Howard Hodgkin, who died in March 2017 at the age of 84, is widely hailed as one of the finest abstract painters Britain has produced. But the abstract label never sat quite right with Hodgkin, who preferred to describe himself as a ‘representational painter… of emotional situations’.
According to the art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon, author of Howard Hodgkin, a study of the artist’s work, this ambiguity is precisely what makes his art so powerful. Hodgkin is ‘one of the very greatest painters of the last 50 years,’ Graham-Dixon says, but his work ‘can’t easily be slotted into any of the neat, convenient pigeonholes of art history.’
Even the connection between the titles of his paintings and what is represented in them are rarely obvious; that determination is often left to the viewer.
In the case of Hodgkin’s 1976-80 painting The Green Chateau, ‘We just don’t know what happened in that place on that day,’ says Katharine Arnold, Senior Specialist in Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in London. ‘It’s elegiac, it’s fleeting.’
‘Howard’s signature as an artist was his use of framing within his pictures,’ Graham-Dixon points out. In regard to The Green Chateau, ‘It’s as if there’s a cherished memory within the frames. But what is that memory?’
Renowned for his particularly sumptuous colour palette, Hodgkin cited French Post-Impressionists Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard among his influences. Their contribution to his artistic development is evident in Goodbye to the Bay of Naples, executed in 1980-82, with its characteristically vibrant hues. Given the work’s title, could the central swathe of bright blue represent the eponymous Bay of Naples? The bold red the lava of Mount Vesuvius; and the surrounding yellow the sun setting behind it?
Rather than guess at literal interpretations, Graham-Dixon prefers to focus on the ‘finality’ of the big, black splotches around the painting’s edges. ‘This is about a physical, emotional relationship,’ he says. ‘Whatever relationship has taken place, it’s in the past. It’s over, lamented.’
The Green Chateau and Goodbye to the Bay of Naples will be offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 6 October at Christie’s in London.