A Conversation with Howard Hodgkin

Anthony d'Offay Gallery, 19th October 1993

A Conversation with Howard Hodgkin

Antony Peattie: In 1981 you told Lawrence Gowing, ‘the less information given about pictures and the specific elements in them, the better’.(1) In 1985 you talked about the ‘tyranny of words in England’: ‘I don’t understand’, you said, ‘why there have to be words between the picture and the spectator.'(2) I wonder whether your titles stimulate that curiosity.

HH: My titles are straightforward. People want to ask me questions, I think, because they want to ask all artists questions. My hope that painting pictures is all any artist needs to do – or dancing or writing or whatever – was dashed a long time ago. I don’t believe in programme notes or explanations for paintings, since they come between the audience and the picture. It must have something to do with the times or the change in communications, but nobody seems to be able to respond to art without a gush of words.

Rilke said that ‘subject matter is never attached to a work of art like an animal to a tree. It has its existence somewhere in the neighbourhood of the work and lives by it, somewhat like the custodian of a museum. Much may be learned from such a person on application; but if one can on without him one is freer, less disturbed, and in the end better informed.’ Do you agree?

HH: Perhaps.

Your titles suggest that you address different genres, such as landscape, portrait, interior; but there is another, more mysterious category where in William Feaver’s words, every picture conceals a story (4): After the shop was closed, A leap in the dark, When did we go to Morocco? I was wondering if you would talk about genres?

HH: There is a simple answer to that: no. I am happy for people to talk about my pictures; but I wish devoutly that I was not expected to talk about them myself. the more an artist talks about his work, the more his words become attached to it. It is ture that other people’s words do as well, but not as much.

I want people to look at my pictures as pictures, as things. When you talk about different categories, it would be better to say, ‘This one is a large picture; this one is a small picture; this one is a middle-sized picture; this one has a lot of emotion, but is a small picture; this has less emotion, but is a big picture’ and so on. Then people would feel more as if they were buying (or thinking of acquiring) some useful object, when they looked at them. They could say, as they would say about furniture, ‘This is a night table or a dining-room table’ or, perhaps best of all, ‘This is a kitchen table where I would write letters of an intimate nature’ or, ‘This is a different kind of table, where I would write letters of a business nature.’

Let’s talk about the pictures as objects, in terms of their scale. The catalogue is almost bound to mislead, because reproductions tend to make the pictures look the same size.

HH: Attempts to reproduce pictures in any way that reflects their different scale don’t work, because small pictures then come out minute. Trying to reflect the original scale has to come second to the scale of the catalogue in which they appear. I did once toy with the idea of having a little ruler in black and white in he bottom corner of the reproduction, to show the scale, but I don’t think that would help: people would assume it was part of the work.

Fisherman’s Cove looks enormous in reproduction.

Fisherman’s Cove, 1993, oil on wood, 11 1/8 x 15″, 28.3 x 38cm
HH: That may be because of the nature of the space in the picture. Some pictures look enormous in real life, because they take up a lot of emotional or spiritual room. They give off a lot of energy. If you try to talk about that it immediately sounds ridiculous….Large pictures, on the other hand, can be slighter than small ones or, because of their scale, tell a great deal more. Everything depends on hte picture itself. Reproducing them simply gives readers a souvenir, if they have seen the original picture, or otherwise just a taste of what they will see. But they are not an accurate record.

The more successful the scale in a painting, the harder it gets to guess how large the picture is. If all its parts relate to one another in a physically successful way, then it should be difficult to tell whether the picture is large or small. Or, equally, the pictures all look medium-sized.

When you look at dead artists’ work, are you particularly aware of scale?
HH: Yes, always. It is one of the many things you keep learning, all the time. Dancers and musicians have to practice and practice and practice. Painters don’t do that; they don’t even attempt it. But constant looking at pictures, that is to some extent a substitute for ‘practice’.

Are there formats that you’ve admired in other painters’ works and then thought, ‘Oh, I’d like to try that’?

HH: No, not exactly. It’s simply that looking at other pictures reminds one constantly of other possibilities. And working in a studio that is an empty room, every day, looking at your work and nothing else, means that it’s essential to keep everything as precise and sharp as possible. I am at the moment working on several large pictures. Bridget Riley’s ‘Artist’s Eye’ exhibition at the National Gallery (London, 1989) was enormously helpful. She chose to assemble pictures painted on a scale that I doubt whether I shall ever attempt, on a very large scale indeed, many of which offered the spectator the possiblity of multiple viewpoints. It was a moving selection of pictures; it was also useful.

Did you find the installation helpful?

HH: Rightly, they were hung as far apart as possible. There were few pictures in a large space; it looked remarkable. Surprisingly, the only picture that seemed slightly out of place was the great Cezanne Bathers (c. 1898-1905), even though he was attempting to work on classic ground. It was so completely a picture of the early 20th century that it didn’t fit in with the others, which might perhaps have disappointed him.

Was it classicism, in some form, that the other pictures had in common?

HH: They had a language in common; we don’t have that. Cezanne’s language was his own; it was not part of a tradition. That is probably why the Bathers didn’t fit in.

Which were the other artists?

HH: Titian, Veronese, El Greco, Poussin and Rubens. They were all working within a small period, from around 1520-1640.

And they shared a public ambition?

HH: Yes, but the impulse behind Cezanne’s Bathers ws also a public one. Public art is something I grew up with. When I had just stopped being a student and begun teaching, three of my colleagues were part of the Situation Group. My particular friend among them, Robyn Denny, was very interested in the idea and we embarked on a ‘public art’ project with the students. It turned out to mean not much more than big design.

In the museum culture in which we now live, small contemporary paintings don’t rate. And yet a Morandi, a Mondrian, a Vermeer, a Chardin, a Fragonard, a small Picasso or a small early Vuillard, to take a few random examples, can knock you out across a room.

One of the high points of my career as a ‘public artist’ came when I saw one of my smallest pictures hung in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I had been taken by a friend who knew it was there. I walked round a column and saw it across the circular space – it was hanging on the other side of the void and I could see it from where I was standing. It did what it had to do from that distance. It confirmed for me that small pictures can be as large in a public sense as huge pictures. Sometimes more so. But the intensity you get from a small picture is problematic in a large public space. It is difficult to hang a tiny picture among large pictures. It is much easier in a museum like the Guggenheim, where the space is divided into comparatively small areas.

I once saw a retrospective of Morandi’s work there, which was ideal, because each alcove contained one small painting. But it was also unforgettable when each alcove only just managed to contain a Rothko, rather like a tall person in a short bed.

Your pictures have been shown in very different ways. In Nantes they were hung in alcoves where you could only see three or four at one time. Elsewhere, in the Whitechapel, for instance, they were hung in long rows the entire length of the gallery walls. They were all simultaneously visible and seemed to compete with one another.

HH: There you touch on something which is important to me. Perhaps this does need to be said, because questions of hanging and arrangement follow from it. My pictures are ‘one-off’, individual items. They tend to destroy each other when hung too close together. I was involved in the Whitechapel hang, and no one could have been more helpful than the director was. But there were too many pictures for the space.

As for much larger pictures, the emotional impact is such that each one ideally calls for a separate space. I would like to paint a picture of sufficient emotional and physical volume that it could hang in a room alone, without seeming pretentious.

Can we talk more about looking at other people’s work? Have there been any occasions when you have gone from the ‘practice’ to the performance thinking, ‘I can do that’?

HH: You mean has there ever been a moment when I have looked at a picture by someone else and thought, ‘Oh yes, I can do that’? Probably only in front of very bad pictures.

For example….?

HH: I was afraid you were going to ask that. No, I think probably not. Because the examples would be by living artists. Can you think of one?

I was thinking of After Corot and wondering whether After Degas was like that too.

HH: Oh no, not at all. I painted After Corot because I wanted to paint a picture in the style of Corot’s Roman period, but I didn’t think ‘Oh yes, I could do that too’. I found it extremely difficult to paint that little picture.

After Corot, 1979-1982, oil on board, 14 1/2 x 15″, 36.8 x 38.1cm

I had been trying to paint After Degas for a long time.

After Degas, 1993, oil on wood, 26 x 30″, 66 x 76cm

I did once make a print of the same title, not of the same subject, but also with a green frame around it. That was a surrogate painting, because I was still thinking ‘How can I do this?’ Usually, when I look at other pictures I think quite the opposite. I think, ‘How on earth did he do that?’

After Degas, 1990-1991, intaglio print, 10 x 12 1/2″, 25.5 x 32cm

When I finish a picture of my own, stand back and look at it, one of the most difficult things is to get used to it, to acknowledge that it is finished, to accept that this is the picture. Finishing a picture means bowing to the inevitable: the work, in a way, does itself. Ideally I’m in the same situation as a spectator as anyone else: I look at it and think, ‘How did the hell did he do it? How was that done?’

The actual sizes of the pictures vary enormously, as do the proportions. Some painters settle on a format; you haven’t yet.

HH: If only. One of my recurrent fantasies is to invent a formula, as many 20th century artists have done. Then I could say, like the advertisement, ‘One size fits all’. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find the ideal format? Then it wouldn’t matter what you needed to express, the picture would always be the same size. Some artists seem to have taken this further: whatever they’ve got to say, whatever they feel, the picture is always the same colour….Unfortunately, the older I get, the more this doesn’t seem to happen.

Since your last show in London five years ago, and in New York three years ago, one of the major artistic events must have been the Matisse retrospective shown in  New York and in Paris…

HH: They were extraordinary events. Looking at the exhibition in New York reminded me of when I first encountered Matisse’s art in bulk: I stayed in bed for two days with Alfred Barr’s book, Matisse: his Art and his Public. A certain feeling about Matisse’s moral qualities as a painter – how he became a kind of moral figure on behalf of all art – came into my head at that time and has never left it. His bravery, his passion and his persistence so impressed themselves on me, I found them almost unfaceable. After looking at that exhibition on a continual basis, there were moments when the pictures became almost more than one could stand.

Matisse’s greatness as a painter depends on his absolute nakedness. It is absolute at the beginning and end of his life. I’m not thinking of his papiers decoupes so much, except for a few, because they do tend to have bits of a familiar sort of French rhetoric about them. That’s only to be expected, since he felt at times that he had to produce. But his best work, including several of those papiers decoupes, remains as naked, as empty of habit and pretence as when he was a young man painting for his Russian patrons.

Those ‘Russian’ pictures have the extroarinary immediacy that we were briefly and misleadingly taught to admire in children’s painting. When I was very young and the remains of this idea were still hanging in the air, people used to talk about Picasso and children’s art. There is nothing in Picasso that I can think of that has quite the simple (rather than simplistic) directness of Matisse’s actual painting, the way he painted his pictures. Everyone else looks like someone brought up in the tradition of the Old Masters. The absolute directness of his approach, and the fact that he could scrape away and scrape away and remake and remake and remake and deny and deny and deny and say ‘No, No, No, No’ and then finally, sometimes almost in a whisper, say ‘yes’…that is extraordinary.

Did you notice any changes in the way you worked after you had been to the Matisse shows?

HH: No, none at all. Looking at the work of a great artist doesn’t unfortunately help very much in any direct physical way. But it would be a mistake to be discouraged, because such work reminds one that in some ways, anything is possible. Although art reflects life, it is separarte from it, it is a vision. All great art reminds one of that immediately. It is naturally encouraging.

How is it encouraging?

HH: Because to make art of any kind you have to separate yourself off. Making works of art is not part of the ordinary, daily round of life. I know in England people try to make it that, because we have more amateur artists in England than anywhere else. They feel that it is like going for a walk, painting a picture. But of course it isn’t. I think great art reminds one of the impossible.

I don’t like national schools. People inescapably belong to the country where they were born in some way or another, but I don’t like it. Being an English artist may pose particular difficulties, however, because (for reasons whoch I suppose are partly sociological or even anthropological) most English painters have always thought that very little is possible. One of the most encouraging things about Francis Bacon, for other artists, was he thought of being an artist; to him, to be an artist was to be a great artist. I don’t think the thought ever crossed his mind that what he did could be considered minor. He was working somewhere up in the empyrean. How rare this phenomenon is in English art. Francis Bacon was working in a way that was unheard of since…when? Since Joshua Reynolds perhaps or Turner.

Sickert, I think, knew just how good he was as artist and also how impossible it was to be taken sufficiently seriously. He got round it by laughing and laughing and laughing. A pity that such a great artist could have fallen for that English habit of making light of things. After all, he wasn’t very English.

29 August 1993

1. Lawrence Gowing, catalogue introduction, Knoedler & Company, New York, 1981
2. Observer, London, 15 September 1985
3. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Rodin Book, 1903, transl. G. Craig Houston, 1954
4. William Feaver, Vogue, London, September 1985