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Absent Friends– the exhibition of portraits by Howard Hodgkin, the incredibly well-known artists, was due to close on the 19th, which meant that the only opportunity to see it would be on either the preceding Thursday (hot) or Friday (even hotter than Thursday) as those are the National Portrait Gallery’s late nights. I went on the Friday. Happily, a combination of lots of water and a fresh breeze made Trafalgar Square more than comfortable. So, pausing only to take a couple of photos of the ducks (you can never have too many photos of ducks), I headed in to the exhibition.

According to the notes, Howard’s primary concern was to evoke the human presence – he was interested in the “role of memory, expression of emotion, and the exploration of relationships between people and places”. As he developed his approach to portraiture Howard moved from (very good) student drawings of his landlady to “non-descriptive brush marks”. Wondered whether I could have got that past the slightly batty art mistress at school – “yes, well, of course, when I painted this I was exploring the use of non-descriptive brush marks …”

I sort of got Interior of a Museum (1956-59) which explored the relationship between people and things – I spend a lot of times in museums and thought that this would make an interesting photography project.

Howard Hodgkin London

By the time I got to Mr and Mrs EJP, which I quite liked as a picture, I was beginning to think that there was something of the king’s new clothes about Howard. Mr P’s “enveloping conversation” was symbolized by a large green egg – somebody behind me said confidently that it was a speech bubble, but I wasn’t convinced.

A lot of the later pictures used vibrant colours, reflecting Howard’s fascination with India – it was like looking at a mountain of spices on a market stall or richly coloured silks decorated with glimmering gold coins. I liked these pictures and I liked the way in which he started to incorporate the frames in the paintings – the way the paintings overran the artificial boundary of the frame.

A lot of people were clearly enjoying the exhibition and feeling that it was great art. Like I said, I wasn’t so sure and a visitor who I had a brief discussion with over a couple of pictures wasn’t too sure either. Neither was the clearly very knowledgeable woman who I fell into conversation with over lunch – she had just come from the Michelangelo and Sebastiano exhibition at the National Gallery, but that’s another story.

At one level, I quite liked a lot of the paintings – there were certainly plenty that I would be happy to have on my living room wall. But were they really portraits? On the whole, I think that they were meant to evoke the artist’s feelings about the person rather than a physical representation – although a good portraitist would tend to do both. I can understand that Howard or maybe even Howard’s friends might see the connection between the picture and the person, but I’m not sure what all those enthusiastic exhibition-goers were seeing.

As I postscript, I realised that the Visions of Mughal India exhibition (2012) was actually a display of Howard Hodgkin’s extensive collection of Indian art.

As a further postscript, I notice that another exhibition – Howard Hodgkin: Painting India has just opened at the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery. Just saying.


Howard Hodgkin: Painting India is at the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery 1st July -8th October 2017