Wandering into the National Portrait Gallery’s Howard Hodgkin ‘Absent Friends’ exhibition, a slight disorientation takes over. Generally speaking, the works displayed appear completely disconnected from our conception of ‘portraiture’. However as you glide chronologically through the arched rooms of the gallery, what emerges is an astounding acknowledgement of one of the 20th century’s finest portraitists.

Paul Moorhouse has created a whirling schema of Hodgkin’s vibrant works that guides the viewer through tumultuous and passionate relationships. The ‘incurable pain’ of creation he so frequently describes in interview is clear in some of the deep blue of Memories of Max and we see lightness and excitement in his depiction of the American-born writer and journalist Paul Levy, where the rushed and very visible markings on the canvas show snatches of conversation and glimpses of their shared imagination.

Vivid imagination represented in colour inhabits and controls each work, albeit in different ways. There is certainly a feeling of defiance in Hodgkin’s construction too, a sense that his choosing to go to Camberwell Arts College, instead of pursuing law or politics as his family desired, has helped define his unique portraiture. The hidden figures, like Mrs Nicholas Monro, do not show you their faces, but brightly display their characteristics in thick oil paint.

Passing through the artist’s sixty-year autonomy in British painting, a sense of clarification starts to solidify. Moving to the early 1990s, his inclusion of the frame in his works becomes more frequent and seems to help the viewer understand that for Hodgkin, the emotions of his muses are not limited to the line of the canvas, as are his brush strokes.

The expression of emotion, memory and the exploration of relationships are portrayed in a flowing, sensual but orderly manner throughout the varied rooms of the exhibition, and it seems to make sense that in the finalisations of curation, Hodgkin sadly passed away. With that thought in mind, as you take yourself through the jarring colours and hidden figures, there is a sense of the retrospective, a revelatory collection that has been perfectly and surprisingly timed.

Author: Tazie Taysom, Art Consultant, ARTIQ.
Image credit: Going for a Walk with Andrew, 1995-8. Howard Hodgkin.