A Likely Story

Frank Kermode

Faced with such books as these it is hard not to regret the passing of an age when it seemed easy to write about painting and painters. The grapes of Zeuxis, as Pliny admiringly observed, were so real that birds came and pecked at them. Vasari, a painter himself, believed that in his day art had rediscovered those lost antique skills, built on them, and was now close to perfection. To make representations look deceptively real, and to remain untroubled by considerations of what ‘real’ could possibly mean, was the aim of the artist, and the function of the critic was simply to admire the technical accomplishments that made the illusion credible.

You could also express an admiring or even a disgusted interest in the personal life of the painter. Writing about Piero di Cosimo, Vasari does more than comment on the strange works of this artist. He adds that Piero lived more like a brute than a man, subsisted on boiled eggs, cooked 50 at a time while he was boiling his glue, studied a wall on which sick persons had used to spit, imagining that he saw there fantastic cities and combats of horses. Moreover he would never suffer his fruit trees to be pruned or trained, and so on. Vasari improves the story by arguing that there was method in Piero’s madness: he was so eccentric that people mistakenly thought him a fool, and this assumption prevented other artists from profiting by his example. George Eliot remembered Piero’s eggs and reclusive habits in Romola, improving the story yet again: why she has the eggs delivered ready-boiled is a question for Victorianists.

Vasari had got on to something important when he perceived that the lives of painters are likely to be of considerable general interest, as well as being rather easier to write about than their productions. He does describe certain works in detail: for example, Piero’s Car of Death, with tombs from which emerge figures with skeletons painted on their black body-stockings. He can remark that Piero drew well from life, that he painted St Antony wearing spectacles and reading an excellently represented parchment book, that he displayed to perfection the art of colouring in oils. Vasari was clearly aware that biographical information, gossip indeed, was seductive; as to technique, it was enough to say, without going into great detail, that Piero had lots of it. The excellence of his colouring in oils could be remarked without further analysis. So with Leonardo’s ‘great and marvellous art’ in the representation of the rotundity of the dates on a palm-tree, and the wonderful texture of the tablecloth in the Last Supper. If virtually the whole art of painting was perfect representation there was no need to strain for a vocabulary appropriate to anything other than skilled and diligent workmanship.

Everything was bound to get harder when painting found other tasks than mimesis. Picasso said that painters no longer live in a tradition but need to ‘re-create an entire language ... from A to Z’. This development could, he admitted, be called a liberation, ‘but what the artist gains in the way of liberty he loses in the way of order.’ The writer about painting is in an even greater difficulty than the painter himself, for he must learn the elements of that new language yet seek for himself a matching other, which has to consist of words. The problem of translation now looks insuperable.

Despite the variously interpreted opinion of Horace, ut pictura poesis, the match between painting and what can be said about it has grown more and more strained. Proust’s Bergotte contemplates the ‘little patch of yellow wall’ in Vermeer’s View of Delft: ‘that’s how I ought to have written,’ he says, and, after weighing his own works against that patch, falls over and dies. Only a life of perfect writing, made of language ‘precious in itself’, could equal the beauty of that passage of paint; and yet to equal it, even by such hopelessly arduous effort, would still not be to match it or describe it.

Here is a final surrender of words to paint. There is a long tradition of poems about paintings, but there is really never a contest: the poem is always talking more or less vainly to an interlocutor using sign language – at best offering an oblique and unsolicited tribute. There is evidence of this persistent dialogue of the deaf in John Hollander’s excellent book, The Gazer’s Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art, a learned study of the tradition of ekphrasis – poetic description of paintings – illustrated by a ‘gallery’ of paintings and their tributary poems: Aretino on Titian, Rossetti on Leonardo, Baudelaire on Callot, Donald Hall on Munch, Hollander on Monet and dozens more, including Richard Wilbur’s exquisitely meditative imitation of a Baroque wall fountain, a poem that sounds more like the work of art it imitates than any other I know.[*]

The painting of Howard Hodgkin is a first-rate example of the vivid muteness that resists critical attempts at conversation. Vasari himself, after praising this man’s power as a colourist, would have had trouble explaining the relationship of the paintings to their titles, which often suggest scenes, persons and ideas that were perhaps the points of origin of the works but have more or less entirely disappeared from the finished product. There are, for example, a number of portraits of husbands and wives, in which not even the couple who commissioned the works could be sure which figure was which. Sometimes the human shapes have virtually disappeared under the paint or, as in Mr and Mrs Stephen Buckley, are converted into geometric forms; which doesn’t prevent the artist from saying: ‘the subject of the painting is simply a family group sitting round the fire in the evening.’ Other titles seem to promise that the picture will tell a story: When Did We Go to Morocco? or It Can’t Be True or Haven’t We Met?

Of It Can’t Be True Michael Auping says: ‘It is echo-like in its composition. It is composed of a series of tilting frames jostling each other for position within the whole. The eye is teased back to a bright yellow frame in the centre of the painting and stopped short by a series of abrupt strokes that violate its containment.’ So far, fair enough; after all a critic needs to say something about this dazzling production, and the words seem not entirely unrelated to the painting. But Auping continues: ‘What “can’t be true” is not altogether clear, unless it is Hodgkin’s hesitant acknowledgment that the voyeuristic tendencies that inspired an early work like Memoirs’ – a small gouache done when Hodgkin was 17 – ‘have for a number of years been turning increasingly inward.’ A despairing lunge at a biographical interpretation; a likely story. If you can believe that you can believe anything, which could be said of many desperate interpretations, many words addressed to the questioner who sits so sly, so mute.

The gap between title and work is often remarked on by the contributors to Howard Hodgkin: Paintings. This gorgeously illustrated volume is really the catalogue of an exhibition organised at Fort Worth, Texas by Marla Price, whose more than useful catalogue raisonné offers, among much else, information as to how ostensible subjects are eroded, sometimes after much repainting. When the picture has been exhibited in more than one state it can be seen that its originating subject was at first more readily discernible. In Large Staff Room, for instance, it was once possible to detect human presences at the table, possible even to relate the image to a particular staff room: but after reworking about 70 per cent of the picture surface was reduced to ‘a vast expanse of cadmium red’, leaving only a small image of a knee under the table. One is inevitably reminded of Balzac’s story ‘Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu’, in which a perfectly, executed foot alone survived the mad, obsessive onslaught of paint. Art critics contrive to say fairly solemn things about the much reduced Large Staff Room (the expanse of colour suggests ‘a kind of mind space in which the memory – a knee under a table – exists’) and if some prefer to call it a leg-pull or visual pun, they don’t mean by that to disparage the work – leg-pulls have an honoured place in modern art, and to suspect one may be intellectually preferable to a flight into allegory. Like Picasso, Hodgkin has his own technical alphabet and can do exactly as he pleases, as his brush pleases, according to his humour; it is, after all, the biggest of leg-pulls to kid us into believing that words can be found to explain the beauty of these patches of paint.

What can be done instead, and what convention permits, is to perform certain art-historical rituals: to divide the artist’s career into phases (voyeuristic, post-voyeuristic etc), and to identify the painters who influenced him, a long list: Seurat, Pasmore, Bonnard, Morandi, Bacon, Matisse, Vuillard, Degas, Stella, Johns, Pollock and so on. All this Auping does. On other topics, such as Andrew Graham-Dixon’s proposition that ‘there are a lot of pictures about fucking,’ he judges it best to be non-committal; yes and no, certainly many of these works are about bodily pleasures, he says, but they ‘may or may not refer to intercourse’ (‘refer’ is anyway too strong a word). Graham-Dixon quotes Hodgkin as saying that he is a representational painter, but at once adds firmly: ‘he is nothing of the kind.’ It’s an issue that comes up again and again, but Graham-Dixon seems to get it about right when he remarks that ‘the passage of forms across these bright surfaces is of no more consequence than the passage of clouds across the sky at sunset. They are as insignificant as weather.’ Yet among the strange gaudy forms, some distinct, some vague as clouds or weather, it cannot be denied that a good few bear some resemblance to the male organ.

To write as Auping does is perfectly reasonable in view of the sheer difficulty of finding anything really susceptible to being written about. As Susan Sontag remarks, ‘the thoughtful – as distinct from the inarticulate – may have good reason to be wary, anxious, at a loss (for words).’ She endorses Valéry’s obiter dicta, ‘One must always apologise for talking about painting,’ and: ‘A work of art, if it does not leave us mute, is of little value.’ ‘Of course,’ she adds, ‘we do not stay mute.’ The implication is that the necessity of saying something about art reduces its value. This is one of those aporiae Paul de Man likened to getting trapped in a revolving door, but Sontag, as it were noticing the normal exit usually available at the side, emerges to say several valuable things. For example: ‘having renounced painting’s other primary resource, drawing, Hodgkin has fielded the most inventive, sensuously affecting colour repertory of any contemporary painter as if, in taking up the ancient quarrel between disegno and colore, he had wanted to give colore its most sumptuous exclusive victory.’ She dwells convincingly on Hodgkin’s hesitations between revelation and concealment, and comes close to explaining the obviously intense pleasure she gets from these works; which is an achievement.

Yet the best writing in this book is to be found in a correspondence between the painter and John Elderfield of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Hodgkin complains of ‘the tyranny of words in England’ but submits with elegance to this epistolary conversation. Elderfield, an expatriate Englishman, so still under that tyranny, puzzles over the way his correspondent’s works ‘attach to the external world’, finding that they both afford and deny narrative readings. Hodgkin affirms, as he always does, that the subject-matter of his paintings ‘is of primary importance – I couldn’t make a picture that was not “about” anything’ – and is irritated when people describe his pictures as ‘beautiful’, so suggesting that because ‘they look “pretty” they cannot have any content’. He thinks that in England richness of colour is thought to denote ‘a fundamental lack of seriousness’. In these letters he says many revealing things about concealment and other matters, repeating in his own terms the lament of Picasso quoted earlier: ‘Never underestimate the heroism demanded of the artist ... at a time when no one tells the artist what to do, except himself.’ He writes about Vuillard and, with the greatest admiration, about Degas: ‘a classical artist, something I have always wanted to be ... As for being tied to the past, what other home have we got?’ Together with his remarks on his own techniques, his preference for wood over canvas, for example, he makes one feel, with deep ingratitude to the critics, that if painting has to be talked about, and it does, the painters may do it best. Yet they may need critics to make them talk, as David Sylvester, the great master of the interviewing discipline, has induced Hodgkin to talk in the past.

When all is said the paintings do the real talking in their own tongue, but we still need to have our attention directed to them, our possible blindnesses cleaned, our sensitivity to their weathers refined. Reproductions are one aid: Hodgkin is understandably sceptical about their value and nobody will take them as adequate substitutes for the real thing, but I find that on the images so abundantly presented in these books one dwells with increasing pleasure. The actual paintings now provide an extra delight, an enhanced shock of recognition, as if what had been seen through a glass, darkly, though not too darkly, were now seen face to face. The real thing can now thrive without further articulate description.

Having been made ready for the experience, no one will care that Hodgkin’s Venice is hardly a place, that Waking Up in Naples may have something to do with waking up but not, as far as one can see, particularly in Naples, that Egyptian Night contains an identifiable pyramid yet looks like a sumptuous carpet, or that Sunset is a sunset belonging to Hodgkin’s private meteorology – though if told it’s a sunset you might just recognise it as such, which is more than you can do when searching for Patrick Caulfield in Patrick Caulfield in Italy. But if you don’t have to say anything about these paintings your pleasure will be the greater, and so, if we are to believe Valéry, will the paintings.

[*] Chicago, 392 pp., £31.95, 1 November 1995, 0 226 34949 7.