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SIR HOWARD HODGKIN (1932-2017), considered to be one of Britain’s most important painters and printmakers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, was born in 1932 in London into a prominent Quaker family whose intellectual lineage includes the father of meteorology and the physician who first described Hodgkin’s disease.  His father was a distinguished horticulturalist and his mother studied classics at Oxford, though Hodgkin has said that his parents did not encourage his intention to become an artist, an avocation he felt drawn to since the age of six.  Frequently pigeonholed as the last great English artist in the tradition of Constable and Turner,  Hodgkin is considered to be far more incendiary than that, an artist whom the writer Stuart Jeffries has noted, “exploded counterintuitively from a British visual culture temperamentally uneasy at depicting sensuality or expressing intellectual thoughts.”

Hodgkin spent part of his childhood on Long Island with his mother and sister, a refugee from wartime London.  He returned to England when his mother died, and, uninterested in a classical, formal education, ran away from five schools, including Eton.  “I wanted to be an artist,” he has said of this time of his life, “and no one wanted me to be.” Eventually he convinced a psychiatrist to allow him to return to Long Island, where he stayed with friends, who gave him a room to paint in.  He spent much time in museums and galleries, and it was during this period that he first encountered the old masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the great modernists at the Museum of Modern Art.  Artists such as Fernand Leger, Pierre Bonnard, Stuart Davis, Edouard Vuillard, and Matisse served as important early influences, particularly in their use of color.  (Later, back in London, he viewed Jackson Pollack’s first show in Europe (1958) and witnessed other exhibitions in London of American painters of the Abstract-Expressionist School.)  In 1949 he enrolled in the Camberwell School of Art in London, where he studied for a year, and then spent four years at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham.  At Camberwell his teachers included Victor Pasmore and William Coldstream, legendary figures in the England of that era.  At the Bath Academy he studied under the renowned illustrator and graphic artist, Clifford Ellis.  While at Camberwell he showed the principal his first fully executed, mature painting, a work entitled Memoirs, produced at the age of 17 and now regarded as an astonishing example of youthful technical mastery.  “A load of rubbish,” the principal commented, Hodgkin’s first encounter with the limitations of certain viewers to comprehend the multi-layered and multi-textual facets of his profoundly personal, experiential, and emotionally expressive approach to his craft, determinedly unencumbered by adherence to any particular doctrine or ‘school’.  As the writer Bruce Chatwin has put it: “(his) brilliantly colored and basically autobiographical pictures, done both with bravura and with anxiety, fall into none of the accepted categories of modern art.”

After concluding his artistic training, Hodgkin held several teaching positions, first at the Charterhouse School in Surrey (1954-1956), and then followed by positions at the Bath Academy (1956-1966) and the Chelsea School ofArt in London (1966-1972).  In 1955 he married Julia Lane, and the couple had two sons.  At one particularly low point during this period, Hodgkin nearly took his own life, contemplating stepping in front of a train at London’s Paddington Station.  When asked what brought him to such despair, he replied, “Something the artist Richard Smith said.  He said, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re an artist or not.’  Just the kind of poisonous remark that stays in your head and tortures you.” He stepped back from the platform, resolved to giving up “that substitute life, teaching,” and committing himself full-time to painting.  Eventually, the honors began to accumulate: He was designated as a Trustee of the Tate Gallery in London (1970-1976), appointed a Commander of the British Empire and awarded Second Prize at the John Moores exhibition (1976), named as an Artist in Residence at Brasenose College, Oxford (1976-1977), appointed a Trustee of the National Gallery in London (1978-1985), represented Britain at the Venice Biennale (1984), awarded the Turner Prize (1985), appointed an Honorary Fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford (1988), appointed to The Committee, National Art Collections Fund (1989), awarded a Knighthood (1992), appointed an Honorary Fellow of the London Institute and awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters, Oxford University (1999), and appointed a Companion of Honor (2003).

One of the characteristics that make Hodgkin’s style so distinctive is the “unique, vivid, and unrestrained use of color, so much so that he is often compared to Matisse.”  The paintings often have patterns made up of ‘dots’.  Hodgkin has said that there is something of a painter’s ‘philosopher’s stone’ about his ‘marks’ (such as the dots) which is something representational in itself; and also emotionally expressive. It can take him several years to complete a single painting, perhaps a year to execute a single brushstroke on a given work.  Since the 1970s he has often used framed wooden boards as a painting surface, with the frames incorporated into the work, or painted over.  This process converts his paintings into heavy, solid objects;  an analytical painting tradition which began with Cezanne and arrives at Minimalism via Jasper Johns.  One of the best examples of this genre is his oil-on-wood painting Red Bermudas (1978-1980), belonging to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Hodgkins’ work has often been adjudged to be ‘abstractionist’ in nature, and has been compared to the American “Abstract-Expressionist’ school, but he does not consider himself to be an ‘abstract artist.”  He once famously commented, “I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances.  I paint representational paintings of emotional situations.”  He is not interested in capturing reality as a snapshot, or a mimicking, of what the eye takes in and then ‘freezes’ in the memory.  ‘Memory’, for Hodgkin, is a far more complicated process than that.  Indeed, the mechanism of memory, and how it can be transformed into a work of art, is one of the main themes running throughout his work.  His is a way of seeing the world in which perception is more important than representation; his works are never literal, not in the traditional sense.  He represents not what he sees, but what he feels and remembers.  What we remember of events becomes our reality, or, as Ford Madox Ford once said, “What one remembers is Truth.”  The importance given to ‘the appearance of truth’ is secondary.  Perception, memory, and painting itself, are what these paintings are all about.  His work seems to ask the question: What is it that makes a painting truly important?  The answer for Hodgkin seems to be that what is most significant, in all art for that matter, is that which eludes verbal expression, and this is a fundamental theme in his painting.  He expresses the universal and enigmatic power of painting without resorting to vocabulary that is superfluous to painting - he nurtures it exclusively with authentic experiences of life.  These experiences can be encounters with friends, moods, landscapes, specific climates, erotic scenes, portraits, memories of emotions, and homages to fellow artists. In this way his paintings can be considered ‘living organisms”; the viewer needs to bring them into focus; to process the image in accordance with his or her particular experiences, and project onto the painting the emotionally significant moments of their own lives, whether they are distant, painful, or happy.  Hodgkin’s paintings speak to the transitory nature of life, and the impossibility of turning back the clock. It seems that only memories have the ability to give meaning to the relentless march of time.  For Hodgkin, the overriding impulse to make a painting comes from memory and the emotion memory can carry with it.  The event remembered is more productive of serious, refined, and complex emotion than the event as it is originally experienced.  The idea is to let color and pattern work on the viewer’s nervous system, eventually conveying levels of feeling.  The paintings, therefore, arise from precise occasions, precise emotions.  Somebody, something, some object, a memory of a very particular time, very specific and absolutely personal - that is where a painting comes from.  It is not important to know who the subject of a painting is.  The viewer, in Hodgkin’s opinion, needs to feel the emotion which the painter felt.  The finished product is the result of the accretion of many decisions often worked on for years to find the exact thickness of a feeling.  And so, in the end, what is worth painting is what is revealed in, and transformed by, memory.  

Hodgkin’s work has been displayed at over 40 solo exhibitions and over 30 group shows. Major museum exhibitions include Paintings: 1975-1995, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (opened 1995 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, traveled to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Kunstverein Dusseldorf, and Haywood Gallery, London in 1996); Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, (2006, traveled to Tate Britain and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid); Paintings: 1992-2007, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (2007, traveled to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge); Time and Place, 2001-2010, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (2010, traveled to De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg, the Netherlands, and San Diego Museum of Art, 2010-2011); and Howard Hodgkin, Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse, France (2013).

Written November 2014 by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, ITunes, and Barnes & Noble.

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