- Howard Hodgkin
- Portrait of the Artist
- oil on wood
Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 1990
Portrait of the Artist is a typically suggestive title from Hodgkin. His best works are always created with people or places in mind. However, they are never illusory. These works, which are designed to be objects in their own right, allude to specific subject matter – in this case the creator himself – without ever trying to recreate it. His paintings demand consideration at surface level on the merits of their appearance. Hodgkin himself commented on this expressive juxtaposition: “I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations” (Howard Hodgkin cited in: Marla Price, Howard Hodgkin: The Complete Paintings Catalogue Raisonné, London 2006, p. 14).
Bold in his use of colour, Hodgkin’s lavish application of paint in this work evokes the Fauves’ wild and expressionistic colour palette. Similar to Matisse and Derain, who prioritised the painterly qualities of their work through the use of strong colours, Hodgkin employs a variety of different hues to invoke a sense of abstraction that focuses the eye solely on the perceptive power of colour. In the present work, the colour and surface are particularly redolent of the painters of Nabis school, in particular Édouard Vuillard of whom Hodgkin has long been “a fanatical admirer” (Howard Hodgkin in conversation with David Sylvester, in: Exh. Cat., Venice, British Pavilion, XLI Venice Biennale (and travelling), Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings 1973-84, 1984, p. 100). Artists of the Nabis school sought to blend their emotional intention with their aesthetic form, so that a painter’s feelings were manifest in each aesthetic decision. Portrait of the Artist forms a worthy comparison not only in this emotional sense, but also in its palette, where the conflation of red, orange, pink and green, seems directly redolent of Vuillard.
The receding wooden frame in the present work creates a mesmeric illusion of depth. Hodgkin alluded to this effect, and its importance within his facture, in a 1982 interview with David Sylvester: “I’m thinking about making illusionistic spaces. But in making them, you don’t lose the flatness of the picture-plane. I know that for me nothing in painting matters more than that an artist should be able to create an illusion of depth without disturbing the flatness of the picture surface” (Ibid., p. 101).
This flatness holds further significance for Hodgkin, and its perennial presence in his work can also be ascribed to his love of Indian art. Indian art has long been one of Hodgkin’s greatest passions. He was introduced to the tradition by a school teacher, and it has been at the heart of his creative consciousness, whether as collector or creator, ever since. The lack of linear recession in Indian art, where figures appear to climb up the picture plane rather than recess beyond it, certainly may have come to bear on the flatness in this work, and the way the dots of the frame are stacked upon one another. However, the greatest Indian influence at play here is the heat and intensity of the colour: regular trips to the subcontinent have afforded Hodgkin a lifelong propensity for saturated hues, which he might not have discovered in the drab grisaille of West London.
Portrait of the Artist is a rare self-portrait within Hodgkin’s oeuvre, and a primordial example of his painterly style. It is filled with contrast: squares against circles, patterns with brushstrokes, and a concentrically geometric frame daubed with a raucous unruly palette. Stemming from a period that marks the height of Hodgkin's practice, this painting imparts a wonderfully uplifting contribution to the endlessly fascinating genre of self-portraiture.