Absent Friends: Howard Hodgkin at National Portrait Gallery

I do as I am told. I put away my phone and agree not to take any pictures. How am I going to remember what I see? I will miss details, and surely my memory won’t be able to hold everything intact until I start writing down this piece. Interestingly enough, Howard Hodgkin was a painter of memory; his brushstrokes were the representation of a first encounter, a recollection of images, and a collage of layers of emotions. The exhibition chronologically relates the story of the painter, from his first figurative sketches to his final renderings on wood.

There are no radical changes in the paintings’ content year after year. Hodgkin matures subtly, adding himself to the depiction and accentuating the locations, sometimes hiding elements of his memories to let them be imagined by the viewers. His lighter brushstrokes become gestures, meticulously translating a movement into one emotion.
The relationship between two people seems to fascinate the artist. Whether it’s his friends standing in front of him, striding in the galleries of a museum, or himself listening to music, there is always a human presence involved at the heart of the canvas. A canvas which counts as a means as much as the subject itself, as it becomes an integral part of the composition. Hodgkin includes the frame as part of the canvas, not letting the emotions being confined into a bold rectangular trap.

Grantchester Road by Howard Hodgkin, 1975, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Wilson Loan 2006) © Howard Hodgkin

As I delve into the paintings for a moment, I take part in intimate personal encounters, accumulations of experiences with one particular individual whom I have never met and I have no idea who they could be, but whom Hodgkin has transcribed beautifully. Using pastels, rusty colours, and vivid tones, like turquoise, homogeneously blended, he lets appear a part of a cheek, exaggerated eyes, a head or a smile. The heavy patterns made of dots and thick lines reveal the souvenirs of a human presence, as if the emotions were being protected by an obvious layer which needed to be got around.
The evolution of the painter in time influences the plans in the representations. The bold patterns become a part of the abstract blurry bodies. Hodgkin puts them on the same plan, whereas before, the latter were hidden behind intricate layers.
The backgrounds overtake the memory, suggesting that the presence becomes an object, with Hodgkin entering and materializing on the canvas. We are not just looking at portraits but at a three-dimensional configuration comprised of one or two individuals, the artist, the context and a world of emotions. Waves of colours translate the energy felt by the artist, not at the time of painting, but at the time he was in this person’s presence. The shifts between several moments in time makes the paintings intriguing.

The Spectator by Howard Hodgkin, 1984-87, Michael P. Green © Howard Hodgkin

The process of feeling, leaving emotions to memory, and then grasping what’s left of it, is what is laid on these wooden canvases. In an era where snapshots are more important than the moments themselves, I wonder if society is translating an anxiety, one of losing genuine and sincere feelings. Is a memory not enough? Hodgkin proves that it is more than enough. Remembering through memory is like making poetry. We transform souvenirs at the discretion of our imagination.

Howard Hodgkin at National Portrait Gallery (23 March – 18 June 2017)

Featured Image: Mr and Mrs Robyn Denny by Howard Hodgkin, 1960, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Townsend III © Howard Hodgkin

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