Review: Howard Hodgkin, National Portrait Gallery ‘Both Beautiful and Challenging’

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It is sad that Howard Hodgkin died only weeks before this new show – the first to focus on his portraits – opened at the National Portrait Gallery. Not that many associate Howard with portraiture; his works seem too abstract for an easy link to be made. Nevertheless, portraiture was a key part of his output, and it was an interest that spanned the full length of his career.

And that breadth is captured in this fantastic show, which includes some of his earliest paintings, such as Memoirs from when he was only seventeen, to his last self-portrait, which he completed shortly before he died.

At first glance, these two paintings, which bookend the exhibition, would seem to show how Howard’s work transformed over his long career – the first with easily identifiable figures (Howard and his Aunt) in a domestic setting, the second, an entirely abstract work where sweeps of light and dark blue play against a more austere background of brown and green vertical lines.

But actually, these two paintings have more in common than might initially seem the case. For Howard had a preference for painting from memory, or capturing friends and lovers in scenes that are part-memory, part fiction. Add the abstraction into the mix, and this makes for beautifully expressive works. But there’s no doubt, they are challenging to conceive as portraits.

Certainly, there’s no one else who could ever identify the people in these portraits other than Howard. We need the wall text to decipher the works for us. Figures are almost entirely absent, and instead captured as gestures, such as two sweeping blue brushstrokes, an array of dots, or as a giant green egg.

Defining these works as portraits does present the viewer with a test. But here’s the thing – I was completely absorbed by these works. And as I found myself drawn further into these paintings, I realised there was a certain beauty to capturing the emotional memory of a person, rather than their physical form. For to expunge the figure from portraiture and reflect only their emotional impact puts us well into the realms of highly subjective depictions.

Howard, for example, may see David Hockney as a giant pink penis, as depicted in his painting of his friend from the early 1980s, but who’s to say that everyone else would see him that way too? Maybe, to me, Hockney would be a series of wavy green lines. And when his friend, Nan Rosenthal died, Howard captured his grief and his memory of her as green and yellow daubs on a sea of brown and black. But maybe others would have seen her as thick lines of white paint.

And in that pre-eminence of the artist’s viewpoint over impartial depiction of the sitter, I suppose Howard’s work actually sits pretty well with portraits from other artists of the twentieth century, who were increasingly favouring subjective depictions of sitters and muses.

But even with this in mind, it is a lot easier to enjoy these paintings separate from any attempt to classify them as portraits. The rigours of portraiture do demand some form of direct engagement between the sitter and the artist, and that is, in truth, largely absent in these works. In fact, I felt this most strongly with one of the few works where a figure can be made out.

Waking Up in Naples, 1980-4, is an intimate, sensual painting where the bare back of a figure can be evidently seen in the foreground, surrounded with blushes of hot pink. Add to this, the great washes of aqua green beyond the figure, and it’s an emotional, passionate picture. Is it a portrait? No. No, it probably isn’t. But it is a truly wonderful painting.

National Portrait Gallery, London, to June 18, 2017
Admission: £12 (concessions available)

See more images on my Facebook page.

Image Credits:

1 Portrait of the artist by Howard Hodgkin, 1984-87; Private Collection
2 Portrait of the artist listening to music by Howard Hodgkin, 2011-2016; Photo by me
3 Absent Friends by Howard Hodgkin, 2000-1; Private Collection
4 Waking Up in Naples by Howard Hodgkin, 1980-4; Photo by me

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