the agitation of the strokes as a numb calligraphy of protest. Yet it is essentially a pretty picture: with a different title, the Late Impressionist quality of the paint, rather than protest, would register.

Undertones of War – a gallery picture – is larger than most in the exhibition. The path suggested by the title of another big, recent picture – Come into the Garden, Maud – has no ditch of seriousness to skirt. But, as with some of Monet’s late waterlily paintings (a source and historical vindication for all dab-and-flurry abstraction), size seems to be a way of making up for vacuousness. Monet’s Orangerie Waterlilies were proof of what could still be done when much of the baggage of the tradition he grew up in – cellars and attics full of tricks, narratives, sentiment and rhetoric – was discarded. One reason Hodgkin makes critics uneasy is the sense that sentimental narrative is coming in again by the back door. The title After Corot relates, I guess, to early landscapes painted on the spot, like the view of Avignon. The juicy paint of Hodgkin’s tribute is so different from Corot’s neat, frugal facture that it somehow brings to mind a large, friendly dog making damp overtures to a reserved visitor. But it also suggests that the pleasure of looking at Corot can be undertaken with more intensity than I had supposed.

It sometimes seems that Hodgkin arranges rather than invents. The overpaintings, the long gap between the beginning and finishing of pictures, suggest that, just as an interior can over time move towards a particular kind of felicity by way of choices of fabrics and colours, the rearrangement of furniture, or the unexpected accent given by a piece of discarded clothing, things which must be noticed as much as planned, so Hodgkin’s pictures, too, have drifted rather than marched towards completion.

[*] Writers on Howard Hodgkin, edited by Enrique Juncosa (Tate, 208 pp., £14.99, February, 1 85437 674 8).

[†] Tate, 224 pp., £24.99, June, 1 85437 639 x.