Howard Hodgkin



In Tate Britain

Howard Hodgkin 1932–2017
Oil paint on wood
Support: 1091 × 1395 mm
Purchased 1997


R.B.K. is a landscape-oriented oil painting with a wooden support and frame that depicts a seated figure on the right facing towards a rectangular framed area in the centre of the painting. The scene is represented in bright colours in a loose style that appears fully abstract in places. Eight bands, each comprising three stripes in blue, pale green and dark green paint, run diagonally in roughly parallel bands across the painting’s foreground, as if the scene were viewed through a series of slats. The figure is depicted with a curvaceous body in various tones of blue, and its face, which appears as if silhouetted against a bright yellow shape, is partly obscured by one of the diagonal bands. The area on the left towards which the figure turns is framed with a dark blue outline and has a green and yellow rhomboid on its far side, suggesting that it represents an open door or a window shutter. Within this rectangular window or door area sits a largely abstract composition, although one of the shapes it contains resembles a flat red heart shape. The work’s pine frame is painted red along its top, while the rest is coloured light green.

This work was painted by the British artist Howard Hodgkin during 1969 and 1970, while he was living and working in London. Its support comprises a single sheet of plywood that has been pinned and glued to four outer battens. This is fitted into a rebated groove on the inside of the pine frame, with a metal plate securing it in each corner. The plywood was initially primed with a very dry, thin white layer possibly comprising chalk and animal glue, after which paint was loosely applied across the work in multiple layers. The diagonal stripes were painted last, over the top of the existing forms underneath, and the paint is generally opaque in colour and matt in finish throughout the work.

R.B.K. is a portrait of the well-known American painter R.B. Kitaj (Ronald Brooks Kitaj), a friend of Hodgkin’s who was also based in London during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of Hodgkin’s works from the this time are portraits of figures from the British art world, including artists, critics and dealers, yet many of these show their sitters in ambiguous environments and with a colourful abstraction that makes them difficult to identify, as is seen in R.B.K. as well as Mrs Nicholas Monro 1966–9 (Tate T01117) and Mr and Mrs E.J.P. 1969–73 (Tate T07111).

Since the early 1970s Hodgkin’s paintings have almost exclusively been executed on wooden supports (see, for instance, Come into the Garden, Maud 2000–3, Tate T12322). The critic Michael Auping has suggested that R.B.K. may have been the first work to be produced in this way, Hodgkin’s paintings until that point having generally been executed on canvas (Michael Auping, ‘A Long View’, in Metropolitan Museum of Art 1996, p.17). In 1984 Hodgkin explained that one reason for his starting to paint on wood was that unlike canvas it ‘has such a character of its own. In a piece of wood with grain ... you get these beautiful wave patterns ... there is already something to work with – either with or against. It has an identity already. Whereas a white canvas is just a piece of white canvas, it hasn’t any identity or will of its own at all’ (Howard Hodgkin and Patrick Caulfield, ‘Howard Hodgkin and Patrick Caulfield in Conversation’, Art Monthly, no.78, July/August 1984, p.5). This statement seems particularly relevant to R.B.K. given that when viewed in person, the grain of its frame is visible through the paint.

R.B.K. was also among the first of many works in which Hodgkin painted his frames in colours that featured in the main composition of the painting. As the director of Tate Nicholas Serota has observed, this has the effect that in Hodgkin’s works ‘the frame is not something to be added as protection or separation once the painting has been completed’ but is an integral component of the work (Nicholas Serota, ‘Introduction’, in Irish Museum of Modern Art 2006, p.13). The critic James Meyer has argued that Hodgkin’s emphasis on the frame has allowed him simultaneously to emphasise the physical ‘thingness’ of his works and the ‘transparency’ evoked through their pictorial depth (James Meyer, ‘Hodgkin’s Body’, in Irish Museum of Modern Art 2006, p.49). Discussing R.B.K. in particular, Meyer has claimed that the painting highlights this combination through a complicated play of surface and recession: ‘the literal frame functions as a window revealing the sitter ... through a screen of diagonal bars. In the distance, a window frames yet another scene’ (Meyer 2006, p.49).

Further reading
Howard Hodgkin Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1996, pp.17, 157, reproduced p.157.
Howard Hodgkin, exhibition catalogue, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 2006, pp.50, 164, 179, reproduced p.79.
Marla Price, Howard Hodgkin: The Complete Paintings, London 2006, p.103, reproduced p.103.

David Hodge
April 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

In this painting, eight green diagonal stripes partly obscure a view through a rectangular window into a room. In this space, a seated figure appears to be looking at another rectangle. This could be a window or maybe a painting. The figure is Hodgkin’s friend, the painter RB Kitaj. Many of Hodgkin’s portraits from this time show his subjects in unknown places, painted with colourful abstract shapes that makes them difficult to identify. He painted on wood to give his artworks more of the quality of solid objects.

Gallery label, January 2020

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Technique and condition

The support to the painting comprises a single piece of composite 'battenboard' that is fixed into the frame with four metal plates. These lie across each of the painting's corners and are screwed into the rear of the frame. The board consists of two sheets of 6mm thick 3-ply plywood that are pinned and glued to four outer battens. In addition the board contains several supporting battens that run diagonally inside the structure, which are visible when the painting is examined with X-rays. This support was initially primed with a very dry and thin white layer that has the appearance of chalk bound in animal glue.

The paint is predominantly vehicular and paste-like in consistency and is typical of oil paint used straight from the tube. It extends over all parts of the board and frame that are visible from the front, as well as the left and right edges of the frame (which has been toned with a black matt paint). The paint was applied in a rather loose manner, exclusively by brush (the brushstrokes remain very apparent), and built up in several layers. All areas appear to have at least two layers, although it is not unusual to find up to four or five, especially in areas near the overlap of forms or where the composition has been altered, for example in the top right corner. Most of the layers were applied after the underlying one had dried, but occasionally a wet-in-wet technique was used, for example in the blue and white curves that outline the figure. The diagonal green stripes were painted last and were painted over the completed forms beneath (which are still visible when the work is viewed in raking light). The paint is generally opaque and matt, although a transparent red is used along the top member of the frame and some of the thin green layers seem transparent too. The painting is not varnished.

The work is still in excellent condition. Although a few minor cracks have developed in the paint above knots in the wooden frame (especially along the top edge) the paint is still securely attached in these areas. Of slightly more concern are the four corners of the frame, whose mitres at the front have opened slightly at their inner edges. However, these corner joints are structurally secure and should remain so providing a careful handling policy is adopted and the painting is kept in stable environmental conditions.

Tom Learner
April 1998

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