Howard Hodgkin, 'Mr and Mrs Stephen Buckley' 1974-6

Howard Hodgkin
Mr and Mrs Stephen Buckley 1974-6
Oil on wood
support: 733 x 1073 mm
Purchased 1980© Howard Hodgkin

He grew up in a home full of Omega Workshop objects, before being evacuated to New York during the Second World War where he was introduced to the Museum of Modern Art. Ever since then, for the artist who represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1984, and was an early recipient of the Turner Prize in 1985, memory has played an important part in how he articulates his world.

Kenneth Baker
It’s always seemed to me that most of our contact with paintings – for those who are not painters – is in memory. I spend much more time remembering pictures than looking at them, except for a couple I own. There’s a quality in your work of meeting the viewer half way in this regard: the memory themes are not merely private, but have to do with a condition of reception that’s not widely acknowledged in contemporary painting. Does that sound right to you?

Howard Hodgkin
Yes. I think it’s absolutely true of some artists I admire above almost everyone else, because memories are what we share. Degas, for example, is someone that, in an odd way, I feel very close to. I don’t say that in any hubristic sense. The things he observed became almost instantly things that had happened. And so he would go on re-using them, tracing and transferring images or parts of images from one work to another.

Kenneth Baker
What that makes me think of is something very different from and ostensibly unconnected to Degas, which is Abstract Expressionism. It was supposed to be about the painting process as an event, making the painting something that happens. And yet one does not think of the Abstract Expressionists in relation to Degas. They’re much closer to you than to him in terms of the open stroke, brushwork or marking that advertises itself for what it is.

Howard Hodgkin
But he used that a lot as well, particularly in the monotypes, which are so marvellous. I think there is a connection between those apparently disparate situations, because the Degas pictures are always things. They became objects.

Kenneth Baker
That may be true after a certain point in his career, but think of something such as Degas’s The Bellelli Family

Howard Hodgkin
Ah, a wonderful picture! That’s completely a thing. He’s turned something that was observed into a pictorial object – like a piece of architecture.

Kenneth Baker
And how is that different from someone such as Chardin, some of whose pictures appear to be as carefully, though not as coldly observed as The Bellelli Family?

Howard Hodgkin
Well, I don’t think of The Bellelli Family as being coldly observed at all. I think it’s a total work of art that he was extremely passionate about. I can’t see any fundamental difference between that and The Owner’s Birthday, his monotype of some of the girls patting the brothel-keeper on the head. His formal passion has been turned into a very solid thing.

Kenneth Baker
And you see yourself enacting a similar process in your work?

Howard Hodgkin
Yes, I do.

Kenneth Baker
Are these finished pieces?

Howard Hodgkin
Absolutely. Not even you would I allow to see an unfinished painting.

Kenneth Baker
Well, that’s not quite true. Last time I was here you allowed me to see two unfinished paintings.

Howard Hodgkin
I did? I never normally let anyone see unfinished pictures.

Kenneth Baker
I know. I took it as a real mark of trust. They were not titled. Both were on this wall at the time. One you weren’t sure about – it might have been ready. The other definitely wasn’t. I asked you how you knew it was unfinished, because it wasn’t obvious to me. And you said something most interesting in reply: ‘Because the subject isn’t there yet.’

Howard Hodgkin
Yes, I remember now, and you said you had no idea my paintings were so subject-led.

Kenneth Baker
I still don’t understand the status of the subject in your work. At times it seems that a title will bring a subject forward, so it becomes a shareable thing to contemplate. In other cases, before one knows the title, your pictures can seem not exactly abstract, but disinterested in subject. Whereas your response to my question was a passionate commitment to subject.

Howard Hodgkin
Absolutely. The subject is what the painting is about. I think that’s the best I can do.

Kenneth Baker
So a painting such as First Light on account of its title suggests an image. If you had called it Untitled, Number 18, 2005, I might certainly have seen emanations of light in it, but I wouldn’t have taken it to have a subject.

Howard Hodgkin
No, well, some are more literal than others.

Kenneth Baker
So when they’re less literal, they’re not more abstract?

Howard Hodgkin
No. Absolutely not.

Kenneth Baker
That’s where I’m confused, because I don’t see how you can have a shareable subject without some literalness. In this case, the literalness comes mostly in the title. But it seems as if there’s a way of seeing these things that you insist upon for yourself that you can’t insist upon for the viewer.

Howard Hodgkin
I can’t control the viewer. But I tell them what the picture’s about, always. I’ve never painted an abstract picture in my life. I can’t.

Kenneth Baker
But there’s so much verve and assertion in the brushwork here that to my eye it overcomes the subject. You’re looking at paint first and last, really, even though it’s paint inhabiting a situation you’ve constructed. I think it opens itself to an abstract reading.

Howard Hodgkin
Well, I was brought up in a period when art historians talked about the formal structure of paintings such as Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition c.1435–40, where the subject was often taken for granted and could be read as abstract.

Kenneth Baker
But we’re no longer in that situation. The subject cannot be taken for granted.

Howard Hodgkin
No, we’re not, nor any longer can painting be taken for granted. But all paintings that have lasted have had to be able to be looked at as physical objects as well as what they’re about. Anybody who’s seriously interested in painting views pictures as things as well as images.

Kenneth Baker
Then it seems that a certain kind of transaction between these points of view – seeing it as a thing and as an image or construction – is breaking down.

Howard Hodgkin
Breaking down with the audience? I see why you say that, but it’s not been my entire experience. I was amazed when I had my show at the Metropolitan Museum. Retrospectives are almost the only time the artist meets his public, or when there’s any dialogue. I had the most extraordinary encounters in New York. I thought ‘nobody’s going to understand what my pictures are about at all’. But they did to the most astonishing extent.

Kenneth Baker
When one sees in your paintings what looks like a painted frame, or a reversed panel, does that imply a revision of something that already exists or existed?

Howard Hodgkin
For me, it’s got to be a new beginning. I’ve never been able to paint in series either, unfortunately.

Kenneth Baker
Have you tried?

Howard Hodgkin
No. Before anything else can happen, I’ve got to establish the physical reality of the picture.

Kenneth Baker
And it’s when that physical reality is established that the subject can begin to show itself ?

Howard Hodgkin
Yes. Absolutely right.

Kenneth Baker
I would think that from the naive non-painter’s point of view, the trick would be to surmount the physical reality of the panel with paint – to make it disappear as mere matter – rather than achieve a peculiar physicality with the paint.

Howard Hodgkin
The physicality is the paint and the panel, together. That’s what has always fascinated me about Arshile Gorky’s work. He is the most interesting of the Abstract Expressionists, if he can even be called that.

Kenneth Baker
Who knows? He wasn’t abstract, for one thing. Anyone who looks at the paintings will have to acknowledge that they’re rotten with suggestiveness, deliciously so. It’s interesting to me that you keep Gorky as a reference point. Would you say that’s true?

Howard Hodgkin
Not as a reference point now, but he’s someone I never forget about.

Kenneth Baker
Are you willing to mention artists you do keep as reference points?

Howard Hodgkin
They all sound too grand, and they’re too long dead.

Kenneth Baker
Guston had no qualms about linking himself with Piero della Francesca.

Howard Hodgkin
No? Well, Stuart Davis, at his best, then.

Kenneth Baker
Really?

Howard Hodgkin
When you consider that he had no support system for what he did. He invented his own lingua franca.

Kenneth Baker
I think many American critics – and this may be very chauvinistic – have come to think of Abstract Expressionism as the lingua franca of the second half of the twentieth century, because it appears to manifest its influence in so many places. Do you not have Abstract Expressionism in mind?

Howard Hodgkin
No. But I’m sure I was very much affected by it. I helped David Sylvester to hang the de Kooning exhibition at Tate in 1995, which was a very educational process, as you can imagine, because you were so near the paintings. One had to make constant, instantly defensible value judgments.’No, David, you can’t hang that there because.’ And he would come back with something that was more like a tidal wave than a sentence. It was wonderful to be so near them.

Kenneth Baker
Let’s talk about colour. Is there a satisfactory language to describe colour?

Howard Hodgkin
It’s almost impossible.

Kenneth Baker
Where chances are most obviously taken – sometimes with debatable success and sometimes with triumphant clarity and resolution – they seem to produce the most fraught-feeling aspects of your pictures. Do you decide on a palette before you make a painting?

Howard Hodgkin
 Never.

Kenneth Baker
Is there ever a root colour in a picture, on which everything else must hang?

Howard Hodgkin
No. It is a juggling act every time. That’s why it’s always a struggle.

Kenneth Baker
Does colour provide the precision needed for a subject?

Howard Hodgkin
It can do. But people pretend that I never draw, because they can’t see that my pictures are made of drawing, shape and composition.

Kenneth Baker
I’m surprised, because to me the linearity that develops from moving paint around is so pronounced, as are the occlusions.

Howard Hodgkin
Yes, thank you! That seems to be something I can’t say to people.

Kenneth Baker
In An Italian Landscape there is a wonderful sap green running through the picture. The title suggests that it has two meanings. It can mean a painting, or an actual view.

Howard Hodgkin
It means an actual view.

Kenneth Baker
So you had a view in mind, a memory that you worked from?

Howard Hodgkin
I had several.

Kenneth Baker
Your paintings have weather in them, which is not true of many contemporary works. They have mood, but not weather.

Howard Hodgkin
Maybe that’s because I’m an English artist. I hate to say that, because I don’t feel like an English artist at all, but I’m afraid it’s inescapable.

Kenneth Baker
Well, there’s no weather in Michael Craig-Martin.

Howard Hodgkin
But I don’t think of Michael Craig-Martin as an English artist. Do you?

Kenneth Baker
I’m not sure I know what you mean by an English artist.

Howard Hodgkin
Well, I think of Stuart Davis and de Kooning as totally American artists, for example.

Kenneth Baker
Well, yes, de Kooning certainly became American and changed what American painting meant, or ‘American-ness in painting’, to use a Greenbergism. Do you think you’ve done the same thing for Englishness in painting, or is there no such thing?

Howard Hodgkin
I hope there’s no such thing.

Kenneth Baker
The issue of weather brings me back to the question of these paintings as reflections of yourself. I’m sure some people are tempted to read your evocations of weather as evocations of psychological weather.

Howard Hodgkin
Yes, they might. I can’t stop them.

Kenneth Baker
Is there a correspondence, then? Have there been paintings that have grown out of specific moods that you’ve wished to sustain?

Howard Hodgkin
Oh, mostly, yes. Far more than anything else.

Kenneth Baker
Do you think the durability of a painting as an achieved physical object, if it’s well-tuned, will secure the persistence of the mood?

Howard Hodgkin
Yes, I do. And I’m not just speaking of my work. I think if a painting succeeds, it’s there and it won’t evaporate. You can use the most evanescent mood to make something solid.

Kenneth Baker
This suggests to me that what you’re saying is that the painting process is part of defining the moods that you have. Can moods be among the subjects in your sphere?

Howard Hodgkin
Yes, absolutely.

Kenneth Baker
And can you think of other things, besides weather, that qualify as subjects?

Howard Hodgkin
Well, weather’s never been a specific subject. There’s a big picture in the Tate collection called Rain, but it includes a lot of other things.

Kenneth Baker
So is a painting a receptacle in that sense?

Howard Hodgkin
Yes, if you like.

Kenneth Baker
That seems to invite dangerous projections on the viewer’s part.

Howard Hodgkin
Yes it does, but viewers usually don’t make mistakes. I’m just astounded by that.

Kenneth Baker
Are there subjects that have defeated you?

Howard Hodgkin
I can’t remember one that I never finally conquered. I can remember ages ago that I felt I’d failed to communicate when I’d painted some unhappy emotional situation and someone looked at the picture and said: ‘Oh, how pretty; how charming.’ And I thought ‘ugh’. But then, why not? Why shouldn’t they? The picture should be itself.

Kenneth Baker
So you do see your work as communicative?

Howard Hodgkin
Yes. And the pictures do communicate.

Kenneth Baker
I think that too remains a point of ambiguity, or it seems to fluctuate in degrees among the paintings.

Howard Hodgkin
Yes, of course it would among anybody’s paintings.

Kenneth Baker
It fluctuates vividly among yours, I think.

Howard Hodgkin
I don’t mind being vivid.

Kenneth Baker
…in that some do seem to be very private and others quite public.

Howard Hodgkin
Yes, though to me they always seem ridiculously open. But I think that’s because of the nature of how an artist works, at least how I work.

Kenneth Baker
Do you have a favourite register in which to work, where you’re most comfortable?

Howard Hodgkin
No, not at all. But I’m always fascinated by the effect of scale and surface on the emotion that one is trying to communicate. Sometimes I make them bigger.

Kenneth Baker
By adding a margin?

Howard Hodgkin
Yes. I can’t remember ever having made one smaller.

Kenneth Baker
What about your sense of your audience? Are there other painters you try things out on?

Howard Hodgkin
No. No one. I used to. My only painter friend was Patrick Caulfield, who died recently. Now it has to be me.

Kenneth Baker
Do you paint in silence?

Howard Hodgkin
Always.

Ben Luke on Howard Hodgkin’s View from Venice 1984–5 (Online Exclusive)

According to Hodgkin, View from Venice 1984–5 is a view from the city into the Lagoon. A few swathes of turquoise, orange, black and white, some dashes of red-brown burnt sienna, and some tiny remnants of the initial bare wood surface represent the memory of what he saw and felt with this view before him. But the painting is sufficiently indistinct to act as a trigger for the viewer’s own recollections and, perhaps, emotions. For me, it conjures up memories of looking across the Lagoon at sunset to surrounding islands like the cemetery San Michele or Murano, when they glow a pinkish-orange and hover over the water like an apparition, or watching the sun setting spectacularly behind the ugly Tronchetto car park and the industrial area to the west of the city.

The central, illusory image is enclosed by a border made from three individual wooden frames, painted in autumnal ochre, earthy green and red, and covered by black spots. This dense frame could represent an interior space, one of those intensely patterned, ornate Venetian rooms, from whose window, perhaps, Hodgkin experienced the view.

It is often said that in the city’s shifting and dramatic light, its reflections, mists and sunsets, Turner found a perfect echo of his sensibilities, and the ultimate motifs from which to show off his talents. The same can be said of Hodgkin.

His practice is solitary. ‘Alone in my studio’, he has said. ‘I long to share my feelings’. And his depiction of Venice, the ghostly shadow of a once thriving republic, is inevitably a kind of elegy. Hodgkin once lamented that it was ‘irritating.to be constantly told that my pictures are beautiful’, because it might indicate that they lack meaning or content. However View from Venice for all its exuberant colour, energy and expressive vigour, contains a hint of sadness. Like Venice, it is indeed beautiful, but it is a beauty with a lingering melancholy.