These three drawings were made from memory by the British artist Howard Hodgkin, and feature near the start of the current exhibition of his portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. He is not a painter who I have ever been drawn to, but he demonstrates one of the basic rules of artists whom I persevere with, even if I find their work challenging. If he can draw people with such insight and skill, then anything that happens thereafter has to be worth looking at. These lovely drawings, and the one below, from his website, of Mrs Ash, Asleep (1952), made when a young man, are reason enough to keep exploring. They serve, as does the early work of Picasso (when a student in Madrid) and Frank Auerbach, to demonstrate the immense competence as observers and accurate representational recorders that such artists possess, and which makes them worthy of joining them on a journey of exploration. They represent one bookend, a marker if you like, of a creative repertoire that honours the creation, that represents that created individual for others.
The other bookend is what Hodgkin or any artist makes of his artistic sight. In Hodgkin’s case, the key is memory, and in the Absent Friends exhibition at the NPG, it was about the interpretation of his friends through the long-lasting impression and impact they made on the artist and the significance their character had for the friendship itself, mediated through memory, rather than anything representational. In fact, once you got past the first gallery, anything truly representational was restricted to about 4 paintings. But as abstract as the paintings were (I know some people who would have just hated this work!), you could truly tell something of Hodgkin’s feeling for them, their relationship to him, and the care which Hodgkin, in his turn, took in painting them as portraits. The NPG thoughtfully did tell you what you were looking at, so unfortunately the viewer was more influenced by words than by art, and this coloured (sorry!) the experience for me.
What this art does for me is to remind me of those I love and have known, and to think, of them in terms of not just the surface of their lives, but the contours of their conversation, of their impact on me, on how I have changed because of them. They serve (and I know this because Hodgkin often took years to complete these paintings) as a living conversation with those who are painted, seeing them in a loved context, in a favourite room, and therefore rooting them in time and space absolutely. They are only abstract in the sense that the meaning has been abstracted and re-interpreted. In fact, abstract might not even be the right word for many of these paintings. It makes me realise that art has this un-eternal sense: it is about time and space and memory far more than many suppose. Even where decorative, it preserves for the artist – and by extension, his or her viewers – a particular experience. Somehow, if this is absent from a painting, then we feel it.
The clever thing about the exhibition is that the very first painting you come across is the 2000-2001 Absent Friends. It is a true abstract, with nothing figurative about it whatsoever. It is challenging, by any standard, but by the end of the exhibition I understood it a whole lot more than I did at the start, and could see it as a summary of the entire collection.
This artistic reflection does speak directly to the issue of surface and depth, of immediacy and fullness of life. Weirdly, it relates most fully in my mind to the debate over school uniform – and the extent to which we restrict the view we have of children because we insist that they are clothed in a school uniform. When, on the last two days of the school term, we asked children to come to school in their own clothes, and clothes they didn’t mind getting dirtied by artistic endeavour, we actually got different people turn up from the ones we had had on Friday. The liberation from school uniform was that significant. I have commented on this at length before, but had another conversation with a member of the school staff about this during the two art days and the thinking developed a bit, I felt. We keep saying, don’t we, that we educate children, and want to refer to them as children, not pupils, yet we dress them not as children but as pupils. This becomes a problem which Hodgkin can help us solve. If we had the sight, the ability to take all the conversation, joy, play, learning and pleasure that each child gives, it would not, in my view, result in a painting of a Christ the Sower School Uniform or anybody dressed in one. QED.