Feelings become visible as art

The small, intense paintings of the English painter Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932) are apparently abstract. A dot here, a swoosh of color there, broad stripes of thickly layered paint: All give the appearance of another contemporary painter who is interested only in abstraction and color for its own sake.

Not so. Howard Hodgkin insists that his pictures are not abstract. He describes himself as a representational painter, an artist interested in rendering life as he experiences it.

He concedes, though, that he does not paint "appearances" – the way an object or figure appears to the eye. Rather he paints "a precise recollection of something seen or sensed," a distillation of experience into his own visual vocabulary. In other words, Hodgkin translates events into his version of emotional reality.

"As far as my pictures go," he said in a 1960s interview, "they are about one moment of time involving particular people in relationship to each other and to me."

A retrospective exhibition that traces the development of Hodgkin's work was developed and shown by Tate Britain in London and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.

"Howard Hodgkin" also opens Oct. 18 at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. From his more conventional portraits of the 1960s through the emergence of his truly individual style in the 1970s to the present day, the show reveals the strengths of one of Britain's most important contemporary painters. He has been termed a "supreme colorist" and "a master of significance."

A typical Hodgkin subject is a memory of a gathering or meeting. For example, "Japanese Screen Painting" (1962-63) represents a memory of a dinner party. Travel writer Bruce Chatwin was present, and in his book "Indian Leaves," described the process of how the painting evolved: "The result of the dinner was a painting in which the screen [in the room] itself appears as a rectangle of pointillist dots.... I am the acid-green smear on the left."

Two important developments in Hodgkin's work occurred in the '70s. He began to explore the outer limit of his pictures – the frame – and what he could do to further incorporate these defining edges into his compositions. He began to paint the frames, often with wide, assertive brush strokes, as part of the total effect of the picture he was making, as in "After Corot" (1979-82) and "Wallpaper" (2004), which are pictured here.

About this same time, Hodgkin also abandoned painting on canvas in favor of painting on wood. Cupboard doors, pastry boards, and other domestic wooden objects were used to accommodate the many layers of paint he applied in the development of a picture.

"I overpaint tremendously," he has said. This layer-upon-layer approach, with different colors peeking through others, became characteristic Hodgkin. It was evidence of a working process of almost geologic slowness that can extend over years. "The final picture is a condensation of many efforts, a palimpsest," explains art history professor James Meyer.

Hodgkin himself observed of this process, according to the exhibition catalog: "Pictures tend to make their own timescale.... [They] tend to have a life of their own. I once described finishing a picture as bowing to the inevitable."

Hodgkin works in a stark white studio in the Bloomsbury section of London. Usually, he is working on about 12 to 20 paintings at a time. He keeps each picture covered until he turns his attention to it so that he will not get stale by looking at a composition casually.

"I often begin by making a reasonably realistic drawing [on the wooden panel]," he told a BBC Radio interviewer. "And very, very slowly, the substitution of autonomous forms and colors begins to take place."

Hodgkin's work is said to come out of the French tradition of Intimism, a late 19th- and early 20th-century school of domestic painting that included Bonnard and Vuillard.

India has also been a major influence on Hodgkin's work. "It's more the moods, the way people live in India, that has probably influenced my painting very much," he's quoted in the catalog as telling an interviewer. "I mean, everything is very visible, somehow, there."

Hodgkin thus devotes his art to making visible the unseen world of feeling. As he told BBC Radio: "What is important is that what I feel, think, and see turns into something."

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