Zinging off the Walls

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, July 21, 2001 | Go to article overview

Zinging off the Walls


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


Exhibitions Sir Howard Hodgkin

(Dulwich Picture Gallery, till 19 August)

The new paintings by Sir Howard Hodgkin are currently scattered round the Old Masters in the collection at Dulwich Picture Gallery like wild mushrooms in an autumn wood. But they are not equally hard to find. On the contrary, most of them zing off the walls, which is why there is both an up side and a down side to this brief and intentionally light-hearted mingling of old and new.

In a nutshell, the arrangement is good for the Hodgkins, but does much less of a favour to the Old Masters with which they hang, side by side. The former - new works, almost none seen in this country before - look splendid in Soane's masterpiece, which lives up to its reputation as not only one of the oldest public art galleries in the world, but also one of the most beautiful. It is the perfect setting for small- to medium-sized easel pictures of the kind that Hodgkin produces.

His work, furthermore, unlike much contemporary painting, is happy with indeed absolutely thrives on - a coloured background, rather than a white or stringcoloured one. But colour is also the reason why Hodgkin's paintings don't always get on well with their neighbours. He is the second contemporary painter to have his work hung at Dulwich; the first was Lucian Freud in 1994. Both are artists of today who are profoundly preoccupied and involved with the art of the past. But Freud's palette tends to muted browns, oatmeals and flesh colours, and consequently his pictures coexisted more easily with the Rubenses and Van Dycks among which they were hung.

Hodgkin, on the other hand, quite often goes for brilliant colour - indeed, quite how brilliant one didn't realise until his work was hung side by with the goldentoned 17th- and 18th-century pictures of Dulwich.

Colour is of course a relative thing, just like hot and cold, light and dark: how one perceives it depends on the context - just as, changing the terms of comparison, a chord which would seem normal in Mahler would be startling in Mozart. The paintings of Dulwich are on the whole admirably untouched by the current mania for overcleaning. (By the way, I should apologise to the restoration department there for suspecting they would ruin their Murillos in preparation for the exhibition earlier this year; they were touched with the gentlest of hands.)

When you look at the Dulwich pictures on their own, they look colourful enough, because you automatically adjust to their register in the same way that your eyes adjust to differing levels of light. But put a Hodgkin such as `The Last Time I Saw Paris', with its sweeping arcs of lime green, orange-red and blue, between two delectable Poussins, such as `The Nurture of Jupiter' and `Rinaldo and Armida', and the Poussins turn dingy, like light-bulbs in daylight. …

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