On Designing for the Stage, by Michael White

Daily Telegraph, 12th June 2002

On Designing for the Stage
Hodgkin's set design for Mark Morris's 'Kolam', 2002

The choreographer Richard Alston, who first encouraged Hodgkin into stage design some 20 years ago, says it was “the sense of theatre – of toy theatre, really – in Howard’s pictures that commended him as the man for this kind of job. They often come with a sort of proscenium-arch shape around them: a strong sense of the frame, even when the paint spills over it. And of course, they’re rich in colour, which is one way of being effective on stage.”

Hodgkin himself refuses to endorse the idea of his paintings as toy theatres, and I don’t get far when I suggest they might be stage-like Scenes from Life.

“No answer. And I don’t mean no, I mean no answer.”

What about the frame as a proscenium?

“People have been saying so for years.”

And your reply is?

“People have been saying so for years…

…I work in theatre by doing what I’m told. You’re never in control. That’s why I’m always queasy about fine artists working in theatre: it’s not particularly defensible. And I’ve been beaten about the head in ways that would surprise you. Designers come low in the theatrical pecking order.”

So theatre-work has been a bad experience?

“I didn’t say that. I like working for the stage because it’s the opposite of working alone in the studio. OK? The sort of questions you ask astonish me.”

And what about the finished product – a Hodgkin image magnified from the original design by an in-house scenery painter? Does a real relationship survive with what the image finally becomes?

“None whatsoever.”

So it ceases to be yours?

“Of course. That’s why it’s not part of my work. How can it be? Painting is based on pictorial devices which are perfectly real things and don’t survive in theatre. I can’t think of any artist, however great, whose theatre-work adds to what he does elsewhere as a painter.”

And the fact that somewhere in the process there are Hodgkin-marks put down in Hodgkin’s hand?

“So what? I don’t go along with the idea that every mark an artist makes is significant. That would be arrogant.”