Howard Hodgkin 1932 - 2017


The Estate of the Artist
Gagosian Gallery, London


Hong Kong, Gagosian Gallery, Howard Hodgkin, In the Pink, 19 January – 4 March 2017, cat no.11, illus colour

London, Gagosian Gallery, Howard Hodgkin, Last Paintings, 1 June – 28 July 2018, p10, cat no.19, illus colour


'The only way an artist can communicate at large is on the level of feeling. I think the function of an artist is to practice his art at such a level that like the soul leaving the body, it comes out into the world and affects other people.' [1] Howard Hodgkin

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Corinthians 13:12

At the beginning of 2017, the Gagosian Gallery presented Howard Hodgkin's first ever exhibition in Hong Kong where the present painting was exhibited. Hodgkin sadly died on 9 March a few days after the exhibition closed and just a couple of weeks before the opening of his major portrait exhibition Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery in London. As such, Through a Glass Darkly belongs among Hodgkin's last works, many of which were gathered together for the posthumous exhibition Last Paintings at the Gagosian Gallery in London last year.

While Hodgkin's paintings continued to evolve throughout his long career, both his approach to subject and his distinctive painterly language were evident from his very first solo exhibition at Arthur Tooth and Sons in 1962. In paintings such as Interior, 1962 and Brigid Segrave, 1961-2 Hodgkin reached for a way to describe, through painting, his subjective experience of an encounter with friends. From this point on, his focus would be less on what he had seen and more on what he had felt, albeit entangled with visual impressions. As his paintings progressed, his images became less identifiably figurative but his notion of making 'representational pictures of emotional situations' endured. However abstract Hodgkin's image would become, it remained founded on a specific moment in time, a glimpse of something, an intense emotion, a particular place.

Through the 1970s Hodgkin moved away from figuration, developing a distinctive lexicon of abstract marks - dots, curving bands, squiggly waves, frames within frames. After 1972, all Hodgkin's paintings are on wood - his found wooden objects, sometimes the backs and fronts of frames, contributing their own unique character and providing a surface which could be painted on over and over again. In 1976, Hodgkin discovered a medium called Liquin which transformed his method of working. It reduced the drying time of his pigments and allowed him to build up layers of oil while preserving the paint's luminosity and fluidity. Through the 1970s and 1980s Hodgkin's imagery became more simplified, but this did not necessarily affect the length of time he might take to make a picture, which was often counted in years. As time went on his subject matter became more centred on his own experience - this is reflected in the paintings' titles such as Jealousy, 1977; Passion, 1980-1984 & Clean Sheets, 1982-1984.

Hodgkin's extraordinary engagement with colour can be traced back to two formative encounters with art. Hodgkin remembers deciding that he would become an artist at the age of five. In 1940, he was evacuated with his mother and sister to America, where they stayed on Long Island and so, as a young boy, he was able to see the work of Henri Matisse, Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, first-hand, at New York's Museum of Modern Art. A few years later and back in England, studying at Eton College, a now teenage Hodgkin was introduced to Indian miniatures by his art teacher Wilfrid Blunt. Both French and Indian art became lifelong influences.

Hodgkin's early interest in Indian painting led him to start collecting Mughal miniatures in his twenties and prompted his first trip to India in 1964. From then on Hodgkin visited India every year without fail, but it was only as he was turning eighty that he made the decision to actually work there. In 2012, he set up a studio in the house he was renting in Mumbai, which offered views of the Indian Ocean on one side and Gothic Bombay on the other. In these last years he would stay in Mumbai, with his partner Antony Peattie, working there for several months each year. Feeling the pressure to keep painting while he was still able, Hodgkin would usually finish his paintings before returning to England, indicating a self-enforced acceleration of his usual, painfully slow, working method.

In this late period, we find Hodgkin working concurrently, and with some urgency, on both small and large paintings. These paintings make use of Hodgkin's distinctive painterly handwriting - spots, stripes, frames - but the motifs are far more loosely defined. In a final burst of activity, he painted his last six paintings in just five weeks on what would be his last trip to India from December 2016 to January 2017.

In the works assembled for Last Paintings, the paint is more thinly applied than ever before, so that we can clearly read one colour through another. Hodgkin is far more daring in how much of the wood is left unpainted and this becomes an increasingly important element within the picture. One feels the influence of British Romantic painters John Constable, J.M.W. Turner and Samuel Palmer in these late works, which make reference to cloudy skies and seas. However, as James Lawrence observes 'The sense of far distance that characterises the landscape tradition, is all but absent. A Hodgkin landscape is always within reach, always brought as close to where we are as the material facts of the painting will allow. Insofar as the paintings are realisations of memories, that sense of proximity helps to keep the paintings in the present tense. What we see has not happened. It is persistently happening'. [2]

In Through a Glass Darkly, we feel this sense of action taking place in an emphatic present. There is a great energy to the marks, which appear like a shorthand of earlier, more labored, patterns of dots and stripes. Here Hodgkin has painted a dozen spots in green, which are overlaid with a glorious Cadmium yellow and red 'frame', made from just four strokes. There is little sense of light and dark tones - the complementary red and green sing equally loudly. As Paul Hills observes, areas of the wood panel are left bare, taking on, through optical contrast with the yellow, 'a hint of smoky violet' [3]. It is as if Hodgkin is reaching for all but the most essential elements of his earlier vocabulary. In a following painting Now, 2015-16, the image is reduced even further to just a few emphatic, horizontal marks, with green now eliminated. Here, Hodgkin's colours are almost painfully clear and vivid, emitting a blast of colour far more powerful than the picture's size would suggest. In fact, Hodgkin has always made small paintings - in 1985, having been nominated for the Turner Prize the previous year, and not won it, he entered just one small painting, A Small Thing But My Own, 1983-85, measuring 45.1 x 54 cm, which he correctly gambled would be enough to win him the prize.

The title of this work, Through a Glass Darkly, is taken from 1 Corinthians, one of the most quoted passages in the bible on the subject of love. The verse suggests that in life, we cannot see things as they truly are, but promises that, in death, we will see God and all things clearly. Other translations of this verse suggest instead, 'For now we see in a mirror dimly'. This notion of not being able to see is suggested by the title of another late painting, Dirty Window, 2014-2015. While intended as a reflection on the mystery of faith, it is a particularly apt metaphor for an artist who made it his life's work to make the intangible visible. Allusions to death and departure appear in the titles of other late paintings, such as Elegy 2014-15 and Over to You, 2015-17, (a line from a poem by Stevie Smith), and the paintings themselves are dominated by themes of light and shade.

In a 2014 TV interview with Stephen Smith, Hodgkin described feeling 'Time's winged chariot behind me all the time.' He also expressed his gratitude that in old age his eyesight remained undiminished, but that 'other things had been taken away to make up for it'. [4] It is clear that Hodgkin's determination to keep painting never faltered, despite his regular protestations about how difficult he found it. Perhaps the difficulty he described was because his approach required that he give so much of himself to his work.

Through a Glass Darkly is a painting which roars with life, exemplifying Ben Luke's assessment that 'Hodgkin left us at the peak of his powers. What a magnificent, blazing, defiant end to a long, distinguished life of painting.' [5]

[1] Richard Morphet, 'Paradox and Plentitude', Howard Hodgkin, Paintings 1992- 2007, 2007, Yale Center for British Art exh. cat, p33

[2] James Lawrence, 'Present Elsewhere' in Howard Hodgkin, From Memory, Gagosian Gallery exh. cat, 2016

[3] Paul Hills (intro), Howard Hodgkin, Last Paintings, Gagosian Gallery, London, 2018, p10

[4] BBC Newsnight, November 2014 -

[5] Ben Luke, 'Howard Hodgkin: Last Paintings review: A riot of colour, wit and style', Evening Standard, 5 June 2018