Howard Hodgkin: “I’ve always hated painting. It’s always been agony”

The British artist struggled as his friend David Hockney became a star. But at 82 he’s not bitter – and his art is as luminous as ever.

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Braving the tyranny of the white wall: Hodgkin in his studio, an airy space in a Victorian dairy in Bloomsbury. Photo: David Levene/The Guardian

 

“I have ways of making yellow melancholy,” says Howard Hodgkin. And he has. Hodgkin has been manipulating colour for 60 years and he can make it say exactly what he wants it to. Hodgkin is now 82 and physically frail but not when he has a brush in his hand. Then he uses paint like a poet, creating pictures that are usually small and in which memories – of friends, places, dinner parties, feelings – find expression in colour-saturated brushstrokes. His pictures stand between abstraction and figuration and he is, in his own words (which he has tired of hearing thrown back at him) “a figurative painter of emotional situations”.

Hodgkin, born in 1932, is part of the generation of British artists that came to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s and which includes David Hockney, Allen Jones, Peter Blake, R B Kitaj and Patrick Caulfield. Hodgkin was the slowest starter of the group, not having his first one-man show until he was 30. There is a sense, certainly in his own mind, that he has been playing catch-up ever since. He remains a driven artist: a highly successful show of his paintings has just closed in Paris, and an exhibition of his new prints is about to open at the Alan Cristea Gallery in London.

When we meet, age is much on his mind. We sit in the studio that nestles behind his unobtrusive house a hop and a jump from the British Museum. The corridor through the house offers glimpses of richly coloured walls, stacked bookshelves and the Indian miniature paintings he has collected for decades. The studio itself was formerly part of a Victorian dairy and then a workshop for making wheelchairs. The glass roof gives perfect artist’s light and the room is neither clinically neat nor overrun by its propped-up canvases and clusters of chairs, tables and couches. Four new paintings are hanging jewel-like against the white walls, the paint on one still wet.

The pictures and the new prints show an artist untroubled by age. “Has painting got easier?” I ask him. “It’s got much easier comparatively recently – about five years ago. Suddenly a lot of barriers disappeared.” The change was due to “a sense of mortality, I think. All sorts of inhibitions just went. There’s a danger in too much self-criticism or self-evaluation and I think that’s gone, quite automatically.” Is he painting better as a result, I wonder? “Much. There’s a lot of wish fulfilment involved; it’s a disease of ageing artists. But I’m looking at these new pictures and the freedom that I now have is very hard-earned . . . but I’ve earned it.”

He earned it because, unlike some of his peers – say, David Hockney, who became a star while still at the Royal College of Art – his own route to becoming a professional painter was difficult. Initially Hodgkin had to support himself by teaching, which “cost me more than it should have. Too much energy and emotion.” He remembers standing on a District Line platform and deciding “I’m not going to do this any more”, even though painting was “a serious financial struggle”. That struggle is something he has never forgotten.

I ask: if I’d given his 21-year-old self oodles of cash would that have been a good thing? “Very. It would have saved a lot of time, for one thing. I already had a taste for collecting Indian paintings. Not for fast living and fast cars. Far from it. But money . . . the more the merrier.” He is not of the starving artist persuasion; when I ask if money might not have held back his art the answer is an emphatic “No”.

Money and art weren’t as inextricably linked when he started out as they are now. “There was hardly any relation,” he says. “I was once asked in New York in the 1960s about the British art world but I said, ‘There isn’t one.’ There’s so much of one now. It’s a change for the better. You have a chance of your work being looked at. No one then would look at pictures.” Not that he has much to do with the contemporary art world: “I’m too old.”

Rain (2001) by Howard Hodgkin. Courtesy of the artist and Alan Cristea Gallery

Does he rate any of the current crop? “No. The Hirsts and Emins have been very valuable, though, in that they have raised the profile of art and artists in a way that didn’t exist when I started. Then the most famous painters were Lawrence Gowing, Bill Coldstream and Victor Pasmore, who made superb paintings . . .” These painters, all part of the Euston Road School, have been rather forgotten.

Hodgkin, of course, now has a high profile of his own and is revered as possibly the most thoughtful British painter at work. He seems almost surprised by his position. “To find that I’m included in lists of English artists makes me very happy. I was always ignored on things like that.” “Were you really ignored?” I wonder. “I really was. It’s not a neurotic thought of mine. People didn’t take me seriously as a painter.” What did they think you were doing? “I don’t know. I’ve often wondered.”

He doesn’t fret about his place in the pantheon: “I have in the past, and been very disappointed. I have one great long-term supporter, Nick Serota, but he’s a highly trained art historian and I’ve never quite crossed the line into where David [Hockney] went years ago.”

Hockney is in many ways Hodgkin’s opposite: a global star, a painter of huge pictures, a friend of the famous, fascinated by the mechanics of making art. The two men have been friends for years, but is Hodgkin happy he hasn’t reached Hockney’s level of fame? “Oh, very glad, not that I ever could have done. But there’s something about David which . . . I don’t believe in criticising other artists . . . but he’s not fundamentally” – and here his voice becomes an embarrassed sotto voce – “a serious painter, I don’t think.” People buy Hockney’s iPad drawings “because of celebrity”. You’re a celebrity, though, I say. “I’ve never quite encountered it. If I am, it’s very new. I can’t tell you how new. Even at Venice Biennale 1984, I wasn’t a star. The notice, the interest, comes and then gets taken away again. Even Nick Serota, who has been an extraordinary supporter and friend, has been guilty of that.”

If art-world recognition was slow in arriving, Hodgkin has always been admired by writers. James Fenton, Susan Sontag and Julian Barnes are among those who have written about him. “I’ve never made any attempt at going to writers – they just come along.” It is perhaps because his pictures are so redolent of stories. I suggest to him that he is some sort of artistic Everyman, that in looking at his pictures, with their titles referring to loves, scenes glimpsed from hotel windows and the colours of India or Morocco, the viewer recalls similar experiences of their own. “I’m delighted if that’s the case,” he says. “Absolutely delighted. I wouldn’t want to keep the experience to myself.”

Hodgkin’s themes have always been on the human scale; he has never tackled subjects such as history, politics or war. “I often wanted to paint such things. Something that is influential to the world outside would be terrific but I’ve never managed to attempt it. My work is too personal. It seems to have stopped my trying for something bigger.” He adds, perhaps by way of mitigation: “Nobody’s looking, so I don’t paint such things – can’t, in fact. You need the participation of the audience. David Hockney in his ‘better years’ could have done it because he had the audience at his feet. But he never did.” Hodgkin is not, he says, political. Does he ally himself to any political attitude? “No, not at all.” So what about religion, given that it is easy to find his pictures numinous? “I’m not at all religious.” He will, however, confess to a sort of Wordsworthian pantheism (rain, trees and the sea are frequent themes in his work): “but never when I’m in the studio”. All that’s in his head when he’s there, he says, is “the picture. I believe very strongly in the autonomy of the picture.”

It is one of the ironies of his art that his paintings seem so effortless and quick. In fact, it can take him up to a year before he makes the first mark and three or more years to complete a picture. And there’s more to his painting than the application of paint: “I can be at it full-time just sitting in front of a blank wall.” I had assumed that part of all that cogitating might involve a complex decision about which colour to start with, but it is not so: “I start with whatever tube of paint happens to be nearby and open.” And when the picture is completed he is no fan of the white-wall gallery (“a tyranny”) but believes it should hold its own. “Pictures, if they’re any good at all, survive wallpaper, being hung against bookcases. They just survive.

“White walls and white interiors are almost a religion now. I had coloured walls at my Tate retrospective in 2006 and Nick Serota said, ‘You must never do that again. People will remember the colour of the walls and not the pictures.’ ”

Autumn (2014) by Howard Hodgkin. Courtesy of the artist and Alan Cristea Gallery

The memory makes him chuckle. Hodgkin has a reputation for being a somewhat laconic interviewee, yet he wears his emotions very close to the surface. He recounts how a neighbour joined several houses opposite his own into one plutocratic home and built a library linking all of them. Hodgkin can see it from his window. The middle shelves are a children’s section, “for Mr Men books. It’s not very big,” he says, laughing delightedly. Later he is moved to the point of tears recalling how the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith devoted half a page to his work when few others would review his exhibitions. “She said it was one of the most courageous shows she’d ever seen. I still don’t know what she meant by that.” Friends started phoning him after that, saying: “You’ve made it!” His gratitude, years after the event, is raw.

Hodgkin is wryly humorous, too, about the horrors of ageing. His visual memory remains strong, he says, but names, even of close friends, escape him. “It’s embarrassing but they’re very good about it.” He inadvertently proves the point when he refers to Julian Barnes, whom he has known for years, as “that novelist obsessed by Flaubert – brings him in whenever he can – wrote the introduction to the catalogue to my Paris show . . .”

Yet friendship remains important to him. Among the prints in his new show, “Green Thoughts” – named after a line in Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Garden” (“I used to be a great reader . . . though I can’t imagine Marvell is taught much in schools any more”) – is a suite of seven, of great beauty, called For Alan. The Alan is his long-standing print dealer Alan Cristea. “I wanted to pay tribute to him. Without his courage and support I wouldn’t have been able to do the prints I have done.” The debt he owes to his partner, the music writer Antony Peattie, is even more palpable. They met 20 years ago and Hodgkin defers to him throughout our talk with an instinctiveness born of long trust and closeness. Peattie, a man of great charm, is amanuensis as well as companion, running Hodgkin’s website and chronicling the paintings and exhibitions.

Despite all his success, Hodgkin is extraordinarily modest for a major artist. He uses his age as a means of deflecting praise. Critics are good to you now, aren’t they? I say. “That’s old age.” What’s it like when people compare you with Turner? “Well, if you live long enough . . .” But the consolation of age that he is yet to acquire is pleasure in what he does. Painting, for him, is not pleasurable. “I’ve always hated doing it.” Seriously? “Yes, seriously.” So why carry on? “It’s what I do. I have no other skills. It’s always been agony.” He is no more sanguine about enjoying the finished pictures, nor even in the knowledge that viewers think they are beautiful. “If people say things are beautiful, especially in this country, it’s a way of dismissing them.” For him beauty, strangely, is incidental: “I don’t think about it when I’m painting. Ever.” “Are your pictures not beautiful to you?” I wonder. “No. Never. But they’re more beautiful than they used to be. I’ll go that far.”

Towards the end of our conversation he even uses his age as a caveat to everything we have discussed. “Of course a lot of what I’m saying is coloured by the fact that I’m old and past it,” he says. Though the former is unarguable, the latter, on the evidence of his new paintings and prints alone, is nonsense.

“Howard Hodgkin: Green Thoughts” opens at the Alan Cristea Gallery, London W1, on 11 October and runs until 15 November. Details: alancristea.com

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World