There are few artists as daring as Howard Hodgkin. Who else would have the temerity to exhibit paintings that, at first glance, look as though the artist has accidentally tripped, sending his paintbrush skidding across the canvas and frame with violent results? Yet those splurges, slicks and virulent marks are the results of a master manipulator of paint. It is impossible to look at a picture by Hodgkin and not be aware of the artist’s struggle. He goads, mocks and entreats the paint into doing his bidding, creating a fascinating narrative for the viewer in the process. For Hodgkin has always sought to represent personal encounters, emotional experiences and memories of places he has visited. As a young artist he made portraits of friends and fellow artists such as Robin Denny and R. B. Kitaj, and later he painted his travels through India and Africa. The titles have always alluded to these experiences, which makes for an intriguing narrative, compelling the viewer to search for clues amid the overlapping planes of abstract colour.
Hodgkin’s relationship with the British Council began in 1984, when he represented Britain at the XLI Venice Biennale. In 1990, they held an exhibition of his small paintings, and three years later invited him to design a mural for their India headquarters in New Delhi. The result was a monochrome image in black and white marble of a tree and the shadows cast by its leaves. In 1981, the British Council’s Visual Arts Department purchased Still Life in a Restaurant. It was painted while Hodgkin was Artist in Residence at Brasenose College, Oxford, and had been included in ‘Critic’s Choice: An Exhibition of Contemporary Art selected by John McEwen’ at the ICA in 1978. The painting marks the beginning of a radical transformation in Hodgkin’s working method. In 1976, he came across a chemical called Liquin, which reduces the drying time of pigments. It allowed him to build up layers of oil paint without muddying the surface, and as a result his pictures developed a new level of emotional intensity. At the time, Hodgkin had virtually eliminated figures from his paintings, confining himself to dots, stripes and heavy brush strokes. Still Life in a Restaurant is a vibrant work of red, blue and yellow dots hovering over a mottled sea of black, white and grey ones. It sits, illuminated, inside a heavy dark frame and a thick border of black paint, something Hodgkin explains very simply: ‘The more evanescent the emotion I want to convey, the thicker the panel, the heavier the framing, the more elaborate the border, so that this delicate thing will remain protected and intact.’
(C) Jessica Lack 2009
1 Hodgkin quoted in Deepak Ananth, ‘Hodgkin’s Poetics’, in Howard Hodgkin: Small Paintings 1975–1989, exh. cat. (London: British Council, 1990), 84.