Hodgkin’s paintings exist in an indeterminate zone between representation and abstraction.
Rather than attempting to express the outward appearance of objects or places the artist attempts instead to communicate a remembered memory from a specific experience. Although the artist always works from memory his compositions, in ways similar to Degas, often demonstrate an interest in the framing effects of the camera. Colour and light are central to Hodgkin’s process and the artist has previously cited Corot, Canaletto, and J.M.W Turner as important influences.
The 1970s saw major stylistic changes in Hodgkin’s practice. In R.B.K., 1969-70 (Tate# 07342), his portrait of RB Kitaj, Hodgkin used wood panel and painted over the frame for the first time. The device was to become his signature motif, one which he employed in order to reassert painting’s object status. He soon eliminated figurative elements replacing them with stripes and dashes. At this point he also returned to painting on solid supports as he had done at the beginning of his career.
Throughout the 1980s the artist moved away from the diminuitive scale and subject matter of an Intimism inspired by painters such as Vuillard and Matisse. Hodgkin increasingly began painting works that evoke the range of emotions related to social interaction. With this change in content he also began experimenting with larger formats. Hodgkin has however retained a sense of the domestic throughout his career and adds a residue of domesticity within his work by frequently using cupboards, chopping boards, and doors for his painting surface.
Come into the Garden, Maud, inspired by the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Maud, A Monodrama (1857), demonstrates the continuing development of these early characteristics. Hodgkin has previously moved his scenes outside of domestic settings to terraces and gardens. Thematically, the artist began by painting portraits and has increasingly concerned himself with architecture and nature.
Tennyson’s poem describes the narrator waiting at a garden gate for his lover to appear:
Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, has flown
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
In one verse, the different flowers are anthropomorphised and begin to speak to the increasingly anxious protagonist:
The red rose cries, ‘She is near, she is near;’
And the white rose weeps, ‘She is late;’
The larkspur listens, ‘I hear, I hear;’
And the lily whispers, ‘I wait.’
In this work the bold gestural strokes and primary colours that have dominated his paintings for the last thirty years have been abandoned in favour of more restrained and reductive painterly effects. This work is a rare example of the artist’s relatively recent experimentations with large scale supports.
Here a central plywood ground is framed by a darker, knotted, and scared wood. Hodgkin has always tried to assert the object status of his works. By leaving the different textures of un-primed seams, joins and frame in sight he reminds the viewer of what it is his painting is painted on. The rough texture and imposing volume of these combined elements are at odds with the delicates hues and handling of oil paint. Hodgkin’s use of salvaged wood also acts as a counterpoint to the fragile and ethereal sensibilities of Tennyson’s poem.
As is typical for Hodgkin, Come into the Garden, Maud is not merely illustrative. Instead, the artist recreates this imaginary chorus through the most economic of means. Colour is stippled across the entire surface in different areas of blue, green, white and pink leaving much of the bare wooden ground exposed. At centre-right a closer concentration of cadmium red strokes denotes the narrative core of the composition while also recalling the poem’s recurring themes of blood, death and remembrance.
Howard Hodgkin, exhibition catalogue, edited by Nicholas Serota, 2006
Howard Hodgkin: paintings 1992-2007, edited by Julia Marciari Alexander, David Scrase, 2007