On loan to: National Portrait Gallery (London, UK)
Exhibition: Howard Hodgkin - Absent Friends
Mr and Mrs E.J.P. 1969–73 is a medium-size rectangular painting featuring an arrangement of shapes in an abstract interior space. The composition is dominated by a large green egg shape that is rendered in slightly transparent paint, such that the shapes that are depicted behind or underlapping with the green form can be seen through it. These shapes include a red cylinder above and to the left of the green oval, a long orange rectangle protruding from its left side, a blue frame-shape filled with orange dots below the oval and two pale rectangles filled with dots and surrounded by black outlines. Several of these allude to domestic features – for instance, the element of perspective suggested by the positioning of the blue and orange dotted shape at the bottom lends it the appearance of a rug on a floor, and there is an expanse of uniform green and brown diagonal stripes behind the shapes that resembles wallpaper. In the right section of the composition, an additional interior space is suggested by the presence of a group of vertically oriented rectangles of different colours that are laid over one another, resembling a doorway, walls with skirting boards and a window beyond. A small grey arc is shown floating close to these, connecting the space of the green egg shape with that of the recessed space to its right. Around the scene is painted a thin wood-effect frame, which is overlapped at the left edge by the orange rectangle protruding from under the green oval.
Mr and Mrs E.J.P. was made by the British artist Howard Hodgkin in 1969–73. In 1964 Hodgkin had made his first visit to India and the trip appeared to have a distinct effect on his painting: on his return he made two works based on Indian subjects painted directly onto wood, and in the years that followed he began painting regularly on wooden panels, as is seen in Mr and Mrs E.J.P., which consists of two plywood panels attached to an armature made from wooden battens. Painting on wood allowed the artist to work and rework the composition in oil paint over many years, a practice that is more difficult with canvas, which has a more absorbent surface.
Hodgkin applied the oil onto the plywood without priming it and there are several areas in the painting in which the wood has been left exposed. He used a thinning agent to assist in the drying of the oil paint, which also had the effect of increasing the paint’s fluidity. Discussing the making of this painting in 1998, Hodgkin recalled adding an unusually large amount of ‘thick linseed oil mixed with pure turpentine’ to the green paint used to create the translucent oval shape in the middle of the scene (quoted in Tate Britain 2006, p.166).
The title of the painting refers to Mr and Mrs Ted Power, a pair of London-based art collectors who commissioned Hodgkin to paint four portraits of themselves. Alongside Mr and Mrs E.J.P., these included Interior Grosvenor Square 1971–4, Family Portrait 1972 and Interior 9AG 1972 (all private collections). Hodgkin has described the scene in Mr and Mrs E.J.P. as follows:
An interior containing two sculptures by Westerman, a Brancusi, a Pollock, a paneled wooden ceiling, etc. as well as the owners; the wife slipping away to the right and the husband talking in green in the foreground.
(Hodgkin in The Artist’s Eye: An Exhibition Selected by Howard Hodgkin, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London 1979, p.23.)
Although specific artworks by the artists that Hodgkin mentions are not identifiable, there are traces of their style visible in the shapes and patterns featured in the scene. For instance, the dots and lines that recur throughout the painting may allude to Pollock’s drip painting technique, and the green egg shape that Hodgkin described as representing ‘the husband talking’ may refer to Brancusi’s 1910 sculpture Sleeping Muse (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Hodgkin has described himself as ‘a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations’ (quoted in Andrew Graham-Dixon, Howard Hodgkin, London and New York 1994, p.7). In Mr and Mrs E.J.P. the strong presence of the male subject of the painting – the green shape that dominates the picture and obscures much of the scene behind – suggests Ted Power’s enveloping conversation and powerful personality. Meanwhile his wife is seen ‘slipping away’, perhaps represented by the small grey shape to the right. The art historian and critic Andrew Graham-Dixon has described Mr and Mrs E.J.P. as an ‘essay in the observation of claustrophobia, but tinged with surrealism: a large green egg-shaped cloud seems to be expanding, like a mist or a fog, to fill a space of cramped and confining pattern’ (Graham-Dixon 1994, p.13). Although Mr and Mrs E.J.P. was originally privately commissioned, Hodgkin included the painting in The Artist’s Eye: An Exhibition Selected by Howard Hodgkin, which was held at the National Gallery in London in 1979.
Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings, 1973–1984, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1984, p.10, reproduced p.19.
Michael Auping, John Elderfield, Susan Sontag and Marla Price, Howard Hodgkin Paintings, London and Fort Worth, Texas 1995, reproduced p.43.
Howard Hodgkin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2006, pp.32, 46, 164, 166, 181, reproduced no.11 and pp.164–6 (details).
Supported by Christie’s.
Technique and condition
The painting was executed in oil paint on a solid support, which is comprised of two pieces of plywood, separated by a frame made from half inch wooden battens running around the outer edges. Both pieces of plywood have been glued and pinned to the batten frame. The surface of the support is completely flat, apart from a few areas around the edges where either the plywood has been nicked (particularly the bottom edge), or the pins have started to work their way out of the support and are now slightly visible through the paint layers.
The paint has been applied directly to the front piece of plywood, with no overall priming layer visible. The paint appears to have been applied by brush (brushmarks are visible in most colours) and in many areas directly from the tube. The paint layers have been built up using mostly a wet-on-dry technique, which would have required considerable time between the application of subsequent layers. Several instances of pentimenti are also visible, for example the green and brown diagonal stripes run all the way up into the top left corner, beneath the large yellow triangle now visible. The painting of the stripes appears to have been carried out freehand, with no sign of the use of masking tape or other similar aid. Both opaque and transparent layers are used with most exhibiting appreciable (and fairly even) gloss, without the subsequent application of a varnish layer. Although the artist is known to have used a thixotropic alkyd medium (Liquin by Winsor & Newton) later in his career to even out the gloss of the various paints he used, it is not thought that this occurred for this painting.
The painting is in very good overall condition, with no apparent paint loss. Although a number of areas along the bottom edge appear as paint losses, but on closer inspection these correspond to nicks in the support which have affected the uniformity of the subsequent paint application and are therefore part of the original image. A slight layer of dirt was removed from the painting's surface and this has restored considerably some of the vitality and intensity to the colours.
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