Howard Hodgkin, perhaps Britain’s greatest contemporary artist, passed away last month at the age of 84. Hodgkin has often been described by commentators as an artist who became the direct link between French modernism and 21st century abstraction. On the surface, it is easy to see why the vivid swirls and gashes of colour which typify a Hodgkin might be viewed as abstract, but this was a label the artist himself rejected. Hodgkin was an artist who “couldn’t make a picture which was not about anything”.
Hodgkin’s repertoire is on display in an on-going exhibition, Absent Friends, at London’s National Portrait Gallery. The poignantly timed exhibition (curator Paul Moorhouse heard the news of Hodgkin’s death half an hour before his team was due to start hanging the paintings) showcase how the angularity of Hodgkin’s early works meld over time, into the urgent and vivid swirls, curves, lines and dots of the more familiar Hodgkin. Human interactions – “unfortunate love stories, failed marriages and awkward dinner parties” – excited Hodgkin the most, and these stories are told through the abstract forms he employed.
The author Julian Barnes has written that Hodgkin’s work is always about memory. Not just those of people, but also the memory of places. In this, no place is more important in Hodgkin’s oeuvre than India.
Hodgkin’s connection with India began with his early interest in Indian art. At Eton, he studied under the art master Wilfred Blunt (who, in a connection typical of the British elite, was the brother of Anthony Blunt, the art historian and Soviet spy). Blunt exposed Hodgkin to Mughal miniatures and Indian paintings at the royal library in Windsor and taught him that pictures were to be collected for themselves, for pleasure, and with a non-academic approach. These lessons sowed the seeds for Hodgkin’s extraordinary collection of Indian art: Hodgkin became a passionate collector of Indian art from his schooldays in the 1940s, and over the decades, his collection grew and was refined to one of the finest in the world.
The Hodgkin collection comprises many of the main Indian court styles which flourished during the Mughal period (c.1560-1858). These include not just works from the imperial Mughal court itself (such as a battle scene from the epic Hamzanama, commissioned by Akbar, and works from the courts of Jehangir and Shah Jehan), but also paintings of the Deccani Sultanates (the highlight of which is a painting of Sultan Ali Adil Shah hunting a tiger), and Parahari and Rajasthani courts – the Hodgkin collection includes works of the most gifted Pahari artist, Nainsukh.
The Hodgkin collection is particularly notable for its drawings. This is not surprising given the importance draughtsmanship has in an Indian picture, especially as applied to the vivification of plant and animal life. Hodgkin’s particular love for elephant studies, which he felt “give many opportunities for observation which are superior to what human beings provide” brings this out most clearly.
The Hodgkin-India connection will be explored by the exhibition Painting India, which opens at the Hepworth Wakefield, an art gallery in West Yorkshire, on July 1. Hodgkin’s interest in Indian art brought him to India for the first time in 1964, along with his friend and travel companion, Robert Skelton, former keeper of Indian paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Hodgkin kept returning to India’s “colossal majesty”, noting that he could not paint without a subject and that India gave him several. From personal encounters and visits to specific places, seasons and times of day, and moods, Hodgkin produced a steady stream of paintings inspired by his travels in India.
During the last year of his life, Hodgkin spent time in his Mumbai studio, heaving himself out of his wheelchair and working on six large paintings, which will show at the exhibition. Additionally, photographs and documents from his personal archive will be on display – these include materials relating to his 1992 British Council mural in New Delhi, of a banyan tree spreading its branches across the pale stone walls of Charles Correa’s architecture, travel journals, and, of course, items from the Hodgkin collection.
Speaking about his collection of paintings, Hodgkin noted how despite the representational nature of Indian art, “shadows exist, but they’re wherever the artist wants to put them”. One can easily note the appeal this freedom had on Hodgkin the painter. The ease of forms, use of colour and liveliness of paintings both in the Hodgkin collection and his own paintings on India bring to life Barnes’ words: “This was not a case of emotion recollected in tranquility. Rather it is emotion recollected in intensity.”