Howard Hodgkin - Biography and Legacy
English Painter and Printmaker
Hammersmith, London, UK
Biography of Howard Hodgkin
Howard Hodgkin was born into a middle-class family in London in 1932. His maternal grandfather, Gordon Hewart, was Lord Chief Justice between 1922 and 1940, and his cousins included the art critic Roger Fry, the artist Eliot Hodgkin, and the conductor John Eliot Gardiner. By the age of five he had already decided to become a painter, a fact he often publicly commented on later in life. His upbringing was disturbed by the Second World War, and between 1940 and 1943 he lived on Long Island in New York with his mother and older sister, avoiding the Blitz in Britain. This was a formative time for Hodgkin. He visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and took an interest in paintings by Picasso, Matisse, and Stuart Davis.
On his return to England, Hodgkin found it difficult to settle at school. It was conventional at that time for parents of a certain social class to send their children away to boarding school; Hodgkin went to Eton and then Bryanston School in Dorset, but ran away from both schools on a number of occasions. His time at Eton was not wasted, however, as the art master Wilfrid Blunt - brother of the Poussin specialist and spy Anthony Blunt - showed his pupils a number of works borrowed from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Hodgkin was particularly taken by the Indian miniatures that he saw, including Ustad Mansur's depiction of a chameleon; he later accrued a significant collection of Indian art.
Early Training and Work
Hodgkin took a long time to develop a coherent artistic personality, and would speak in later life about his lack of self-confidence as a young man. Nevertheless, he produced his first serious work of art in 1949, while still studying at the Camberwell School of Art. In spite of this success, the ethos of the school was dominated by the realism of the Euston Road painters such as William Coldstream, and Hodgkin stayed for only a year before moving on to the Bath Academy of Art in the picturesque town of Corsham in Wiltshire. Run by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, the Bath Academy was a residential art school where Hodgkin was far more free to experiment with new ways of painting, and he spent four productive years there between 1950 and 1954. The Academy's impressive roster of teachers included William Scott and Peter Lanyon, both practitioners in a highly individualized manner of abstraction.
Early adulthood was an unfulfilling period for Hodgkin. Like so many closeted gay men of his generation, he felt pressured into a heterosexual coupling, and in 1955 married Julia Lane, a fellow student at Corsham. The pair had two children together, and only twenty years later did Hodgkin and his wife separate, at which time he acknowledged his homosexuality. Other frustrations at this time included an unexciting career as a teacher and the lackluster response to his first solo exhibition, held at Arthur Tooth & Sons in London in 1962. In spite of these limitations, the 1950s-60s also proved creatively potent, however. In 1964, Hodgkin visited India for the first time with his friend Robert Skelton, Assistant Keeper of Indian Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Indian culture seemed to offer Hodgkin an escape from England's stifling social and artistic climate, and he returned regularly for the rest of his life. It was also in the 1960s that Hodgkin developed personal friendships with significant contemporary artists such as David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, Peter Blake, R.B. Kitaj, and John Hoyland. For a time he worked in the same building in West London as Caulfield and another artist, Michael Moon, with each artist's studio occupying a floor of its own.
Not until his forties did Hodgkin's work start to receive widespread acclaim, and it only gradually began to be shown in established galleries such as Kasmin in London (1969) and Gallerie Müller in Cologne (1971). Following his open acknowledgement of his homosexuality, his visual style matured rapidly. As his friend Nicholas Serota said, "I think coming out as gay helped his work enormously. He relaxed and his work became more expressive and open." In the 1960s he had developed a highly varied semi-abstract style, often representing figures in a loose manner. During the following decade he began to hone a more distinctive and consistent painterly style of abstraction, in which subject-matter - though present - was increasingly obscure. His printmaking activities also took on new significance during this period, as he started hand-coloring his prints with paint.
It was around this time that Hodgkin, with Peter Blake, visited David Hockney in California. In his journal, extracts from which were published in Ambit in 1980, Hodgkin described a visit to Disneyland, providing a detailed account of Hockney's enthusiastic response to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. A number of Hodgkin's prints and paintings depict Hockney's swimming pool, around which the artists lounged and talked during their visit. This was a period of growing self-confidence for Hodgkin, and it coincided with increasing institutional recognition. He was a trustee of the Tate Gallery between 1970 and 1976, and of the National Gallery between 1978 and 1985. His first retrospective exhibition was held in 1976 at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, and in the same year he was made a Commander in the Order of the British Empire. With growing financial means, Hodgkin purchased an apartment near the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London, going on to acquire the entire building along with a former dairy to the rear which became his studio.
The 1980s marked a high watermark in Hodgkin's reputation. As he grew older, however, and as his fame burgeoned, the novelty of media attention gradually wore off, and his public persona became increasingly sardonic. In one interview he referred to retrospective exhibitions as "a kind of death". A number of documentary films and printed interviews were commissioned on Hodgkin's work, including for The BBC's flagship arts program Arena in 1984, the same year that he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. Not until the production of another BBC documentary, A Picture of the Painter Howard Hodgkin, in 2006, was he filmed in the act of painting: though he had explicitly said to the film-makers that he would not be recorded on camera painting, he later got up during an interview session for the program and added a single brushstroke to a small panel. The episode exemplifies Hodgkin's reticence about giving explanations and expositions of his work, and how over the years he proved increasingly truculent or unresponsive in interviews. His friend Julian Barnes once wrote that "he has always been a difficult interviewee, not least because he doesn't want to talk about his own pictures".
In 1985, Hodgkin became the second artist to win the Turner Prize (the prize was started in 1984). Alongside printmaking partnerships with Cinda Sparling in New York and Jack Shirreff in Wiltshire, his late period was marked by a variety of collaborative projects, including designing costumes and stage sets for Pulcinella in 1987, and textiles and furniture for the Arts Council's 1984 exhibition Four Rooms. As well as enjoying several well-received retrospective exhibitions around the world, including a number organized by the British Council, Hodgkin began to share his large collection of Indian art, loaning a number of works to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He continued producing new work for exhibition until 2016, the year before his death.
The Legacy of Howard Hodgkin
Like many artists working in an abstract painterly style in post-war London, Hodgkin resists easy categorization. Much like the work of his friends and contemporaries John Hoyland or Gillian Ayres, Hodgkin's paintings from the mid-1970s onwards show a highly personal visual style, and it is difficult to trace a direct connection between his oeuvre and those of other, later artists. Nevertheless, a tentative connection can be drawn between his dazzling, gestural paintings and the 'spin paintings' of Damien Hirst, for example. These works share a vibrant technicolor palette, a commonality that seems significant in the artistic culture of late twentieth century London to which both artists belonged. A posthumous sale of Hodgkin's possessions, held at Sotheby's, London on 24 October 2017 showed that this relationship was partly reciprocal. Hodgkin had in his collection a screen-print by Hirst, All You Need is Love Love Love. This was inscribed with a message to Hodgkin, thanking him for the painting he contributed to Hirst's charity auction in 2007, held in support of AIDS charities working in Africa.
The vibrancy and éclat of Hodgkin's work, more generally, might be taken as an important enabling condition for the visual playfulness that later characterized the work of the so-called Young British Artists. This loose-knit group was heavily influenced by Michael Craig-Martin, moreover, who taught Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume, among others, at Goldsmiths College in London. Craig-Martin was a contemporary of Hodgkin's, and both artists taught together at the Bath Academy of Art in the 1960s. Incidental connections such as this demonstrate that, despite his highly individual style, Hodgkin spent his career in the thick of British artistic culture, giving and receiving influence in ways which have yet to be fully understood.