Hodgkin's Worst Enemy? It Turns out to Be Colour; Tate Britain's New Exhibition Has All the Celebrated Splodges, Dots and Swirls - but the Sane Man Longs for Tone and Substance

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

THERE is general agreement among the cognoscenti of the contemporary art world - that is those who through compliant journalists and even more submissive broadcasters form the opinions of the uninformed rest of us - that Howard Hodgkin is "one of the most important artists at work in Britain today ... celebrated by a wide public internationally ..." "Internationally"? Apart from my own amused dissent I know of only one respectable protesting voice and his is international. The American critic Peter Schjeldahl, reviewing Hodgkin's retrospective exhibition for a New York readership in 1995, put British painting of the day firmly in its international context by damning Hodgkin (and Freud and Hockney) as "on cosy terms with mediocrity".

"Hodgkin's distinction," he continued, "is to be tremendously pretentious in a modest way ... merely looking at his art misses the point - you've to imagine taking him home to bed or tea."

Schjeldahl went on to liken Hodgkin's little paintings to little dogs that leap uninvited onto the visitor's lap and smother him with licks and scrabbles, and "phooey" is the climactic one-word summary of his review - a review that is cunningly omitted from the 16- page bibliography of Hodgkin's current retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain.

Hodgkin is, as another writer opined in 1996 - this time a man almost spent in the exhausting throes of adoration - "a painter who paints the unpaintable".

This is poetic hyperbole at full stretch, but manifestly not true, for every one of Hodgkin's paintings has a title so specific that it must conjure an image of sorts from what, to the uninformed eye, may appear to be a haphazard accumulation of paint in brushstrokes of heroic length, breadth and practised certainty, of paint in swirls and dots and splodges. These do not depict the subject; they are intended to evoke it, each stroke, swirl, dot and splodge a synecdochism for a person, place or event, dinner here, a holiday there, desire for a lover sated. Where Rothko lets us see what we will in his still fields of colour, for they are intended to imply nothing, Hodgkin commands us to see what he wills in his energetic turbulence - and if we fail to obey, we are damned as fools by his apologists.

I have used the word splodge only because a thousand other critics have done so, tempted unconsciously by the rhyme with Hodge perhaps; for a painter who consistently employs high and often unmodulated colour, it is quite unsuitable, for to splodge means to plod splashily through mud, and very little about Hodgkin is either muddy or splashy.

Nevertheless, splodge came into art criticism in 1882 in a review of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition where, no doubt, it did mean muddy. Criticism is not the proper word for most of what is written about Hodgkin. Put very simply, he is not much of a painter in any intellectual sense and no one could write of him in the language with which Hugo Chapman brought us close to the master in the current exhibition of Michelangelo's drawings at the British Museum, or in the terms with which Constable is elucidated in the catalogue of his six-foot landscapes now hanging in the miserable lightless rooms of the Tate's basement. With Hodgkin, the scribbler must fall back on the ecstasy that was once the province of religious identification with the agonies of Christ. Consider the final sentence of the catalogue: after observing that "the more he inhabits his body", the more "Hodgkin-like" his paint-marks become, the writer ends with: "It is this body with which we, as spectators, identify when standing before the great, late pictures."

Hodgkin is a painter who has always, since boyhood, wanted to be a painter, but until the mid-1970s, when he was well into his forties, he seems never to have had anything significant to communicate, nor to have commanded a sound means of painterly communication. His early work suggests decades of fumbling, of plucking a single idea from Matisse, or Ivon Hitchens or even the younger David Hockney, without understanding the whole from which it came, of borrowed styles ill-mixed and in conflict, of no clear intention in any single picture or in any sequence. …