Howard Hodgkin must have seen the world, and the people in it, in a very unusual way. Luckily, human nature dictates that we are intrigued by other people’s peculiarities, and it is probably for that reason that the National Portrait Gallery has confidently curated Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends.
Hodgkin’s subjects – or friends – include artist Robyn Denny and his wife, sculptor Joe Tilson and spouse, artists Anthony Hill, Gillian Wise and Stephen Buckley. In a way, though, their names and features are irrelevant because in his abstraction, Hodgkin recreates their identities according to his vision.
The exhibition, we are told, explores memory and expression of emotion in Hodgkin’s portraits, spanning from the 1950s to his final paintings, completed just a few months before his death last month. We are also warned that Hodgkin “refers to people without resorting to the creation of a literal likeness”, which seems to be the most sensical offering available. Hodgkin’s work is in fact wildly abstract, and the figures are often virtually impossible to discern amongst the bright colours and geometric patterns.
Hodgkin’s style becomes more familiar as the exhibition progresses. Organised chronologically, it firstly feels a bit like an optical illusion. To begin with, Hodgkin’s absent friends appear so absent that you’re not quite sure if they ever existed in the first place, but as one meanders through, it becomes easier to identify the abstract forms, and the challenge turns out to be quite fun. Whilst a collection of works so very abstract initially feels both daunting and foreign, the fact that Absent Friends becomes more communicative is clever, and unique. Often the last few rooms of an exhibition feel like an afterthought, but not here.
That said, the first room is an anomaly (it should be treated as such), and undoubtedly the most comfortable, capturing Hodgkin’s early work. The exhibition then throws the viewer headlong into the abstract: paintings such as Memoirs echo Picasso and the sketches here offer more insight into what Hodgkin really saw, at the most basic or literal level.
Clearly Hodgkin viewed people with scepticism, and it is obvious that he rejected aesthetic realities when painting, but Absent Friends again and again tells the viewer what it thinks Hodgkin saw, rather than allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusions. This, at times, feels intrusive, particularly with the insertion of (what could be considered to be) rather frightening arty parlance: “constructivism” fills me with confusion, and phrases such as “metaphorical equivalence of marks and feelings” make me feel positively queasy. In fact, I’d recommend visiting Absent Friends without reading the accompanying text – there is a tsunami of explanation that terrifies and infantalises the viewer.
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What is particularly interesting and comparatively ignored is Hodgkin’s propensity to paint on wooden frames. His work at times spills over onto the frame and beyond. This, again, is a rejection of accepted “norms” but probably gives us more of an insight into how much Hodgkin wanted to defy the constraints of realism than his depiction of the friends themselves. In painting on the frames, Hodgkin’s peculiarities are – ironically – revealed in a subtler way than the exhibition allows for in its narrative.
The paintings are bold, colourful and cheerful. Whilst they begin unsettling, they become more familiar. The National Portrait Gallery has probably tried to spoon-feed the viewer to avoid any discomfort – they would have done better not to. The paintings, in fact, speak for themselves.
Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 18th June 2017.