Howard Hodgkin, Art News, John Russell

There is not much to show, 30 years later, by the way of memorial to the impulse of sympathy and affection through which so many English children were invited to the U.S. After June 1940. For many of them, the trip meant primarily a change of schooling and an uncomfortable boat-ride; but here and there an unusual gift was unusually nurtured.

One product of this is the English painter Howard Hodgkin, whose notion of the potential of painting was revolutionized by the first sight, at a very early age, of Matisse in the Museum of Modern Art. Hodgkin, then still in short pants, was probably the first English painter, or painter-to-be, who entered upon student days with a firm idea of Matisse was about. (Roger Fry managed to write a whole book on Matisse without mentioning key pictures). He had The Moroccans in his mind’s eye as a supreme example of the way in which space, color and form could all be re-adjusted if only the painter knew what he was doing.

Hodgkin has another standard of reference which, though now trendy, was a matter of esoteric passion at the time he acquired it. He knows a great deal about Indian miniatures, and from them, as much as from Matisse, he has learned to roll space flat as if with a chromatic lawnmower, and to twist it like barley-sugar; he “places” the events in his pictures as suits his fancy and not in obedience to Italianate principles. Lately he has been going to India every year, and his new paintings at the Kasmin Gallery include two versions of an Indian subject; more precisely, the memory of an evening on which he had sat out on the terrace of Maharajah’s palace and listened to Indian music . The paintings are, in a way, Hodgkin’s Moroccans. They refer to architecture, they refer to vegetation, they refer to human beings and, I suspect, they refer to musical instruments, though none of these things is spelt out directly. Near-ovals and near-circles and an isosceles triangle make up the formal repertory of the pictures, together with a slender domed shape that is presumably a doorway but could also be a trunk of a tree. It may well be that these are two of the most truthful portraits of Indian Life at a certain level that any Englishman has made since the 18th century.

Hodgkin is a connoisseur of what Trollope called “The Way We Live Now”. His portraits are not so much portraits, in the Interpol sense, as emanations of personality, and of personality expressed as much in the sitter’s choice of an environment as in his face or his figure. The new pictures include one called Small Staff Room which seemed to me to evoke quite perfectly the look, at once cluttered and impersonal, of the common room at a modern-style art-school. Other relate to people well known in the London art-world. The pictures are distinctly European: reserved, broody, ambiguous, undogmatic, voluntary hybrid. Hodgkin is that rare thing: a markedly non-transatlantic painter who, in the year, 1969, is not provincial.