Rain 1984–9 is a large painting by the British artist Howard Hodgkin that features a colourful, abstract composition. In the centre of the work, patches of green, red, blue and pink paint form irregular rectangular shapes that overlap, appearing to recede into the distance. This cluster of shapes is surrounded on all four sides by thick bands of muted grey and black paint that together resemble a frame or window. The deepest shades of grey in the border run horizontally along the upper edge, creating a top-heavy appearance that may suggest a dark rain cloud. The border partly overlaps with the arrangement of brighter tones in the middle of the painting, particularly the blue curved rectangle at the centre-right of the composition. These forms are accompanied by flecks and slithers of brown, yellow and white, and the overall effect of these colours suggests that an outdoor environment lies beyond the frame. However, there are also coloured elements visible at the very edges of the painting, surrounding the grey border, giving the impression that the window or frame is floating within the scene and is not connected to a wall. Each shape in the work is made of large stripes of paint that are built up in several layers using expressionistic handling, giving the forms softly defined edges and leaving the brushstrokes and some areas of the composite wood panel visible.
Rain was created by Hodgkin between 1984 and 1989. The artist had made many paintings on wooden panels since 1970, but in the early 1980s the Conservation Department at the National Gallery in London advised him to discontinue this practice because such panels eventually warped and split, ruining the paintings. Rain was one of the first works that Hodgkin made on Dufaylite, a type of board that consists of a paper honeycomb core sandwiched between plywood facings and is therefore resistant to warping.
Throughout his career, Hodgkin has produced seemingly abstract scenes that nonetheless reflect situations or environments. In Rain, abstract elements such as the blocks of colour in irregular, unrecognisable shapes at the painting’s centre contrast with representational components, for instance the impression of recessed space given by the frame and the grey tones that may represent the rain clouds suggested in the title. In 2002 Hodgkin stated that in Rain, ‘the subject actually is just rain’ (Hodgkin in Sandy Nairne, Art Now: Interviews with Modern Artists, London 2002, p.42), but much earlier in his career, in 1982, two years before he began painting Rain, Hodgkin acknowledged the importance to his work of both abstraction and representation, describing his creative process as follows:
My pictures are finished when the subject comes back. I start out with the subject and naturally I have to remember first of all what it looked like, but it would also perhaps contain a great deal of feeling and sentiment. All of that has got to be somehow transmuted, transformed or made, into a physical object ... when that’s finally been done ... and the subject comes back ... then the picture’s finished.
(Hodgkin in Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings, 1973–1984, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1984, p.97.)
Rain is one of Hodgkin’s largest paintings and at the time it was produced it marked a significant increase in scale for the artist, who until that point was known for his ‘mantelpiece’-sized works. Hodgkin began painting Rain during a moment of mid-career success – he was selected to represent Britain at the forty-first Venice Biennale in 1984, where his work was well received. Although still keen to paint intimate and emotional subjects associated with domesticity and interiors, he began to attempt them at a larger scale. Hodgkin stated in 1991 that the increase in size for paintings such as Rain had a practical purpose as it allowed him to ‘get more into the picture’ and to represent experiences closer to the scale of life (quoted in Tate Britain 2006, p.53). In 2002 he said of Rain:
It was one of the first larger pictures that I ever painted and I was perhaps slightly worried at one moment that it is like a large small painting, an enlarged small painting. It isn’t actually that at all.
(Hodgkin in Nairne 2002, p.42.)
As the art historian and critic Andrew Graham-Dixon has suggested, Rain ‘is a large painting that has the immediacy of something very small, jeweled and glowing, and this combined with its scale has the effect of making you feel as if you yourself have been shrunk to the size where you can be dwarfed by a miniature’ (Andrew Graham-Dixon, Howard Hodgkin, London and New York 1994, p.138). In 1991 Hodgkin acknowledged the importance of Rain to this new development in the scale of his work, stating that: ‘When I finished the picture, I came out of my studio thinking nothing would be the same again’ (quoted in Graham-Dixon 1991, pp.36–7).
Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Heavy Rain’, Independent Magazine, 16 February 1991, pp.36–7.
Michael Auping, John Elderfield, Susan Sontag and Marla Price, Howard Hodgkin Paintings, London and Fort Worth, Texas 1995, reproduced p.104.
Howard Hodgkin, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2006, pp.16, 30, 52–3, 55, 169–70, 186, reproduced no.36 and 170–1 (details).
Supported by Christie’s.