Howard Hodgkin (1932-2017) is best known as a painter, associated most often in his mature years with abstraction. His late paintings explode with riotous colour and his signature repertoire of stippled dots, splotches, commas, rainfall-like-drips and long, broad brushstrokes, which conjure an illusion of painterly spontaneity. These pictures were, however, the fruits of intense, solitary labour, and often completed over a period of many years.
Hodgkin’s meticulous, singular painting practice may appear at odds with the collaborative and, at times, unpredictable process of printmaking. Certainly, the artist regarded painting and printmaking as two distinct practices, each of which offered different artistic challenges and creative possibilities.
In an interview with Liesbeth Heenk, author of Howard Hodgkin Prints, a catalogue raisonné, the artist discussed working alongside printmakers, and how they had enabled him ‘to do things that I didn’t know, and often they didn’t know, were possible to do’.
Hodgkin’s later prints are characterised by their vibrant colour, materiality, emotiveness and scale. They range in size from small to the monumental, and their materiality seems to evolve over the years.
Feelings in Colour: The Graphic Art of Howard Hodgkin, an online sale that took place at Christie’s in 2019, showcased this stylistic breadth through more than 40 prints dating from 1986 to 2009. They were offered from the estate of printmaker Jack Shirreff, with whom Hodgkin collaborated almost exclusively during this period.
‘There’s an unexpected vibrancy and emotional dimension to Hodgkin’s prints’ — James Baskerville
‘This sale offered an almost comprehensive collection of his prints from this period (1986-2009), including some of his best-known works,’ says James Baskerville, Associate Specialist in Prints & Multiples at Christie’s London. ‘Since Hodgkin’s death in 2017, his market has remained strong,’ the specialist adds.
‘There’s an unexpected vibrancy and emotional dimension to Hodgkin’s prints that will surprise people.’
Hodgkin experimented with the full spectrum of printmaking throughout his career, making over 100 signed, editioned prints during his lifetime. It wasn't until 1986, however, that his printmaking took a dramatic new direction.
Although Hodgkin had experimented with hand-colouring — the technique of adding watercolour, gouache, or ink to the printed surface — Shirreff introduced the use of hand-colouring with acrylic to his practice, as well as the printing technique of carborundum (a carbon and silicon compound that induces surface texture when applied to an aluminium plate). It was an innovation that would revolutionise his prints of this period.
‘Carborundum gives the print a really nice thick, almost brush-like texture, adding a three-dimensionality to the work that makes the images much more powerful,’ says Baskerville.
Hodgkin explored the possibilities of this printing technique in numerous works made in collaboration with Shirreff, perhaps most memorably in the ‘Venetian Views’, a series of four large prints from 1995 that evoke Hodgkin's experience of Venice at different times of day through a combination of extensive hand-colouring with etching, aquatint and carborundum in colours.
The four images in the series were all printed from the same five copper plates, which were inked in different colours (for each time of day), and hand-coloured by Shirreff following Hodgkin’s direction. ‘Hodgkin liked how hand-colouring blended painting and printmaking and brought the composition harmoniously together,’ Baskerville explains. The slight variation in hand-colouring between each impression also gives each print an individual identity, a painterly quality and a degree of spontaneity. ‘It’s what makes them look like unique works on paper,’ adds the specialist.
This fusion of printmaking and painting defines many of Hodgkin’s prints produced during this period, including the highlight of the 2019 sale, As Time Goes By (Red), from 2009. One of the largest etchings in the world, it measures more than two metres in height and six metres across, and features Hodgkin’s characteristic splotches, drips and vermilion palette, and a thick, impasto surface texture.
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‘The printmaking and hand-colouring are so intertwined in this work — it’s like an enormous painting that confronts you head on,’ says Baskerville. It is not only the last print Hodgkin made with Shirreff, but also regarded as one of his seminal works.
Hodgkin’s prints are always titled, but the exact subject of the work is often unclear. This is the case with Snow (1995), below — one of the specialist’s favourite prints from the 2019 sale.
‘When I first saw an impression of Snow, I thought it had been miscatalogued,’ he admits. Painted in rich reds and oranges, over a printed base of orange and grey, it looks more like an erupting volcano than a snow-capped landscape.
As with his paintings, Hodgkin’s prints invite the viewer to interact with them on an emotional and sensory level, whether their subject is representational or otherwise. It is a quality that makes them feel both alive and accessible.