Portraits Without People: Subject in the Paintings of Howard Hodgkin

In this post, JP explores the nature of the ‘figure’ in Hodgkin’s paintings.

I’ve long been interested in the work of Howard Hodgkin. It is mysterious, ambiguous and quite often stunning. The painter has, over the years, insisted that his mode of painting be considered figurative – that they have definitive subject matter and that they depict it pictorially. For many, looking at his bold, broad, gestural strokes of bright colour layered on top of each other, this insistence seems provocative or pedantic. Though it has been much written about already, and very well, in books like ‘Absent Friends’, I’d like to take my own look at the nature of the ‘figure’ in his ‘figurative’ world and how it sits in a wider tradition across the arts and into literature.

Hodgkin’s work has often been cited by writers. It has also often been equated with the poetic. There is something in its relationship with memory that ties it more readily to literary traditions than to the traditional modes of Western and Modern art. It defies, for example, the direct simplicity of Abstract Expressionism, even while at first glance strongly resembling it. The paintings are anchored to the physical, to points of real life as lived by the artist. But they do not ‘depict’ these points of life in a literal narrative likeness. Rather, they seem to give form to the remembering of them. They are in memoriam, objects in a sense, made of memory.

Interior at Oakwood Court (1978-1983)
Howard Hodgkin (1932-2017)
Purchased with the assistance of the V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the Whitworth (to commemorate their fiftieth anniversary and the chairmanship of Lady Worthington 1974-83). 1983
Whitworth Collection – ©Estate of Howard Hodgkin

Where the impressionists sought to more accurately represent the act of looking, the nature of sight in their experiments, Hodgkin seeks to more accurately represent remembering having seen. Also like those late 19th century revisers of the nature and purpose of painting, style seems to emerge from purpose. Looking retrospectively through the catalogues of his decades of work, one can watch the growth and refinement of his distinct manner. In a sense there is a unique technicality to his practice analogous with that of Monet and Seurat, though of a very different nature. To examine this technicality, it would be worth looking at the general process of composition.

As Hodgkin has it, they begin with a pictorial likeness. A scene is remembered, pulled from the depths. It is laid out in paint. Missing from this picture of physical likenesses is the feeling it has brought with it, the experience of having remembered an experience. This then is added. It is overlaid, somewhat covering the original likeness, though interacting with it, building upon it. The painting is then left to mature, to sit out of view, yet still in mind, to be added to and glossed over the years. A stroke here, an alteration of the pattern there. This process has been known, in some pieces, to have taken over a decade. It is a long finishing, a patient wait for a natural balance to be struck.

Memory and time are bound. The one would not exist without the other. So, to depict a memory more completely, you would need to portray this time, the substance in which the memory sits. This substance is what allows the memory (or ‘figure’) to concentrate itself, to age into something quite distinct in itself, like a good whisky. The spirit is no longer pure and literal; it has developed as it has sat in the barrel, taken on the subtler flavours of the process, the years in the barrel. It has become the presence of a figure, with the figure itself removed, a portrait without the person.

It could be said then, that though the subject of each painting is a specific memory, what is depicted is really the recollection of that memory, and the changing or settling of that memory over time.

The great North-American poet Marianne Moore laid out her aesthetic ideals for the art form in Poetry. One famous line from this poem reads:

Present | for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them

This has always struck me as great advice. It, along with almost any other line of the poem, could well be applied to the work of Hodgkin. To be ‘literalists of the imagination’, as she puts it, is to accurately and faithfully depict the interior. This goal, unlike the reproduction of physical appearances, requires the development of an individualised language or mode of expression suitable to depict the unique quality of one’s own internal experience. The lens through which memory is viewed must be included if a portrait of the experience of remembering it is to be truly complete.

In poetry, this process comes more readily. Poetry is tied naturally and by tradition to memory. Painting traditionally is tied to the present. In the conventional figurative tradition the spinning wheel of continuousness is stopped, paused on the occasion of the painting. Of course some short lyric poems aim to do exactly this too, but many throughout the western canon seek instead to capture something of the flux. In the epic, for example, a totality of change is represented. As a whole, The Iliad is a picture of unstoppable movement, un-fixedness and decay. The picture one has in the mind of it is not still. It sprawls and breaks constantly like the sea.

The nature of memory is the same. It is not still. The notion of memories as solids, frozen bits of time, is a misconception. They are photographs we are thinking of. Memories are not isolated or entirely specific, they are rather more like tangled presences. Pulled up with them are lines of mixed feeling, heterogeneous associations and general muddiness. They are largely inaccurate, science tells us. They change as we change, which is to say, constantly.

The poetry of Marianne Moore acknowledges this somewhat. It twists and turns as it goes. It corrects and interrupts itself, shifts gears into different modes of speech and registers of the language. A warm, conversational phrase can suddenly take a U-turn into the manner of the instruction manual. These shifts and accents are musical, they create dynamic contrasts. They can be seen as poetry’s formal equivalents to the contrasting brushstrokes of a Hodgkin. One in thought and language, the other in colour and gesture. Similarly, the literal subject of the poem often seems unclear. We don’t always know where we are, what we’re looking at. Instead we are vividly shown what lies around this absent centre. The details are clear, even if we don’t know where they’re coming from, or what they ‘mean’, as in life.

They are like ripples bouncing outward from the subject. This subject has been dropped in the pool, is now out of sight, but its effect is still visible. The pool then, with its ripples, would be Moore’s imaginary garden. The subject, the real toad.

The subjects in Howard Hodgkin’s paintings, as taken from the titles he has given them, tend toward a certain set: people, places, interiors, veiled sexual or simply sensual encounters and landscapes. Very broad, but also very precise. In a sense, it could be said that really, the subjects of each painting are the absence of these things. They are not reproduced before us. We look into the pool in which they have vanished. In a sense this pool (the flat plane of the painting’s surface) is time, the life that fills it. It is this that is pictured, the light of the absence of the remembered object.

Further Reading:


Poetry, Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972)

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