Why Howard Hodgkin's art makes us glad to be alive

Howard Hodgkin sitting in front of Home, Home on the Range in 2008
Howard Hodgkin sitting in front of Home, Home on the Range in 2008 Credit: Rex

If there’s one artist of our time whose work embodies the sheer physical and emotional pleasure of being alive, it is Howard Hodgkin – indeed, is is almost impossible to believe that the great man is no longer with us. Those zinging contrasts of ultramarine and orange, of turquoise and vermilion, seem to go straight from the retina to some serotonin-producing corner of the brain, making the viewer feel instantly better about the whole business of being on the planet in general – and standing in front of one of Hodgkin’s paintings in particular.

Colour, simultaneously the aspect of art that gives the most pleasure, and the most difficult to define and discuss, was everything to Hodgkin – which isn’t the same as it being his sole preoccupation. To try to sum up his approach to it in a few trite sentences would be an insult to everything he stood for. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that his ability to enmesh contrasts of colour with contrasts of tone (light and dark) produced some of the most memorable and distinctive images of the past half century: paintings that may appear completely abstract, but which represent moments and memories that had great meaning for Hodgkin himself.

A large man, usually genial, but occasionally prickly or morose – and sometimes all three in quick succession – Hodgkin was, from a journalistic point of view, a marvellously inconsistent interviewee. The first time I interviewed him was by phone, from a motorway service station near Taunton. “Oh,” he said with an expansive chuckle, “I know Taunton very well!” He went on to describe, with some intensity, how he had been sidelined early in his career, because his privileged background (he went briefly to Eton) didn’t fit with the egalitarian tenor of the Sixties. As to the meaning of his paintings, they could be best summed up by the comment of an acquaintance had described them as like “a swift flow to the heart”.

Howard Hodgkin Credit: Justin Setterfield/LOCOG/PA Wire

The next time I encountered him was in his studio, an airy converted dairy in Bloomsbury, surrounded by paintings, many painted on canvases with existing frames or on the back of other paintings so that the framing rectangles became part of the exhilarating patterns of streaks splashes and surging stripes, in hot colours that evoked travels in India, a country he visited many times. Feeling quite moved, I said how well that comment about a “swift flow to the heart” summed them up.

Sprawled back in an armchair (he was by this stage having difficulty walking), Hodgkin claimed, however, that he had never heard the phrase in his life before. Nor had he ever been to Taunton, while the story about his early neglect was “absolute rubbish – I probably said it to see what it would sound like.” He proceeded to be magnificently rude about at least three of his well-known contemporaries, while dismissing the entire artistic output of a large part of the world.

Far from being repugnant or making him appear bitter, this bracing frankness, and many wild inconsistencies with the facts, seemed evidence of a life-enhancing eccentricity. The fact that you knew you might be given a completely contradictory view on another occasion was all part of the game.

Going to America by Howard Hodgkin, 1999 Credit: BOLTON AND QUINN

Hodgkin lived in a world of colour. He began collecting Indian miniatures – small paintings produced between the 16th and 18th centuries – as a schoolboy, and their strong colours and decisive shapes not only influenced his art, but framed his entire existence. Entering his house, you passed through a deep crimson corridor hung with these paintings, into a vibrant turquoise sitting room adorned with spectacular gilded rococo mirror, marble busts and reliefs. It was like being inside one of his paintings.

Born in 1932, the son of an executive at ICI, Hodgkin was the cousin of Roger Fry, the influential Bloomsbury Group critic, who coined the term Post-Impressionism and was instrumental in introducing the art of van Gogh and Gauguin to Britain – and Hodgkin was aware of having been born, in a sense, into the exploration of colour and form.

A pivotal moment, he told me, came as a teenager, when his father gave him a copy of the seminal book Matisse, his Art and his Public, by the then director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H Barr. Hodgkin immediately repaired to bed and didn’t get up till he’d finished the book: impressed not so much by the appearance of Matisse’s paintings, but by the great French artist’s conviction that being an artist was a “moral” calling. As to in what that morality resided, Hodgkin would say only that I should look at Matisse’s paintings – and by extension, of course, his own.

Anthony Hill and Gillian Wise by Howard Hodgkin, 1964-66 Credit: BOLTON AND QUINN

Far from simply providing hedonistic escapism, as might be assumed, Hodgkin’s paintings carry a moral dimension, not only in the necessity for every brush mark to contain complete conviction, but in the fact that colour itself, applied in permutations that really sing and resonate, has its own intrinsic truth.

After his breakthrough exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 1976, Hodgkin’s career followed a continually ascending arc of success, causing some to write him off as an “establishment” artist, as producing art that was essentially decorative and related to nothing beyond itself. I remember wondering, as an art student, having been initially impressed by that exhibition, what Hodgkin’s paintings were contributing to the wider struggles of the time.

You grow into the realisation, of course, that art operates on many levels, that not everything can be reduced to glib formulae of social relevance, and that in the hands of an artist such as Hodgkin, shape, texture, tactility and, above all, colour, are a life force in their own right.

READ MORE ABOUT: