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July 27 2012

The Saturday interview: Howard Hodgkin at 80

He is given to saying 'Look! Just look!' when asked about his pictures, and insists recent works have nothing to do with depression. Howard Hodgkin reflects on turning 80

One day nearly half a century ago, Howard Hodgkin stood on the tube platform at London's Paddington station, poised to commit suicide. "Oh, that was amazing," he says as we sit in his studio near the British Museum, "standing on the platform ready to jump". What made him contemplate suicide? Something the artist Richard Smith said. "He said, 'It doesn't matter if you're a painter or not.' Just the kind of poisonous remark that stays in your head and tortures you."

Hodgkin stepped back from the platform having resolved to give up his teaching job at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, Wiltshire. Instead of what he calls "that substitute life", teaching, he would devote himself to painting.

As Sir Howard Hodgkin CBE, Turner prize-winning artist and arguably Britain's greatest living painter, celebrates his 80th birthday next month, it's worth reflecting on how much poorer the world would be had he jumped. Frequently pigeonholed as the last great English romantic painter in the vein of Constable and Turner, Hodgkin is more incendiary than that – a sunburst of an artist who exploded counterintuitively from a British visual culture temperamentally uneasy at depicting sensuality or expressing intellectual thoughts.

In a five-star review of new work at Oxford's Museum of Modern Art in 2010, Guardian critic Jonathan Jones pegged Hodgkin as giddy colourist and daring philosopher in paint. "Ideas, associations, affinities, memories, longings constitute, for Hodgkin, our real experience of the material world," he wrote.

"I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations," said Hodgkin once. But for the most part, Hodgkin doesn't talk about his work. Paint is, for him, more eloquent than words. When people ask him what he means by a painting, he's given to saying: "Look! Just look!" This makes him difficult to interview, as I learned when I met him here in this same studio three years ago, and even harder to write about.

In a catalogue essay, his friend Susan Sontag tried: "Note that Hodgkin says 'emotional situations' not 'emotions'. He is not licensing the attempt to read a specific emotion from a picture, as if that were what the picture was 'about'."

Was it not tempting, then, to paint a picture representing the emotional situation on the Circle and District Line platform all those years ago? "No, much too private. Couldn't." A surprising remark: Hodgkin has always been hailed as an intimist; one who doesn't shy from depicting intimate emotional situations. One of his most intense recent paintings, an explosion of black, red and orange, was called Privacy and Self-Expression in the Bedroom (2004-06).

Are there emotional situations you can't depict? "There are some that are insufficiently visual – that's all." The on-rushing train and you on the platform isn't an image? "Not at all, nor the person I was talking to at the time." Does that mean there are certain emotional situations that are suitable for art? "No, it's not as simple as that. There are some where it becomes inevitable. Where I'll have to do something with it one day, but at the time, not at all." So there are emotional situations that linger for you? "Yes. Years and years. As Andy [his assistant Andy Barker, who sits in on our interview] would tell you, I can sit looking at a wall trying to think what I'm going to do."

Some people, among them Prince Charles, don't get what Hodgkin does. He winces as he recalls the moment royalty visited the mural he made for the facade of Charles Correa's British council building in New Delhi. It's one of Hodgkin's favourite works, not least because he has long been enthralled by India and collected Mughal paintings (Oxford's Ashmolean Museum had a lovely exhibition from his collection this year), but also because he thinks he's rarely succeeded on such a grand scale before. Then the Prince of Wales came to see it in Hodgkin's presence. "That was horrible. He didn't know what to make of it. Poor man. He said: 'When you get close to it, it's really striking.' That was the best he could manage."

A happier memory comes from a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1995. "For me it was a moment of truth – I hate to say that because it sounds far too pompous – but it was that. A nice family came up, and the father said: 'Stop driving my wife mad.' And I couldn't think what he was talking about. I later realised. She understood exactly what my paintings were about. I thought, that's one worry I'll never have again in the same way." What had he done to the poor woman with his art? "It had a cumulative impact on her." Was that why the husband was irked? "He wasn't, really. It was a way of paying me a compliment." Perhaps the Met show did to her what the Oxford show did to Jones, who found himself seduced by the "demonic power of these life-affirming paintings". Tracey Emin has been similarly seduced: she's calling for changes at Broadgate swimming pool in London, now part of a private gym, so that a lovely mosaic Hodgkin did there can be seen by the public.

We're sitting in perhaps one of the most beautiful studios in London, a former dairy suffused with light from a glass roof. Hodgkin comes here almost every morning. He sits and stares at the blank wall. As he's aged, the ratio between thinking and painting has changed. Barker says: "You do most of your work in your head now." Hodgkin finds it hard to stand, and to walk. "I've suddenly grown old and frail. Even crossing the road to go to the BM [British Museum] is more than I can manage at the moment."

Despite his frailties, Hodgkin is working harder than ever. "He's finished 11 paintings so far this year. The normal average would be 10 to 11 pictures a year," says Barker. Among them is a little painting called Porlock, about being interrupted in mid-creative flow, as Coleridge was in Porlock. "It was the phone ringing in this case," says Hodgkin. Some of these new works will be exhibited by his dealer Alan Cristea in his London gallery until October, in celebration of Hodgkin's birthday. The day itself he will spend in France with close friends.

Cristea says his series of handpainted intaglio prints, titled Acquainted with the Night, are probably the largest prints ever made. The title comes from Robert Frost's poem, often interpreted as describing depression. The reference might make you think he was depressed. "No, no!" exclaims Hodgkin. "I mean, look." He points to a work from the new suite of prints, entitled Attack. "That's not a picture of depression. I'm not depressed. Where does depression come in?"

The title Acquainted with the Night is recycled. Hodgkin used it for his first lithograph print in 1953. "It's a poem I much admire, and many years ago when I was a student, Clifford Ellis, who was the principal of the art college I was at, commissioned several illustrations to poems, and he offered me that."

Was he thinking you were a depressive type and it might suit you? "Not at all, no. He thought the nocturnal would appeal to me, which it did." Do you remember what it looks like? "I remember vaguely what it looked like." After the interview, his partner, the music critic Antony Peattie, emails to say: "I wish someone would come forward with a copy and let us photograph it!" So if you have a copy, get in touch.

Hodgkin knew he was going to be a painter aged six, after doing a bright red painting of a woman's face. Nobody else shared his conviction. When I interviewed him in 2009 he told me he remembered running away from school in frustration. Which school? "I can't remember. Eton, Bryanston, Pangbourne – I ran away from them all." Why? "Because I wanted to be an artist and no one wanted me to be." But this time he was stopped by a policeman. "It was a great moment. He was the first person who ever took me seriously." Your parents weren't encouraging? "No, they weren't."

Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin was born in Hammersmith on 6 August 1932. His father worked for ICI and was a noted amateur horticulturist. His mother, a housewife, was also a botanical illustrator. His parents bought one of Hodgkin's paintings in 1967. "But eventually," Hodgkin said once, "my father said that he couldn't possibly hang it up in the house. And he was quite right. It was a brown-furniture sort of house, and there was just nowhere for it to go." Eventually, they gave it to the Tate.

The critic David Sylvester wrote that Hodgkin found his pictorial language early on and exploited it ever since. "No! It never comes. You keep struggling to find it. It's particularly sad in England. You come across these artists who think they've found it, and haven't, but they've grown old gracefully. They're like some Saga holidays advertisement." You're not going to name names? "No, but I can see you're thinking of them!" Was your artistic evolution more like Matisse's – a series of hard-won liberations from previous constraints? "Exactly. 'Liberation from previous constraints' is excellent."

It's difficult not to imagine Hodgkin's sexuality as similarly liberated from previous constraints. He was married in 1955 and had two sons (Louis and Sam) with his wife, Julia Lane. Today he's a gay icon. Or, rather, an unwitting gay icon. Were you proud to be on the Independent's Pink List? "What is that?" The newspaper's annual list of gay icons. You're a regular fixture – beneath Carol Ann Duffy but on top of Rabbi Lionel Blue, so to speak. Hodgkin looks blank. "You're often in them," says Barker. "Well, good," says Hodgkin. "I'm glad." You were cited for your contribution to the emotional well being of – Hodgkin interrupts " … gay people everywhere, probably".

The citation seems to suggest there's a therapeutic value to your work. Is there? "No, I don't think there is. I have painted, very rarely, small pictures for people who are dying, or great friends who are sliding over the edge. But I don't believe in it."

He tells me it's a great relief when he sells pictures, so he can get them out of his sight. You don't want to be haunted by your artworks? "No, I do rather lose interest in them. Once I'm finished, I'm out of here. I forget about them as much as I can." Why do you want to forget them? "It makes room for the next thing, which is very important. And that does come from old age, I suspect." Why? "There's less time, so on one goes." Very Beckett. But you're not painting for posterity? "I don't think of posterity ever. What would be the point? I wouldn't be around to enjoy it all."

Time for pictures. Sarah, the photographer, praises Hodgkin. "You have exactly the right expression," she says, "of pain and scepticism." He giggles himself out of that expression. Sarah tells Hodgkin she's very open to ideas if he thinks her composition is ghastly. "On the contrary, I think the only ghastly idea is to put me in it." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 22 2012

Artoon of the week

Cartoon: As visitors enjoy a close look at Howard Hodgkin's collection of Indian miniature paintings at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, cartoonist Peter Duggan sees things through his own inimitable magnifying glass

January 29 2012

The world's first 'art blockbuster'

Before 1960, Pablo Picasso and modernism were more often lampooned than loved in this country. But all that changed when the Tate's huge Picasso exhibition caused a sensation and changed the course of British art for ever

In the summer of 1960 Britain was overwhelmed by what the newspapers were inevitably calling Picassomania. The Tate gallery's Picasso exhibition opened in June, the most extensive retrospective of the artist's work ever staged, and from that moment the cultural life of the nation would never be quite the same again. The 1960 show was dubbed "the exhibition of the century"; William Hickey in the Express called it "the most vigorous entertaining, interesting merry-go-round of art that London has ever seen". Tatler magazine coined a new term for the phenomenon: it was "an art block-buster".

It was also the moment when Picasso, and modernism, finally arrived in Britain. That arrival had been a long time coming. As a new Tate exhibition will show, Picasso had been a prime influence on more radical British artists since the first showing of his work here in 1910, but if he was known to the wider public before the second world war, it was often as the butt of cartoonists' jokes.

The attacks had been led by the arch anti-modernists of the cultural establishment. For a while Evelyn Waugh took to signing off letters "Death to Picasso!" GK Chesterton described one of Picasso's drawings as a "piece of paper on which Mr Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it with his boots". Even up until 1949, Alfred Munnings, president of the Royal Academy, could famously address the RA's annual banquet with a story about Winston Churchill, who had asked "Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his… something, something?" Munnings heartily agreed that he would.

The painter Howard Hodgkin, who was, in 1960, working toward his own first solo show, recalls the excitement of the Tate's overdue Picasso exhibition very well. "I was in a rather uniquely privileged position among British artists, because I had lived in New York for a long time where there were plenty of Picassos to look at," he told me on the phone last week. "But at the time there were very few on permanent display in this country. I had been telling all my painter friends about a particular work, but they had not had a chance to see it. We had Picasso-influenced artists such as Keith Vaughan and John Craxton, painters of that sort, but they were really very dilute versions of the man himself."

In the 1950s Picasso remained a divisive figure. The showing of his Guernica at the Whitechapel gallery before the war, and on a subsequent tour round Britain – in Manchester it was hung in a car showroom – had been a political as much as an artistic event. There had been plans for a Picasso show in London in 1952 but it was decided to be too contentious. In a letter to the American ambassador in London, preserved in the Tate archives, the then director, John Rothenstein, wrote that at a recent trustees meeting plans for the Picasso exhibition had been abandoned. "The Communist party is active in this part of London and it is possible that they might try to make capital out of the Picasso exhibition…"

To some extent Picasso was lost in translation. When the artist had last been in Britain, for the 1950 World Peace Congress in Sheffield, a welcoming party of artists met him in London. It was only when the artists arrived at Victoria station that they realised there was no French speaker among them and Picasso had no English. Victor Pasmore, a pioneer of British abstract art, was finally pushed into a taxi with the Spaniard in order to escort him to St Pancras and the Sheffield train. There was, apparently, silence between the two men in the cab as Pasmore shyly tried to conjure an appropriate French phrase. Finally he turned to Picasso with the words: "Moi, je suis peintre."

Picasso looked at him. "Oh," he said. "Moi aussi."

In large part English artists had to put up with black-and-white reproductions of the artist's paintings in books. Hodgkin recalls how RH Wilenski's Modern French Painters was particularly valuable in this respect. "I always remember a phrase from Wilenski," he told me. "It was something like this: 'No exhibition can really do justice to Picasso's range; you'd have to have a temple dedicated to him to achieve that.' In a way, that was what the Tate show of 1960 was attempting, I suppose."

If anyone was to create a temple to Picasso then Roland Penrose, co-founder of the ICA and the artist's friend and first biographer was that man. Penrose had curated two earlier shows of the artist's work in 1951 and 1955 at the ICA but they were necessarily small-scale affairs. The Tate show, in 1960, would be something different; half the gallery space at Millbank would be devoted to the exhibition and every period of the artist's career would be represented by major work; Picasso himself promised 100 pictures from his private collection to supplement those begged and borrowed from around the world.

Penrose was almost as much concerned with preparations for the publicity surrounding the opening as with the show itself: he was desperate for the public to finally "get it" about Picasso. The Tate archives contain a wonderful record of the minutes of meetings of the Picasso party organisers, a "ladies' committee" that included the socialite patrons Lady Norton and Lady Ogilvie, Nancy Balfour, an editor at the Economist, and Fleur Cowles, the American writer and biographer of Salvador Dalí.

Mrs Cowles was in charge of catering, and she proposed a Spanish buffet on the lawns of the Tate for the 2,000 guests paying five guineas each. It would, the minutes noted, be "economical, gay and different". Cowles advertised the fact herself in a story for the Telegraph, explaining breathlessly that guests would be served sangría "that cool, cool drink which lives so chic and social a life in Spain". The party, she advised her readers, was for her simply "a prelude to the regular holiday I take every summer with friends in Marbella, a tiny village at the southernmost tip of Spain".

Notes of one of the "ladies' committee" meetings details how the flamenco music of Satie and De Falla was deemed appropriate background for the party, "Mrs Morland ["ICA board member and doctor's widow"] would investigate the possibilities of borrowing records and securing steriophonic [sic] installation free of charge." Mrs Morland eventually came good, and Decca provided a hi-fi.

The party committee's machinations were almost as fraught as those of the museum hierarchy who horse-traded for loans of Picassos. Penrose deemed it essential that paintings be brought from Russia, despite cold war animosities. Rothenstein travelled to Moscow and Leningrad on a less than conclusive diplomatic mission in order to try to secure the loan of paintings.

Meanwhile preparations for the catering were getting heated. The Tate kitchens felt they should do the party, but Fleur Cowles was insisting on a Spanish chef. Details were leaked to the press: as the party approached it was discovered that 600lb of rice, 800lb of chicken, 450lb of prawns and 160lb of pimentoes had been ordered; "all this," it was reported, "so they can make a Spanish peasant dish they call 'paella'".

Perhaps for the first time, "colour supplement" writers were dispatched to the show's opening, rather than just art critics. Olga Franklin in the Mail did not know what to make of it all. Watching the pictures being hung, she struggled in particular with a painting of Lee Miller, the photographer (and wife of Roland Penrose), from Picasso's pink period. "What did it mean?" she wondered of Mrs Penrose, who was standing nearby. Mrs Penrose replied curtly that the painting was "wasted on her because she was clearly 'the nervous type'. 'You don't really dig all this, do you?'" she said. Eventually, though, the reporter got her answer about what it all meant from "a chap at Sotheby's". Someone had bought Picasso's painting La Belle Hollandaise the previous year for the most money ever paid for a work by a living artist. "That is what Picasso is about," Franklin concluded: money. (The painting had sold for £55,000.)

When the night itself came round it was hard to say what excited the press the most, the paintings or the party. The ladies' committee had pulled off the considerable coup of getting the Duke of Edinburgh to come and he was joined on the guest list by Mrs Jack Heinz ("of the Heinz 57 varieties"), Luis Dominguez, the famous Spanish bullfighter, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn. The Duke of Edinburgh summed up the show "with his usual cheery frankness". Standing before a canvas called Woman in Green, he asked: "It looks as if the man drinks. Does he?"

The aspiring Brangelina of the moment were actors Margaret Leighton and Laurence Harvey, friends of Fleur Cowles, who were overheard in conversation.

"We don't own any Picassos do we darling?" Leighton wondered.

"Of course we do," said her husband, who had recently been Oscar-nominated for his role in Room at the Top.

"Oh, I didn't know they were Picassos," she replied, innocently.

One person missing from the guest list was Picasso himself, who was holed up in his new chateau at the foot of Cézanne's Mont St Victoire and saw no point in attending: "My old paintings no longer interest me," he wrote to a friend, "I'm much more curious about those I haven't yet done." As the exhibition opened, he was photographed at a bullfight with Juliette Greco, Yul Brynner and Jean Cocteau. Penrose wrote to the painter to explain the mood: "My dear Pablo, the Picasso explosion… is overwhelming. Already over 10,000 people have visited the show. There are queues the entire day until eight o'clock in the evening when the gallery closes. You have conquered London – people are enchanted and dazzled by your presence on the walls."

The crowds were such that it was reported that several of the gallery warders suffered nervous collapse. Rothenstein sent an urgent memo to his opposite number at the Arts Council. "The large crowd has placed a very heavy strain on our two floor polishers," he lamented, "one of whom is shortly to go on holiday. I wonder if the Arts Council could take on at least the sweeping of the Picasso rooms, possibly using student labour?"

As news of the show spread, the young Queen expressed a wish to visit the exhibition. Penrose recalled the after-hours' visit of the royal party in another letter to Picasso in Provence, "To my delight, she went in with an enthusiasm that increased with each step – stopping in front of each picture – Portrait of Uhde, which she thought magnificent, Still Life with Chair Caning, which she really liked, the collages, the little construction with gruyère and sausage, in front of which she stopped and said: 'Oh how lovely that is! How I should like to make something like that myself!'"

As the show went on, one publicity coup followed another. The consignment of paintings from Russia finally arrived and an extra gallery was set aside for them. A woman was caught smuggling in paintings by her husband to hang in the show, when she dropped a canvas from under her coat. Mrs Vivian Burleigh explained that her husband painted murals in launderettes and hair-dressing salons "in Picasso's early style… I had to do this to prove my husband is also a genius," she said. "It is disgraceful that the British Arts Council take no interest in their own painters." Mrs Burleigh claimed to have left one painting in the exhibition, stuck up with chewing gum. When alerted to this possibility Joanna Drew of the Arts Council was having none of it. "I know a Picasso when I see one," she said, briskly, "and they are all Picassos here."

What seemed most revolutionary to some observers was the new mix of society that joined the queues. As well as the expected "women in elegant dresses" there were "teenagers in winkle picker shoes and girls in no shoes at all".

By the time the exhibition closed in September, more than half a million people had seen it, breaking all records; 300,000 postcards had been sold, and 92,000 catalogues bought. The "Spanish gypsy style" was featured in Vogue as the summer look; Marbella suddenly looked a possible holiday destination for the would-be chic. Howard Hodgkin went to the show "many, many times to look at different things". David Hockney, for whom comparable queues are currently forming, went eight times, and opened himself up to the possibility that an artist could work in many styles and media in a long career. British art would never be the same, but something else seemed to have shifted, too. The Scotsman noted in a prescient editorial that "It is going to be difficult after this to say that great [modern] art is not popular here."

Not everyone was swept up in the new, new thing though. The head attendant at the Tate, the ex-grenadier guardsman Arthur Wellstead, closed the exhibition with a sharp blast on his whistle at 7.55pm on 19 September. Six minutes later, one observer reported, "the crowds had all gone – including two young men in sandals who tried to dive through a solid line of attendants for a last look. Arthur Wellstead breathed a sigh of relief. 'I'm not sorry it's over,' he said. 'It made a change but it was all a bit hectic.'" © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 15 2011

Lord Byron takes pride of place at art show curated by Simon Schama

Historian requisitions paintings from British embassies around the world for his Travelling Light show at Whitechapel Gallery

A smouldering Lord Byron, dressed in ostentatious Albanian gear, looms large in a new show curated by the historian Simon Schama, who can't hide his enthusiasm for it. "It is utterly wonderful," he said. "The ultimate undergraduate gap year vanity."

The 1814 Byron portrait by Thomas Phillips normally hangs in the residence of the UK ambassador to Greece in Athens but has been requisitioned for the latest display of works from the Government Art Collection.

Schama is the third guest curator let loose on a collection of almost 14,000 works of art, personally choosing work which goes on display to the public on Friday at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

He said putting the exhibition together had been great fun. "When I was a small boy I used to be wheeled into Woolworths in my pram and I remember one of the first thoughts I had in my life was, do I nick the barley sugar canes first, or do I go for the humbugs? I really do feel like a kid in a sweetshop again."

Schama has called his exhibition Travelling Light, and explores the idea of Britain as a nation of explorers. Hence his choice of the Byron portrait as well as works such as Edward Lear's View of Beirut and Vanessa Bell's portrait of a woman as Byzantine Lady.

He also chose works by artists he knew and liked, such as Howard Hodgkin, Peter Liversidge, Roger Hilton and Tacita Dean, and came across work which won him over by artists he was unfamiliar with, such as Rachel Lowe and Hurvin Anderson, whose large work Peter's 1 – showing a barber's shop set up in someone's home – normally hangs over guests at functions in 11 Downing Street.

Other work has travelled from embassies in Tel Aviv, Cairo and Copenhagen. Schama admitted a certain intoxication to be had from "demanding them from embassies and cabinet ministers – how much fun is that! It is like liberating art for the people".

The Government Art Collection has been buying art works for the nation for 113 years, although spending cuts mean it is not doing so for two years – the first time it has stopped collecting since the second world war. The next and final GAC show at the Whitechapel will be chosen by staff at 10 Downing Street.

Travelling Light, Whitechapel Gallery until 26 February. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 04 2011

June 20 2011

Top British artists to design 2012 Olympics posters

Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili among selected 12 as countdown starts to London festival

Posters for next year's Olympics and Paralympics will be designed by top British artists including Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili, it was announced.

The 12 commissioned artists were named to coincide with the one-year countdown to next year's London 2012 festival – part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrations – which opens on 21 June .

Among those on the panel that whittled more than 100 names from the art world down to 12 was the Tate's director, Sir Nicholas Serota, who predicted "colour, vitality, energy and diversity" in the 2012 posters that will be seen all over the capital next year.

Six male and six female artists have been chosen. The others asked to create a piece were Fiona Banner, Michael Craig-Martin, Martin Creed, Anthea Hamilton, Gary Hume, Sarah Morris, Bob and Roberta Smith and Rachel Whiteread.

The posters are still at the design stage but Emin, who will create one for the Paralympics, said she wanted to do something that celebrated the coolness of London.

She is considering drawing prominent landmarks such as the London Eye and the houses of parliament, adding words that offer encouragement to the participants. She is still working on her final design.

Emin said she was surprised but pleased to be asked.

"The posters are intrinsic to the Olympics, they are the things that are going to stay around," she added.

She had been sent a book of posters from previous games, she said, but was unlikely to take inspiration from the designs.

"A lot of them are about values which aren't so important now," she said. "I'm interested in the party side – the celebration."

The artists have been asked to produce a poster that is identifiable with their own style. "For me, that could be a bit tricky," Emin admitted. "The poster has got to be for everybody and it has got to be a celebration of London. The Olympics is going to show the world that London can really throw a good party. It is going to give everyone a high."

Hodgkin is the only one of the artists of the 12 who has experience in this area, having been commissioned by Andy Warhol to produce a poster for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.

Hodgkin said he had a pragmatic reason for agreeing to the Olympic commission.

"I said yes because I thought it would be nice for a lot of people to see my work," he said.

His enthusiasm for the Olympics was also rather more muted than some, as he admitted looking forward to it "only in so far as there'll be something else to see on the telly".

One of the younger artists on the list of 12 is Anthea Hamilton, who was clearly more enthused by the games than Hodgkin: "It's really exciting – you can feel the tension building in the city," she said. She called the commission "a big honour and a nice surprise", adding: "I get a lot of the images which I use to make my work from the city, everyday life and mass media, so the idea that I'll get to make a work that goes back into that is a really nice way for me to develop."

The London 2012 festival, which celebrates the Olympics through the arts, will feature artists such as the late Pina Bausch, Plan B, Mike Leigh, Leona Lewis, Miranda Hart and Damon Albarn.

Tickets for the festival go on sale in October but many events are free, including one of the first and most intriguing, which takes place on Lake Windermere in Cumbria. The spectacular show with music, drumming and pyrotechnics features the French company Les Commandos Percu.

London's mayor, Boris Johnson, said: "A year from today, on midsummer's day, the festivities will begin with the launch of the London 2012 festival.

"The capital will be alive with extraordinary music, film, art, poetry, performance – a festival on a scale never before seen to celebrate the greatest sporting show on Earth." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 14 2011

Tate Britain makes a splash with watercolours

Curators set out to make watercolours cool - even the British landscapes

It is arguably one of the most ambitious surveys of watercolour staged in London but any visitor expecting safe, gentle and reserved should prepare for a surprise. "We do hope to confound preconceptions, yes," said chief curator Alison Smith.

Tate Britain on Millbank is staging a show simply called Watercolour, opening on Wednesday, which the curators hope will blow away the myths and falsehoods about a medium sometimes seen as very British, profoundly conservative and, to put it bluntly, not very cool.

"From the outset we wanted to get beyond the association of watercolour with landscape, which really defines British watercolour practice," said Smith. "We wanted to think about the longer, grander history."

It is a big show. On display are more than 200 works spanning 800 years. The diversity of the medium is striking. It is, of course, used for pretty landscapes and there are examples in the show. It is also used for scientific accuracy in botany, for abstract work and to document war.

There are shocking images, including an Eric Taylor painting of human bodies piled up at Belsen concentration camp. Another painting difficult to look at. by Charles Bell, is of wounds sustained by soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo, showing a French lancer who has had a sabre in his belly.

"I wanted to get beyond this idea that watercolour was used just for the softer subjects," said Smith. "Because watercolour is so flexible and direct it can be used to convey gritty subjects." It is also ideal for war because watercolour red pigment is good for blood and wounds.

Watercolour should not, the curators say, be seen as a standalone medium. One arresting work is Graham Sutherland's stage-like depiction of a bombed East End street from 1941, in which he has used gouache and crayon and pencil as well as watercolour.

Given the association of watercolour with British painters, another surprise is the identity of one of the earliest watercolour painters of British landscapes: the Flemish Anthony van Dyck. A coastal landscape painted between 1635 and 1641 is one of the first exhibits.

The show includes works by Turner, the pre-Raphaelites and Edward Burra as well as contemporary artists including Howard Hodgkin, Tracey Emin and Peter Doig.

Watercolour will always be seen as a preserve of the amateur – nobles, princes, people of leisure and murderous dictators can vouch for its restorative qualities – and there are examples in the show.

One of the better is Victor Hugo who experimented with blots, ink stains and even his own blood in his watercolours producing hundreds of works, all of which he kept to himself. The one on display at Tate Britain is a memory of a holiday in Normandy, executed when he was a political exile on Guernsey.

Smith hopes the show will challenge assumptions. "It is private, it's fragile, it's vulnerable. It doesn't have the kudos and commodity status of work in other media, it doesn't attract sensational media headlines but as people will see, it can be used in an extraordinary variety of ways."

Watercolour is at Tate Britain from 16 February to 21 August © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 23 2010

Last romantic

Jonathan Jones on the artist whose work is in the best intellectual tradition from Cézanne to Twombly

It is difficult to look at Howard Hodgkin's paintings without a picture in your mind of where they might hang when they are not on loan to an exhibition. They are haunted by secret worlds, not only that of the artist, but also those of his collectors. They are paintings for and of the private sphere. Only one work in his captivating exhibition of recent work at Modern Art Oxford has been lent from a museum. The rest have come from houses and apartments, from over the mantelpiece or the bed, from a dark office or a bright dining room . . . you see? You start thinking about these absent places, the homes of the paintings, and the images keep coming.

Most suggestive of all is Hodgkin's little painting Leaf (2007-09). It belongs, surely, in a study. I imagine it hanging near the door. The walls around it are crammed with natural history specimens – impaled butterflies, glassed-in stag beetles. Old volumes of Darwin and Linnaeus are on the bookcases. Opposite this painting, in playful juxtaposition, is a microscopically precise 19th-century study of a leaf. Outside, through a window honeyed by the glow of the desk lamp, is an orchard.

Leaf is a perfect miniature of Hodgkin's art. In this small picture he distills everything that is original about his vision. Who else would do what Hodgkin does here, and mimic the genre of the botanical study, yet enfurl that tradition of scientific looking in a baroque robe of abstract green? His leaf is a double swirl of louche colour, a wild brushstroke enclosed in a battered wooden frame. It is not a realistic leaf yet it responds to the visible world – it is the colour of a leaf. It is, we accept, faithful to reality – but how? How does the world so pervade Hodgkin's art that each picture, placed in the dry space of an art gallery, seems to carry with it the intimacy of private rooms, the freshness of gardens, the changing light of nature?

Some artists emerge fully-formed, perfect, from art school, like David Hockney in the 1960s, glittering in a gold jacket and pop spectacles, painting with an open sensuality. Hodgkin, born in 1932, also had his first exhibitions in the early 60s but to look at his early works, to read the reviews of a shared show at the ICA in 1962 with the – then – far more happening Allen Jones, is to excavate a stuttering, uncertain start. The scion of a famous family, an Eton drop-out, he did not look in his first decade of painting like a central figure in the art of his time. Yet I would argue that alone of all his British contemporaries he has remained loyal to the most interesting and serious artistic insights of the 60s. He is conventionally praised, and occasionally dismissed, as the last English romantic, a pure painter in the mould of Constable and Turner, an artist who feels. I see him more as an artist who thinks – a philosophical painter.

To return to that leaf in Oxford. Hodgkin could have dipped his brush in any colour he liked. He mixed a lime or olive-tinged green, that breaks into streaks of yellow against the bare wooden board, leaving oil stains around it and a clogged sticky pool against the frame. It is also, magically, leaf shaped. This single wide brushstroke, doubled up on itself in a bulbous curve, produces the tapering form of a laurel leaf. Then again, the wispy delicacy of the brushstroke – so casual, so light, so airy – suggests a leaf's movement in the air, as if it were about to be blown away on an evening breeze. So he gives us the colour of a leaf, the shape of a leaf: and most importantly, the essence of a leaf, which comes of its slightness, its vulnerability to gusts.

This is a systematic, and to me profoundly moving, rethinking of what it is to see an object. Ideas, associations, affinities, memories, longings consitute, for Hodgkin, our real experience of the material world. When we think of a leaf we may have different memories from his, but we never simply see a constellation of cells. The world comes to us already composed of lyrical suggestions. The most ambitious modern artists have wrestled with this complex web of experience ever since Paul Cézanne stared at Mont Sainte-Victoire and, portraying it again and again, infused every rock, every pine branch with his own isolation and turbulent inwardness. In the 1950s and early 60s the inquiry begun by Cézanne was reformulated by three Americans – Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly – and I believe these are the artists of that epochal time with whom we should compare Hodgkin.

When Johns made an American flag of collaged newsprint embalmed in encaustic, he conveyed the plenitude of stories and perspectives an apparently simple icon could hold; when Rauschenberg put his bed, smeared and spattered with paint, on a gallery wall he invited the beholder to read or invent tales of sex and intimacy in its stains. But most of all Hodgkin resembles Twombly, whose graffiti epics speak of dirty sex and high feeling in grand palatial Roman settings. Like Twombly, he has become better as he has become more openly emotional. It was with paintings of the 1980s whose titles, such as In Bed in Venice (1984-8), or Love Letter (1984-88), convey their intimacy, that Hodgkin discovered the eloquent grandeur of his maturity. Neither of these pictures is legible in a realist way: but neither is emptily abstract, either. To engage with them is to be caught in knots and shocks of recognition and imagining: to chase after the artist's encounters and longings. It is in the best intellectual tradition of modern art from Cézanne to Rauschenberg's Bed and Twombly's Ferragosto.

His exhibition of recent work in Oxford reveals that he is still advancing, and still thinking. Lawn (2009), seems to want to show all the potential colours of grass in different lights, at different seasons, or in the varying vitality of different blades in a single bit of turf, within one unified smear of layered colours. Khaki, yellow, pink, grey, pine and moss all twist together in lines of unmixed oil, like a preparation for a giant microscope. At the very beginning of natural history in art stands Albrecht Dürer's 1503 watercolour The Great Piece of Turf. In this mesmerising observation of nature Dürer concentrates his gaze on a tiny section of the world and depicts each blade of grass, each leaf and seed in it with intense accuracy. Hodgkin similarly excavates a cross-section of grass but we have no way of knowing if he has portrayed an entire lawn, or a two-centimetre patch. His painting Big Lawn (2008-10) is broader, as if seen from further away in the soft light of a summer evening, and Sky (2008-09) induces a moment of vertigo just with two alternating blues – dark and light – conveying, in a small golden oval frame, the height and sweep of a Tiepolo heaven. Yet at the same time, and this complicates the show in dark ways, contemporary history intrudes.

Yellow Sky (2010) reveals just a sliver of yellow horizon under an oily mass of brown and black clouds, with towering and falling pillars of paint on the left of the scene that resemble the funnel of a tornado sweeping across America (I imagine), while Dirty Weather (2001) concentrates a terrible storm, or a volcano, or a battlefeild into a miasma of ochre and green and black smoke: it suggests looking through veiled eyes at a dustcloud after an explosion in a nature reserve. But Shadow (2002-03) leaves less room for doubt. Across a bright corn-yellow world towers a black column. It is clearly the shadow of the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001. That shadow streaks across this entire exhibition.

Whatever personal pain is communicated by the exhibition's extraordinary climactic painting, Blood, the violence of this new work (too new to be in the catalogue) is also unmistakably historical. Over a green world, a great sweep of blood gushes up and then arcs and falls – a wave of red, congealing into brown scabs, turning the earth into wet flesh. It is gut-churning. Never has the wetness of his paint seemed so apposite. Part of the seduction of his art is that the colours never seem to dry: the oil keeps its freshness. The wide motions of the brush create a sense of openness and fluency that doesn't stabilise into neat lines, doesn't settle down. But here, in his widescreen epic of war, he turns that vivacity to horror. We seem to be seeing people bleed. The red explodes from severed arteries. It dries on the road. It waters the fields. It is sucked into transparent tubes and mingles with water in a jar.

The sense of green places and blue waters in these paintings of the past 10 years is surely apposite to an age of planetary dread. Like a television documentary about the state of the Earth, but with the authority of paint, his transfigured landscapes and still lifes tell of a nature that is not safe, a life no longer guaranteed, for him or anyone else. Hodgkin is never quite what you think. The giddy colourist is really a daring philosopher, the intimist a public man after all. In the 60s he might have seemed a bit conventional compared with the pop artists but in reality he was thinking his way into a deeply ambitious form of abstract storytelling. The sense of history that shakes his recent paintings has deep roots in his art. In the 80s he collaborated with Susan Sontag on their illustrated story of Aids and its impact, The Way We Live Now. That political, engaged stance was entirely of a piece with his paintings of the time, whose tales of private life – as in for example Lovers (1984-92) – testify to the significance, even the historical weight, of what happens in bed. He still thinks about that. One of the most intense paintings here is a burst of black and red and fire-orange called Privacy and Self-Expression in the Bedroom (2004-06).

What has mattered in Hodgkin's art, and still does, is not simply a brilliant way with colour, although it would be hard to find many painters of the past 100 years who could out-scintillate a work such as that bedroom picture, with its chromatic suggestion of coals glowing in a blackened grate. It is the depth and truthfulness of his meditation on the way we translate experience, even as it happens, into embers of memory. If this strikes you as a whimsical project then you must also dismiss Cézanne and Proust.

Howard Hodgkin: Time and Place 2001-2010 is at Modern Art Oxford, until 5 September. For information call 01865 722733. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 28 2010

Howard Hodgkin

Modern Art Oxford

This exhibition contains one of the spookiest paintings I have ever seen. Mud is a small picture smeared with brown and grey that creates a peculiar sense of miasma and vanishing. Is it conjuring the trenches of the first world war, a walk in the East Anglian countryside or just a bleak mood? It is as bizarrely compelling and darkly pleasurable as a story by MR James and immediately had me hooked on Howard Hodgkin's power to tell stories in paint.

Quite a few of the tales are horror stories, culminating in the astonishing Blood, in which a fresh, green world is overwhelmed by a red tide. Again, is the story personal or political, or both? It has you by the throat, and if you ever thought of Hodgkin as a slightly genteel artist, now is the time to eat your words.

Hodgkin's life work is comparable with that of Cy Twombly as an exercise in controlled poetic disclosure. He speaks of the secret life of the self in colours that conceal nothing. Art is more eloquent than a diary. Paint is more personal than language. Hodgkin's ability to alarm colours by introducing them to one another makes his paintings uniquely fresh and unsettled: it is hard to imagine them ever going stale. They are exciting in the way that rain on a leaf in the morning light is exciting. Hodgkin paints in that British tradition going back to Thomas Gainsborough of aliveness to the colours of nature. That simple vision, twisted by experience, makes for the demonic power of these life-enhancing paintings.

Rating: 5/5 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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