Where Silence Becomes Objects, by Howard Hodgkin and Alan Woods

University of Dundee, 1998

Where Silence Becomes Objects
Silence (final version), 1997-2004

Alan woods: Paint.

Howard Hodgkin: Yes. I don’t know that I can say very much about myself and paint. I’m looking at this picture hanging on the wall, and, as ever with my own pictures, I look at it and think, well, how is it done? So, I couldn’t say very much. My own relationship with paint, when it finally works, is so unconscious – I don’t think it comes from the ‘unconscious’, but I’m not conscious of what I’m doing in a way that I could describe in words. It becomes completely instinctive and so what I can say is not necessarily very revealing. But I can talk about the way I paint to this extent, that I’m always, like most artists, trying to make it new all the time. Probably one of my great weaknesses as an artist is that, as far as I can manage, each picture is unique. I don’t paint in series, and one thing doesn’t rub off on another, very much. I envy, with an unquenchable envy, people who can repeat themselves. They’re marvellous. I think it would be fair to say at least that at least half the greatest artists of the twentieth century are people who do the same thing over and over and over again. But I’m completely the opposite, and one of the only real effects that Indian painting has had on what I do is the collecting: – is this better than that? The best is the enemy of the good, so you get rid of that. So when you’re actually painting pictures, you’re possibly making different kinds of value judgements, those of a collector, rather than a painter.

When I was a student, the function of paint was something that was talked about hardly at all. Perhaps paint in Britain, as a substance, hasn’t got a very good reputation. It tends to be something that is used with great self-consciousness. Too many bad painters have been very good at flinging it about. Austustus John, Matthew Smith immediately jump to mind, although they probably don’t mean much to people any more. Ivon Hitchins, probably also gave paint a bad name. Because it’s a very conscious use – ‘look I’m painting, look, this is oil paint, this is a squashy material’, or whatever. And so, it has no function It’s a sort of hollow virtuosity. Probably the worst painters that have ever existed, in my view, simply as painters, as manipulators, of paint, are the Scottish colourists, who reached heights of really appalling mannerism. The greatest manipulator of paint in British art was Turner, who had a peculiar relationship with paint, both oil paint and water colour. By the time he was old, there seems to have been almost no barrier between him and the subject, and paint – they all seem to coalesce, in the most extraordinary manner. One other successful manipulator of paint was Sickert, who could do whatever he liked with it. But he wasn’t very English. A lot of people might say that Bacon was wonderful at manipulating paint. At his best he obviously was, but he could also use it in rather a self-conscious way.

AW: There was a very strange quality in the use of paint in the late paintings, a kind of self-reverence, as if he’d decided he had Old Master status and started painting accordingly. 

HH: Yes. I’ve always thought that also.

AW: A completely unexpected politeness: for example, when he re-did his studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion. 

HH: It doesn’t bear comparison with the original. The Tate did, at some point, hang them together, but I don’t think that was a very good idea.

AW: So with the artists who use paint well, it’s what is done with the paint, either the brushwork, what they point to, that we’re thinking about? Whereas, if people are over-conscious of the paint, of where it comes from, of the painter through the paint, then the painting suffers. 

HH: Yes, I think that is true. In the work of Van Gogh, you can see very clearly how much the manipulation of paint meant to him, yet it also seems completely functional. And looking at the work of Pointillist painters next to each other, it’s fascinating to see how you go from the mechanical to the organic, depending whose picture it happens to be. Matisse, of course was someone who was a total master of the use of paint, because he could put paint on in a way that looks like the way children use paint. It has the same sort of directness and simplicity, and total self confidence of certain kinds of child art. Of course, nothing could be further from child art, it’s the work of somebody of the utmost pictorial sophistication.

AW: Picasso’s famous remark about his relation to child art is about drawing, not painting: when he was a child he could draw like Raphael, and that he had to learn how to draw like a child. 

HH: Yes. He never succeeded in learning to draw like a child, truly great draughtsman though he was. Whereas Matisse did, through endless persistence, almost get there at times. Some of the faces he almost plonked down onto the beautiful ovoid heads of his work of the thirties and forties are astonishing. It took great courage to simply put down a pair of black eyes, a nose, a mouth onto a pink oval, and there is a head.

AW: And it took a lot of work to get there, altering and altering and altering.

HH: Often making his work look more and more spontaneous as he went along.

He scraped a great deal of his paint off, and he used wax medium as well, which gives a certain – this is a total contradiction – opaque transparency, which you can achieve with nothing else.

AW: How experimental have you been technically?

HH: Not really. I’ve found someone who makes very good paint indeed [www.MichaelHarding.co.uk], so I now always use his paint. Many years ago, I got off a bus in a traffic jam, and went into a shop in Chelsea and bought a pot of something called Liquin, which I used to mix my paints with, and I discovered a medium that suited me absolutely. Changed my life, as an artist, totally.

When I was a student I wrote an essay about Degas and Ingres, and also one about David, and I remember looking very carefully at the way they handled paint. It was fascinating to look at David, because various unfinished pictures of his coexist and are shown in galleries…how he uses circular brush strokes to make a flat surface in the backgrounds of his pictures, of his portraits in particular, which he could then paint into and paint up from.

AW: David was an extraordinary painter.

HH: He was also such a great painter in the way we were talking about in the beginning. His manipulation of paint is so brief and so eloquent.

The imagination behind Brutus – a massive history painting, an extraordinarily affecting mix of emotion and history, tragic in classic Aristotelian terms – politics presented as something that happens to families. And right a the centre you have a still life.

That’s a wonderful idea.

AW: But if you try to explain how that still life encapsulates the narrative, you turn into a complete and utter idiot. But it does. Also – and again this comes out faintly comically put into words – he’s a great painter of feet. 

HH: A wonderful painter of feet. The most eloquent painter of feet.

I learned a great deal from looking at David, and David’s brilliant impersonations of Fragonard. I used to very glibly say – but it isn’t entirely glib – that Fragonard was the first modern artist. He escaped from his patrons in his work. Think of his fancy portraits. He contually re-invented himself, his style changed, his subject matter changed, and he adapted himself to circumstances in a way that was much more nineteenth or twentieth century than it was eighteenth century.

I think I must have been forty before I realized that you could use very soft brushes as well as hog-hair, which, of course was standard issue when I was young – you could use different supports – all sort of things were possible. But painting was not taught in any kind of concrete, physical way, you just had to find it out for yourself.

AW: Were you ever asked to copy or work directly from the Old Masters?

HH: Because I went to an art school in the country, we did it from large black and white photographs, and also large coloured reproductions, but we were taught the Old Master method of painting. Starting with the middle-tone ground and going down into it, and up from it. I painted a copy of a Raphael head – and something else, I forget what. But nobody believed in it.

Painting still remains alive, as an activity, in a way that, when I was young, would have seemed completely ridiculous. Pompier painting, as it was called, has come back with a bang – huge subject pictures. Think of Kiefer’s work alone, but anyone who saw the New Spirit in Painting would have seen how much it was the old spirit of painting – pictures that would have made Cézanne and the Post-Impressionists turn in their graves. Enormous subject pictures which, as physical objects, were often produced in the most perfunctory way possible, that were big and in your face, comparable to these huge machines in the Paris Salons which I was brought up, I think quite rightly, to despise. There have been in the last few years various attempts to revive them and exhibit them, and sometimes to clean them and make them look as good as new. They’re horrendous. They have a chilliness in their heart which I find – I don’t know whether as an artist or as a spectator, probably both, morally and artistically impossible. The kind of emotions that they are conveying are so rhetorical and so far removed from the kind of human experience which is required when you are actually painting a picture, that something goes wrong. Cold and heartless doesn’t fully describe it. There is something actually missing.

AW: Which is one reason why the whole modernist avant-garde deliberately went to the genres at the very bottom of the hierarchy, like landscape, portrait, still life. When history painting is insincere, or dutiful, or over-rhetorical,then everything is lost. But that is also why there was that ancient academic hierarchy of genres in the first place: when that ambition is there as well as astonishing painting, then…

HH: Then a masterpiece results. Nobody knows what art is, of course, nobody has ever defined it, but I suspect what people are looking for in art is authenticity.

AW: There are several things coinciding, or co-existing strangely, and they are all ultimately not about art itself, but about criticism and critical possibilities and languages, which they challenge and corrupt and undermine. One is that the idea of greatness – quite independently of any discussion of who or what is great – is being challenged as a construct, as something pompous and empty and sexist and racist and elitist and so on. Which, when nobody argues in detail for the virtues of the canon, but just lazily asserts them, assumes them as a fact to be learned in a classroom rather than perceived before the work, it obviously can be. Another is that serious criticism is being driven out of the broadsheets by vapid and meaningless star ratings, borrowed from consumerist listings journalism and its advice on how to spend your money and time this week in such a way that you don’t lose face. Another, perhaps, is the emphasis on self-expression as an absolute value: If that is all that matters, then who – apart from the artist – can say whether it succeeds?

HH: Oddly enough, I think we can. In a way, we can.

But going back to what I was trying to say about painting at the moment, it is a period when rhetoric reigns. Andy Warhol brilliantly side-stepped rhetoric. He painted some very big pictures – produced rather than painted is perhaps a better way of putting it – but still, he managed to escape the great rise of rhetoric.

Of course, so much great art is rhetorical, particularly great Italian art. But it’s authentic too. What’s so amazing about the work of Tiepolo is how extraordinarily immediate it is; he can make every part of some huge painting, fresco, canvas, have the physical immediacy of some huge Jackson Pollock. I don’t think there’s anything bizarre about equating Blue Poles with an enormous Italian Rococo painting. But it’s very difficult to know where feeling hardens into something else.

AW: Maybe the great eighteenth century painters were the last painters who could properly paint mythological subjects with inspiration and integrity and psychological insight, the last painters who could be sustained by that subject matter. And then it still exists as a subject for a hundred years or whatever as a shell, a task, an exercise. And mythology lasted longer than the Christian religion as a real subject. I don’t know what the last great crucifixion is.

HH: That’s a very good question. The last great crucifixion was not painted by Francis Bacon. Was it painted by Dali?

AW: It is extraordinary how Dali managed to somehow get into that tradition after such a gap.

HH: I’ve always thought that it was a terribly bad picture. But, having said that, it also has to be the last great image of hte crucifixion…it does succeed. Ingres painted a crucifixion, but it’s not very good. It’s not a great painting by Ingres…

AW: Perhaps because the notion of it being a great painting by Ingres had become too insistent within the ambition to paint a crucifixion:; it was a challenge to tradition which was doomed to fail because the subject itself was dead.

HH: Exercises to the point exactly where they don’t exist any longer. Puvis de Chavannes was not a bad painter, and it’s because he isn’t a bad painter that he shows how you couldn’t do it any longer. In a very real and for any other painter a very upsetting way, because he falls short in an extremely naked kind of way of being able to make rhetorical statements.

AW: And it’s not his fault.

HH: No, exactly and that’s very apparent, that it’s not his fault. Some of the most embarrassing later allegorical paintings of all are the extra pictures that Vuillard painted for the Palace of the League of Nations. Failed allegories are distressing, whoever does them.

AW: Allegory only survives in cartoons.

HH: Yes. Absolutely right.

AW: There’s a Puvis fresco in the Boston Public Library, Physics (The Telegraph), with two allegorical flying female figures representing good news and bad news, and beneath them is a telegraph pole. It’s one that you can’t help but love…it’s so lost.

HH: How marvellous – I’ve never seen that. But, there are of course, particularly in English art, some great after the event pictures like Watts’s Hope – which is one of the most unlikely titles – I would have thought it was a good picture to kill yourself in front of, it’s extremely distressing. I often wondered if the title was correct, but it’s a compelling image.

Why did we get onto this?

AW: Authenticity.

HH: Yes, I think authenticity has never mattered more in painting. I couldn’t ossibly go into my studio and work on a picture thinking painting’s under threat, or being attacked fromn all sides, because I don’t think of painting like that – in any sense that is personal. But clearly there are far few serious painters around than there used to be.

AW: If you assume that there’s a fairly constant pool of serious artists, then the number of those how are going to be painters is less than it was.

HH: There are so many other ways of making art than there used to be, and the nature of the pictorial object has changed to some extent. It never changes really – how could it? But at any given moment, I think, a certain kind of pictorial object appears because of external forces. What everybody else is doing matters much more now, perhaps than in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, though it’s amazing how, long before photography was invented or magazines were thought of, people seemed to know extremely clearly what was going on in other places. Certainly in Europe.

AW: Clearly there are massive unconscious and technical effects of learning what painting is or has been primarily through reproduction rather than looking at the pictures themselves. And on top of that is a theoretical climate which is so interested in the nature of reproduction that that itself is interesting painters as a subject of painting.

HH: Yes, that may be. The logical thing would be for artists to quite naturally start painting the kind of paintings that can never be reproduced. I don’t know what they would be and I don’t know how that could be done.

AW: That is beginning to happen. Alongside a whole lot of pictures that simply suffer from reproduction: and pictures which quite consciously are better reproduced, so the true work is really their life as a reproduction; and the pictures which are about what pictures reproduced look like; there is another strand of painting. Jason Martin’s pictures, for example, which you have to move about in front of. It’s so much to do with the light hitting the paint.

HH: Yes, of course. Then they become victims of photography like sculpture does.

AW: I was explaining rather apologetically hat we can only reproduce work in black and white, and that didn’t bother you at all…

HH: Not a bit.

AW: …which made me wonder whether colour reproduction is actually a bigger problem for you because it suggests to the unwary that they really are getting a good idea of the paintings?

HH: I always used to think I suffered professionally because my work reproduced so badly, whereas for so many of my contemporaries reproductions worked better than the originals. I think now it’s better if the reproduction looks worse than the original, or misleads…

AW: The work which works best as reproduction has worked out the extent to which there is an audience of consumers rather than viewers, and it feeds that speed. Quite consciously, it’s a new kind of work.

HH: That’s quite true.

AW: One of the features of paint as a medium, maybe oil paint especially, is slowness. That seems increasingly important to the quality of the experience, the sense of the artist’s work, and thought, and consideration, which is unpacked by the viewer.

HH: Yes, I think that’s true. My pictures reproduce extremely badly in colour, for the most part. The great plus of that is that the pictures aren’t used up in reproduction. People at the Hayward show were so pleased to see the pictures for real because they looked so different from what they’d expected. Someone said to me, “I’d no idea – forgive me for saying this – that your pictures were so messy”.[Laughter.]

There are enormous gaps in the professional equipment of painters now. But also, people learn about paintings without ever seeing them, or shown them in lectures, and very rarely do people show them on screens the size of the original. I can’t believe that there wouldn’t be some electronic device where you could feed in the measurements of the original painting, and then they would appear on the screen. At least the scale would be there, and scale is crucial, as we all know. I paint lots of small pictures. It’s not perversity that makes me paint them. I just believe in them, because I believe that as an artist I can only speak to one person at a time. David Sylvester said, many years ago, that we find it almost impossible to take small pictures seriously; and this is true of the majority of people in the art world.

So many of these, let’s say pictures rather than paintings, are now made for public spaces – because they are the main patrons of art, and so people have expectations about scale in the backs of their minds, and the accepted wisdom is that a large painting is more important than a small one.

AW: One possibility about why those large nineteenth century pictures were so bad might be that they weren’t supported by genuine patronage. There was a state commitment to painting on that scale because that was what great painting was supposed to be, and there was salon space for it as a way of making a reputation, and there were Prix de Rome competitive spaces for it, but there wasn’t adequate private or church patronage for it, and part of what we might be saying is that that’s all come back again – the museums and so on, and so you do get that scale. 

HH: Yes, museums have become a much more real source of patronage.

Having read a biography of Francis Bacon, I was very interested to see that his idea of scale came entirely from a sense of his own grandeur; he really felt that he was up there with the great artists of the past.

AW: Schabel clearly thinks and talks about himself in those terms.

HH: Yes. Also, the idea of the big pictures being more important and more profound, has certainly affected him.

It must be a great help to think that you are one of the greatest, and continually go into the studio and go ‘Aaah’. I don’t quite understand how you learn to do that.

AW: It’s very different from matching yourself against painters who have gone before you. 

HH: Yes. It’s quite different. I remember Lawrence Gowing – a great writer; he wanted to be a great painter, failed to be that – he was a fanatical admirer of Matisse, but I couldn’t understand what he meant, though I feel sure it was true, when he said one of the strongest weapons Matisse possessed as an artist was a sense of his own importance.

AW: Criticism tends to be disguised autobiography, or self-criticism. Often barely disguised. 

HH: Yes. James Fenton has written this very good piece which has just come out in the New York Review of Books which quotes at length from Laurence’s wonderful little book about Thomas Jones, and says, of course this is really all about Laurence Gowing, but does also apply to Thomas Jones. [Laughs] Absolutely true.

AW: What Gowing meant perhaps was again to do with the moral attitude to the work, or to the process of making the work.

HH: That’s what matters. Yes.

AW: To make art seriously you have to gamble on its importance.

HH: You have to believe in it. You don’t have to say, I am the greatest. Because that doesn’t necessarily do it.

AW: You do get immensely fruitful competitive dialogues between artists. Matisse and Picasso…

HH: That was amazing, because it was a “What’s he doing? Really? I don’t believe you…” sort of stuff. Because you know they met hardly at all.

AW: You spoke about Matisse as an editor of his own work. How do you edit? Is the act of painting, for you, endlessly editing –which is how it comes across?

HH: Yes. Yes, it is endless editing. I can’t say I’ve never let out a picture that I wish I hadn’t let out, I have, everyone does, but as editing is part of the way I work, I think now…As you get older, certain privileges come your way, you can edit more and more and more. I hope I’m not a much more severe editor than I used to be, because I hope I always was, but I probably am a bit. There are many artists whose work I greatly admire who I wish were stronger editors of what they do, but it’s a temperamental thing as much as anything.

AW: Since we’ve been talking about other artists – you told me a wonderful story once about Wyndham Lewis putting someone through hell before they got a picture. 

HH: I had this art master, Charles Handley-Read, an extraordinary character, who taught epileptics during the war – he was a conscientious objector. He didn’t really teach them to paint exactly, but with great artfulness he made them produce marvellous paintings, and they were shown by the British Council in Paris, and Picasso came to the show, and said, Oh! if only I’d been an epileptic [laughter], and as Charles said, that was obviously the time to give up being an art teacher. He then became extremely interested in the work of Wyndham Lewis, for reasons I’ve never entirely understood; I think there was something in the Fascist personality of Wyndham Lewis as an artist and as a writer which interested him. And he wanted to buy a painting of Wyndham Lewis’s. Lewis by this time was very down on his luck; his eyesight was going. He was a semi-regular critic for the Listener at the time, and he wrote a moving article, called ‘Midwinter Sea-Mists’ in which he describes who he can’t really see well enough any more to be their critic. And I read this and thought it was very sad, and I was talking to Charles about it and he said, “Oh yes! Oh yes! But don’t have too much sympathy for the old boy. I went to see him the other day” – trying to buy the picture which he did buy in the end, called Woman in Red – “and he talked to me, and he listened to me, and he said, “I suppose you’re one of those people who thinks my early work is the best”, and I said “But it undoubtedly is” – Charles was not lacking in courage or straightforwardness – and Wyndham Lewis said, “Well, you’re welcome to your opinion young man, but I don’t think you’re going to get something out of me cheap just because of the dire straits I’m in. Now where, where did I put the ashtray? I can’t seem to see it anywhere.” And then, with great deliberation, he stubbed out his cigarette on the back of Charles’s hand. Charles managed to say – he said afterwards, with a slight tremble in his voice – “I think in fact it’s over there”, point to one of Wyndham Lewis’s own hands – but it didn’t work. [Laughter.] And he got the picture. I don’t know what happened to it.

AW: What sort of memories do you have of the physical histories of your pictures, of what’s beneath, or scraped away?

HH: Absolutely none. I know I had terrible trouble painting that picture on the wall behind you, which is called Silence, simple as it looks. But I don’t remember what was there before – I never do, or almost never. I sometimes see my pictures again after a long interval; I thought then that I might remember how I began the picture, but I don’t.

AW: And you’ve never been nagged into recording these stages?

HH: It’s been suggested to me, and I’ve always resisted it.

AW: Perhaps we could speak about the objectness of the works. Looking at Silence particularly, it’s a wonderful wooden object within its existence as a painting. It’s easy generally in your work to think of the work as paint taking over the frame, and expanding; another way would be to look at the frame coming into…taking over physically what would normally be canvas, the picture space. 

Silence (final version), 1997 – 2004, seen from the side

HH: Yes. In this case the picture does actually overlap the frame…the picture is the frame, it’s all in one. It’s difficult talking about my pictures as objects. I want them to be things as much as possible. I’m not trying to suggest it as a piece of sculpture, but it’s one that does go very far away from the wall. Although it protrudes a lot, visually it’s like a hole in the wall. It does both things.

AW: Which is what the frame is for.

HH: Yes, the frame… but here the frame projects it, and then…actually I’m still not sure what’s happening when I look at it. I am the wrong person to look at my pictures in that light, because I think of them as what they are rather than what they are made of. I think of them as what they have become. Auden described the room where he worked as ‘the place where silence becomes objects’.

AW: What the frame normally does is act as a boundary or border between two spaces.

HH: Between real space and pictorial space.

AW: And maybe what’s happening is that the painting as an object is itself the border, but also all of the painting is the pictorial space.

HH: Yes, in this case, very much that. That’s quite true. Sometimes, the frame remains very much a frame, and sometimes I’ve painted trompe l’oeil frames. In this case, the pictorial space – and this is of course, an illusion – has come out and invaded the real space. I’m looking at the picture when I say that. You also asked me about the shapes of the support I use. Square formats and round ones are particularly difficult to use, because you do not have an assumed bisecting line – it doesn’t matter where it is – because no side is longer than the other, which makes it very difficult to give the spectator a space to focus on. It’s like trying to write something which has neither a beginning nor an ending, and yet can be contained within the…lots of my paintings are fragments, but with particularly circular formats something fragmentary is almost the only possibility, because you have to imply that things go on beyond the edges. Otherwise there’s just a vortex where you go straight into the middle, which I’ve always found, for some odd reason, pictorially totally unusable. I think because you’ve just got a hole that you can’t fill. Does that make any sense?

AW: It makes sense formally, but it also makes sense in relation to memory, memory of and as the subject. It seems a peculiarly appropriate set of problems. 

HH: Ovals are easier, because obviously it’s this way up, rather than that way – it has a predominant direction. But they too I find difficult, and so I’ve painted several oval pictures. The fact that they are so difficult can produce a remarkable tension, which is very useful. They have such a strong identity. An oval, to paint on, has an even stronger identity than a disc, a circle, or a square. Finding supports which are plausible and useful is always difficult. It’s very hard for me, and I suspect even for architects, to judge scale and proportion not on the size of nature. Particularly for large pictures. I would go and look at Old Master paintings and look at the measurements in the catalogue and say, ‘well, I’ll have one of those’. But somehow, when I started painting on that size it wasn’t the same. When the National Gallery had the Blind Belisarius by David, that huge picture, I thought, ‘what a wonderful scale. I’ll paint a picture that big – it’ll have to be on two panels’. But when I had them in the studio, I realised it was not going to be possible. So I used the wood for something else, and I cut it up, but I think now, before I die, that I would like to paint a picture as big as that. The problems of painting really large pictures, are something that I’ve yet to address.

AW: Because you haven’t found a subject that large?

HH: Possibly. Probably. But I’m going to. I’m going to.

AW: A lot of critics picked up on your remark that you don’t like people just calling your pictures beautiful; and we were talking earlier about the reason for that, which is simply that, like calling you ‘the colourist’, it seems to be a way of avoiding the content of the pictures, their engagement with embarrassment, or worse, in Reading the Letter, say, or with the erotic. You also said, “Erotic pictures are meant to be in your face erotic, I think, don’t you? I expect my pictures will get more erotic as I grow older. It seems to often happen.”

HH: Yes, I did say that, didn’t I? [Laughter]

AW: I think the erotic is quite a precise way of coming to some of the things that a lot of the discussion of your work tends to involve, while getting beyond the rather exhausted and indefinable opposition between abstraction and figuration, which I don’t want to talk about, except to say that it’s a confusion in the literature…unless you want to?

HH: I absolutely don’t want to.

AW: One of the things that is intriguing about the erotic pictures is that the erotic is tied into memory and therefore seen – and represented – in a very different way than other work with an erotic content. The sort of marks you make make it clear what the subject is. But what is unimaginable is for the work to have any overlapping with pornography.

HH: I couldn’t paint pornography. I don’t think it really works, actual pornography, though it might be exciting for a moment. Paintings are much too slow as performances to work as pornography. So it can’t be exciting like a dirty magazine, because it wears off. By the time it’s been painted it would have vanished. I don’t mean that pictures don’t excite people. I’m sure that they do. But mine wouldn’t. Not as directly as that, not as explicitly. John Russell, years ago, said about my paintings ‘that to define the subject further would be to destroy it.’, or words to that effect. I think if I tried to be explicit, the pictures would be less erotic. I have painted one or two fairly explicit pictures, but…

AW: There is normally a sort of continuum on which erotic paintings or photographs exist. Somebody once took Mapplethorpe’s pictures to a porn dealer, to see what he’d say, and the dealer looked at them and said, ‘too personal’. And handed them back. But clearly that sort of image is still on a continuum with pornography, and your paintings don’t seem to be on that continuum. The erotic content is present as part of the wider, constant subject, which is memory. 

HH: That’s where it is. But I think that most people’s erotic thoughts, when they are not in an erotic situation, are based on memory. Naturally they would be.

AW: But painting doesn’t seem to have dealt with that, because the erotic subject tends to be so immediate for the viewer. And intentionally so.

HH: If I tried to make my paintings more explicit, they wouldn’t exist as paintings any longer. They would become something else. I’m not saying they aren’t sometimes explicit, when they are being made. All sorts of things can happen while they are being painted.

AW: Do you live with your own pictures?

No.

AW: Never?

HH: Never. I don’t think I’ve ever had one on a wall even for two minutes.

AW: One reason many artists wouldn’t want to live with their pictures which I don’t think would apply to you is that many artists are uncertain about when or whether a work is finished – Degas would recapture works whenever he could even from collectors’ walls for a final touch, and they would never see them again. But you’ve described how it’s very definite with you that a work is finished.

HH: Oh yes, it’s finished and I’ve finished it. And that’s it. But I certainly wouldn’t want to live with them then, I often find they take a lot of getting used to once I’ve finished them, and the older I get the more trouble I have in getting used to them.

AW: The one view that you don’t have of your work is what it’s like to have a detached view, without the memory with which it began, the initial memory that you talk about recovering, and we are being shown.

HH: I always like to pretend to myself that when my pictures are finished I can look at them like anybody else can, but, of course, that has to be a fiction.

AW: When you see a number of them collected together in a show after a long period of work – and you haven’t been living with them – do you find they’ve changed in your memory, greatly?

HH: Once they’re finished they’re completely something else. I look at them with mild puzzlement and slight curiosity; both, usually, how on earth did he do that? and how could he possibly have done that? what did he mean by doing that? And so on. But they’re someone else’s, they’re not mine.

AW: A lot of painters would require something they’ve done recently to kick-start the next one. You don’t have this kind of relay. 

HH: Not in the slightest bit, no. My studio is filled with screens to cover up the other pictures I’m working on. I can’t work on a picture when I see another one in the room. I have to hide it.

Hodgkin’s London Studio near the British Museum

AW: I know you wouldn’t want the word ‘retrospective’ to be used for the show that came to the Hayward. And although you were increasingly involved with hanging, you didn’t choose the pictures, or the period from which they were chosen. But although it’s very much taken for granted to see a large body of work in one place…ten or twenty rooms…actually it’s a very curious thing.

HH: What, a retrospective? It is a very very curious thing and it’s very new. Most of the artists, dead artists, who have, or are given, retrospectives would never, ever have seen…most of their work together. But now artists under the age of 35 have retrospectives. Presumably Volume 1 as it were.

AW: You wouldn’t normally sit down and read the entire work of Dickens. 

HH: No, exactly, and you wouldn’t normally, as Dickens, read them yourself.

AW: And certain sorts of art practice – the further back you go, certainly in the eighteenth century, when if eight different patrons across Europe want similar sorts of pictures, then you would be quite happy…

HH: Oh yes, I’m sure people would do one for him, and one for him, and one for him.

AW: So if you have eight of them next to each other…

HH: Which art historians love, of course, we must put this version next to that. I think that’s fun rather than telling very much, usually. Sometimes it can be very revealing.

AW: Would you resist a retrospective?

HH: I think my answer to that is, ask me another. I really don’t know.

AW: Can we begin to talk about colour?

HH: I’ll try.

AW: How is colour related to the initial – whatever the initial idea for a picture is, whether you begin with a feeling which already somehow visual, or a feeling which you then seek to find some visualisation of or for…

HH: It really doesn’t make any difference. [pause] No, because, it really doesn’t matter what colour you use, in the end, it’s the relationship of one colour to another. And to the scale of the picture.

AW: So there’s never a sense that, these colours are going to be involved…

HH: No, never.

AW: All colours are always available.

HH: Everything is always up for grabs. I’ve painted pictures which started out white and ended up black. I try and keep the maximum number of options open for as long as possible.

AW: Have you any sympathy for – or interest in, which is different, I suppose – those artists, like Kandinsky, who have tried to relate particular colours to particular feelings?

HH: No. All systems fail in exactly the same way. They all break on the rock of human feeling and human personality, whether it’s Seurat inventing a language of colour, or Piero Della Francesca inventing a system of expression. Systems of colour, like systems of form, just collapse. Kandinsky’s best work is in spite of, not because of his systems. Systems can be a support, but they can’t be anything else. Colour is colour, and people relate to it. You can’t control it. It’s the amount of conviction.

AW: What is striking about the status of colour, or the status of colourist painting, over the centuries in Western art history is not just that it is always being opposed to linear traditions but that, as that opposition is repeated from the Renaissance divide between Rome and Venice, to French debates between academies and avant-gardes from the seventeenth century to at least Post-Impressionism, there always seems to be something vast at stake in the arguments, something moral. Line is Platonic, to do with essence and how things really are and/or should be; colour is fleshly, unserious, to do with mere appearance.

HH: I don’t think it’s a question that people have thought about seriously for a long time. I would have thought that one of the places to start enquiring is the problem that people have with attaching words to colour. Attaching words to line or rather to the objects that are described by line, is obviously a much more straightforward and one to one activity, but colour is something that comes to pieces in your hands. You can’t talk about it.

AW: It’s away from naming.

HH: It’s non-verbal in the end.

The names of colours themselves are wonderfully fanciful, and usually completely useless, though some of them I treasure, like Elephant’s Breath, which was invented by Schiaparelli for a grey which she thought of. Now people are more fanciful about naming colours, but some of the old names for colours are absolutely straightforward, like violet solide, which is a colour of great pungency…it doesn’t really translate. ‘Solid violet’ isn’t quite the same.

AW: A lot of the old names for colours were and still are simply the names of the pigments. Which is why art history is within Pliny’s Natural History in the first place: the raw materials for sculpture and painting came out of the ground, so it can be seen as a branch of geology.

HH: That makes complete sense.

AW: There are cultures with very few abstract colour words. I also have a vague recollection of an article on colour which suggested that there were periods in the West without abstractions like ‘blue’, ‘red’, and so on. So you couldn’t say, “the sky is blue”…

HH: The sky is ultramarine…the sky is lapis…

AW: Or you’d just say, the sky.

HH: Rosemary Ellis used to say to the children she was teaching, “Well, you need a bit of Marmite here; peanut butter over there, that should be leaf colour.” It seems much more sensible. An enormous amount of nonsense is talked about colour because in some ways it seems to make people feel very uneasy. I don’t know why it should.

AW: Perhaps because it’s so fluctuating.

HH: No, I think it reaches the parts that other parts of art don’t reach, and that’s why people don’t like it, or don’t like to talk about it.

AW: That’s linked I think to a precision which is generally misrepresented. Music and painting – all kinds of painting, but colourist painting in a special way – can be – and are, our behaviour demonstrates this – absolutely precise, but there’s a tendency to talk about them as if that precision is in some way compromised by the difficulty of language.

HH: You can see how precise they are.

AW: But because you can’t beyond that, name it.

HH: People are also embarrassed by association. If certain kinds of sunset look tumescent or something of the sort, they’re thought to be vulgar.

I dislike being dismissed as a colourist, which is another way of putting colour down. It never occurs to people that colour is also drawing and shape. I couldn’t work at all if I thought about any of the things you’ve been asking me about when I went into the studio. [Laughs.]

All we’re really talking about is the relation of words to colour, which is for the most part an unhappy one. Or an unsuccessful one. Or a sterile one.

AW: There is a constant conjoining of colour and time in your work. There is the immediacy of colour, of being in front of the painting, but that is always linked, either by the title, or by our knowledge of what you have said about your subjects. Is it that very immediacy of colour which allows them to be about memory?

HH: It could be. [Laughter.]

AW: That’s a critical question?

HH: Exactly. It’s a question you would know the answer to better than me.

I think the immediacy of colour in my work is entirely to do with the picture. The way I work is entirely empirical, so I can’t say, “oh, this happens because of that”.

AW: Can you say, then, how, when you’re working within the picture, and you’re wanting or you’re attempting different colours, how it relates to space…is it a sense that the space isn’t working…though space and colour are all together…

HH: Space and colour are the same thing. Some colours recede, some colours come forward. As well as everything else, colour is one of the main building blocks of painting. If you ran fast around the National Gallery, not paying any attention to the subject matter of the pictures or the labels or the period, just looking with half-closed eyes, you would see spaces that went backwards and came forwards and things that were here, and there, and so forth. Colour is of its nature spatial. It is if you paint a wall with it.

But I’m not good on the art history of colour because it’s something I’ve always assumed. Certainly when I was a student I was shown Chevreuil’s book of simultaneous complementary colours, in an edition that could have belonged to Seurat, but so what? All these things for artists are enablers, and in the case of Seurat it helped to make the necessary distance between him and the world, without which he couldn’t have done what he did.

AW: Would you know what your necessary distance was? Can you recognise that?

HH: [Pause.] No. I’m not that sort of artist. You’d need to ask Richard Hamilton that question.

AW: You’re not saying that all artists need a necessary distance?

HH: Oh, yes. I think they do.

AW: You just can’t analyse it.

HH: No.

AW: You began to talk about your audience, in relation to scale. An audience of strangers, perhaps – Gertrude Stein said she wrote for herself and strangers, which seems a very precise account of artistic ambition. One stranger at a time, perhaps in your case. How does your content relate to scale? You’ve done a few subjects in different scales.

HH: Yes. There are one or two where there’s a small one and a larger one. You can put more into a larger version. In the big pictures that I’ve painted there is room for space and light. And much more of the subject. I can see no reason why small pictures shouldn’t be profound. But, because of their scale, there is a physical limit to who much you can include. They’re like telegram language – they’re condensed and short. The messages are therefore small. You can’t expand.

An Autumn Leaf, 2000, 11 5/8 x 13″, 29.5 x 33cm

Years ago an Indian art historian described some of my small pictures as being like haiku. I was pleased by that, because I thought he really understood why I wanted to be so brief on a small scale. At the absolute magic moment one can find a frame of exactly the right proportion in which – I mean I’ve never done it but theoretically – you could have just one mark, and that would…I know it will never happen. But you can contain an immense amount in a small picture. Within certain terms. And within a certain kind of pictorial space. But there are of course an infinitely greater number of things you cannot do on a very small scale. You can spell out hardly anything. Because there isn’t room. On a large scale, of course, you can spell out far too much. [Laughs.] Silence is a picture which, if it was large, would be totally different. But I cannot imagine painting a very large picture of silence. That might have certain built in difficulties.

AW: Do you have a fantasy that one day you will go in and make the single mark?

HH: No. In the small frame? No, I don’t think it will happen.

AW: It’s not even a fantasy?

HH: No, it’s not a fantasy. I have many fantasies in my life, but with work I try and avoid them as much as possible.

AW: I suppose in that case there’s a question about what the initial marks are.

HH: Oh, one thing leads to another. [Laughter.] But going back to scale for a moment, the very big paintings…I find that – I did find, I think I’ve got round it at last – but I found that of course the kind of pictorial devices I use are very old-fashioned. I’ve just been give a copy of de Piles as a birthday present – the Treatise on Painting – a wonderful book, which I’d never read, filled with very suggestive things. I’m a very old-fashioned painter in all sorts of ways, not least of which that most of my paintings depend on fixed viewpoints. Certainly the small and medium sized paintings do, and too many of my large paintings do as well. The difficulty, if you use any kind of perspective – which I use a lot, which nobody seems to notice – is that it doesn’t work if you do not tell the spectators that they’ve got to stand stage centre – and otherwise it doesn’t work. It’s a constant problem. It’s obviously only a tiny part of why I admire Jackson Pollock so much, is hat he, to a large extent, solved that problem, though not always. Because his pictures do contain a lot of aerial perspective, if no other kind, a lot of things going on behind the picture surface, without being an all-over pattern.

AW: My next question was going to be about the body in relation to the picture, which comes out of scale, and is to do with space…

HH: Yes. That’s important, and difficult – how do you persuade somebody…for example, if you’re painting a huge picture, what do you do, are they meant to go to the other end of the room and get a vague feeling?

AW: Of course, in the intimate ones, you’re forced to the fixed viewpoint, drawn in to it…

HH; The problem of large scale has, to me, become paramount. I’ve been trying to paint big pictures for a long time. And I have pictures that I work on now, that I’ve been painting for far longer… I shall lie about their ages when the time comes to publish them, because it just looks ridiculous to say this took ten, twelve years to paint. It is strange to think that it is possible to paint a picture which is so much bigger than you are. And that’s one of the gifts of the New York School, they taught us that more is more. Certainly Barnet Newman did. And can also be less. American painting is the last great school of painting – a school, lots of people – and some of them don’t look so good any more, but they were there, and they mattered. Schnabel helped too, his London shows; I was in the middle of painting big pictures already, but with incredible tentativeness. Schnabel first had this enormous exhibition at the Tate, and I can remember an English artist who I knew saying, “This is outrageous! It’s wicked! It’s terrible! We should get up a petition! We should write letters!” One painter said to me, “This is immoral.” And I thought, well the pictures are mostly pretty crummy, but they’re huge and how wonderful to see at the very least such chutzpah and at the best such courage and such conviction. Which, sadly, didn’t last long, but it was there. Lots of things that made you think, or reminded you – not that Schnabel had, or anything like it – that somebody could still paint The Raft of the Medusa. And then he had the Whitechapel show, which was much better than the one at the Tate, that had some extraordinary things in it. I was finally helped by Bridget Riley’s Artist’s Eye exhibition at the National Gallery, which of necessity used not the usual room ut the vast upstairs gallery, with nothing but enormous paintings on a white wall, which looked staggering.

Huge Venetian paintings, I hardly dare say it out loud even here, in the privacy of my own back yard, but the one picture which failed to make the grade as a physical object was the Cézanne Bathers which is a picture I very much admire, and certainly she was absolutely right to put it there because he himself intended it to be the end of the line, the last link in the chain, or whatever. Somehow it failed. Although seeing it with other Cézannes in Paris and London it looked better than before.

AW: Shaftesbury, writing about perspective in the eighteenth century, made a distinction between the tableau, which he was attempting a theory of, and the ‘wilder forms of painting’. The tableau was any easel painting, I suppose, about this big…

HH: The span of your arms.

AW: Pretty much, although the painting Shaftesbury commissioned in relation to his treatise is pretty big. The key thing about the distinction was how the image related to the viewer’s vision; whether you could take in the image in a single glance. The ‘wilder forms of painting’ were the great decorative schemes…

HH: Frescoes, where…

AW: Where by definition there’s no fixed point, you can’t apply these rules…

HH: Well, you sort of can and can’t.

AW: There are sorts of painting that assume you’re moving around…

HH: Baroque frescoes do. So, in a way, do certain kinds of Jackson Pollocks.

AW: It’s often a sort of painting that assumes you’re actually in the space, in some way, so you’ve walked inside the frame, literally, in a Baroque church, you’ve entered it by walking into the church. So you’re in the space and the space is in dialogue with your own movement.

HH: Whereas the kind of space I use is entirely a picture to hang on the wall.

AW: Which implies a kind of emotional withdrawal from the space you’re in.

HH: Yes it does. It does.

AW: Which is why I’m interested to learn of your collaborations with architects, the commissions involving architectural space. 

HH: But I wasn’t painting pictures then. Not at all. No, I was doing something else.

AW: And that withdrawal is what the frames deliver.

HH: Yes. The frames contain everything. I’m surprised that frames in twentieth century art have been used so little, because they announce the pictorial object, they announce it as an object, instantly. If you look at Old Master paintings hanging in the gallery with their frames – often totally inappropriate, and the wrong date – nevertheless, the frames say, “here is…” – like the edge of a plate with food in the middle.

AW: Which is why truly illusionistic painting can’t have a frame.

HH: Ah. Truly illusionistic painting has to have a frame.

AW: If you’re going to deceive you can’t have a frame. Because if you announce it…

HH: I’m glad we can have a conversation about this, because nobody seems to know what I’m talking about. When I was teaching students, and I was trying to teach them about the picture plane, I talked a lot about trompe l’oeil, and I said you cannot deceive people unless you first say to them that you are telling a lie. Once you’ve said, “this is just an illusion,” then you’re home and dry, you’re away. It’s just like a conjuror says, “ah, look…” People are already receptive. The commonest form of illusionistic painting, I decided, was the dead game, hanging on a hook, against a background of grained wood…you get it in ovals, squares, in rectangles…

AW: And it’s coming forward into space. Not receding. 

HH: Yes. That’s the point. It’s coming forward into space. And I said the only way it’s possible to make it come forward is by putting in the picture plane – which isn’t true anyway – by decorating it with the wood graining, or marbling, or whatever, you always need to do that, so “here is the flat surface” – this is like the conjuror saying, “here is the flat surface, and then here are these things hanging on it”. But you see the flat surface in visual terms – this is where whether it’s a lie or truth comes in – it isn’t a flat surface, actually, but you’re saying it’s a flat surface by putting the wood on it, because visually, if it’s a white or coloured surface, you can go in forever. And so much trompe l’oeil, and the kind that amuses people most, is where you the things coming forward, and then you have a little hole, and you have blue sky, and then the pieces of ribbon or something crosses the edge of the frame…All of which devices I use all the time. And why not? So many myths have been built up around cubism…It was so many years before I could look at it actually as what it is. Very brilliant and respected writers about painting saying, “Funny thing, that Braque used bits of wallpaper, and introduced Picasso to all these things!”. But they were all like the old…it’s like the basic grammar and syntax of pictorial art being fiddled with…

AW: It’s calling its bluff. If you look at late nineteenth century trompe l’oeil painting and cubism, they’re doing very, very similar things. Not least with language. 

HH: That’s what I was trying to say. And it’s exactly what I meant.

AW: Bits of newspaper…

HH: All of that.

AW: All of it.

HH: All of it. And of course most of it’s not taken at all seriously, except William Hartnett in America, because Hartnett was an American artist. He was also quite brilliant, but mostly these artists were at a lower level, so they were like journeyman artists who nobody cares about. Though one of the greatest is a seventeenth century Danish painter, whose almost entire oeuvre is in Fredericksborg Castle. He was one of the first to do the backs of canvases, with wedges, and nails, and they look so contemporary, because backs of canvases looked just the same in 1630 as they do now, so it really does look bizarre. And he would stick brushes between the stretcher and the canvas, and sometime hang a little cameo medallion, and then of course, which is completely synthetic cubism, he would have a little engraving of a landscape pinned onto the canvas [laughs]. They’re not serious art, but they’re amazingly useful to teach people about how pictures are made.

AW: There was an article about the reframing at MOMA.

HH: They took all the old frames off?

AW: There was a polemical reduction of the frames, room by room, until they disappeared with the American school, suggesting a progression towards the final purity.

HH: Yes.

AW: And that was precisely because there was a whole rhetoric of the painting as object, but it was a different sort of object, not an object that offers an imaginative life, not offering you this…

HH: No, not offering you…

AW: Not offering you…whatever we call it [laughter]. Well, perspective. Fiction. Picture space.

HH: Perspective. And they wouldn’t have it. I remember, I knew MOMA as a child, and I can remember the pictures – will, in middle age, they still had big fruity frames on them. Which of course the artists themselves often loved, which was quite clear from the Matisse retrospective. I found out from John Elderfield how many of the pictures were in the frames that Matisse himself had bought for them, and it was an astounding number. There was one mad little picture he’d clearly painted to fit this little seventeenth century frame. And why not?

AW: There is a remark in one of your interviews about collage being very important to your practice.

HH: Ah, yes, yes. Well, going back to what we were saying about cubism and about trompe l’oeil, trompe l’oeil is basically a collage.

Again, I’m very slow, it took me perhaps thirty-five years to realise that that was how it works, it’s another version of the collage principle. The collage principal is something which is absolutely fundamental to all kinds of art now, often with the most unfortunate results. As in novels, where you get different kinds of information just popped in to take the place of everything else. First it’s one thing, then it’s another, and then it’s – the end.

AW: It’s a rare example of literature being envious of the visual arts – the simultaneity which collage exploits, and literature, being successive, has problems with. After centuries of painting trying to deal with narrative…

HH: Usually very unsuccessfully. At a high level. At a lower level, the magazine story level, perfectly well.

But I remember in the sixties, when I was a youngish painter, surrounded by young painters – well, not surrounded, I was over there, and they were…but the feeling that anything goes was marvellous. I can remember the real excitement of seeing the work of David Hockney, Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, everyone was talking about it, it was reproduced everywhere, and I thought, Well, that’s grist to my mill, I can take a bit here and a bit there and a bit of this and a bit of that [rubs hands] and the possibilities of painting had suddenly been…Not that one didn’t have them within oneself, but had been publicly opened up a way that was extraordinary. And it didn’t mean that they were models to follow, because they weren’t, but they just reminded you of the infinite possibilities and that you really could have trompe l’oeil like the famous cubist Picasso where there are perfect seed packets painted in trompe l’oeil in one corner, he just copied them – that you could do anything. It didn’t last long, that feeling. And the fact didn’t last long either. But to be a painter in England then was to be existing in something about that big [gesture indicating tiny] – suddenly, for a moment, it was all opened up, and you were communicating to the world outside, and it was part of life – beyond me as an artist thinking I can use this, I can use that, how fascinating that Kitaj is using kitchen towels to make these textures…it’s terrible to think now how quickly it vanished. Terrible, because one wonders if the same thing is going to happen again – it will all vanish. To be a young artist now must be even more the case, that feeling – not in the case of painting – though painting is apparently the most popular course at Goldsmiths now – I didn’t personally think it would go away altogether – but it’s something to do with England. I’m very pessimistic that it will all just vanish all over again.

AW: Part of the great excitement of the sixties was presumably also the return of content, which was clearly something that you shared. Painting is to do with life.

HH: Life and feelings and things that are going on in the world and not going on in museums. But how quickly it all stopped – because now most art is to do with what is going on in museums; however much it refers to the world outside, it’s been institutionalised on the way in.

AW: One curiosity about contemporary art is that there is a terrific interest in the old languages and devices of painting, but generally in the work of photographers and film-makers – or artists using photography and film – but contemporary painting  itself sometimes looks back to the history and sometimes doesn’t.

HH: Mostly doesn’t.

AW: And when it does it’s fifties abstraction, or whatever…

HH: Yes. No, it doesn’t go very far.

AW: So Jeff Wall constructs pictures like Raphael, and painters don’t much. Least of all, perhaps, the rhetorical painters you were talking about…

HH: Yes, Wall’s knowledge of what is pictorially possible is encyclopaedic. But painters don’t; I don’t know why they don’t. I think they sort of stopped.

AW: Which brings us back to paint again, and what it can do. I remember seeing a painting in one of the portrait competitions which was of a young man from the North-East of England, I think, wearing an Italian football shirt – the same idea as Roddy Buchanan’s photographs of Glasgow Sunday footballers in their Milan shirts and so on. And it wasn’t an awful painting at all, but the particular surface of a modern football shirt just wasn’t there the way that silk would be in any Dutch painting of the seventeenth century, say. Or indeed the way the shirt was present in Roddy’s photographs. I wondered if there are some things paintings can’t do anymore, some aspects of the visual world that are lost to it. Not for any grand reason, but just because the representational chain has been broken in this century. You look at these portrait competitions and there is clearly no bog standard representational language that nay second rate artist can happily master, and any first rate artist can do marvels without doing anything radically different.

HH: There, I think, you’ve really hit it. There isn’t a lingua franca of painting anymore, of representation in painting. All representation in painting of something else depends on the viewer doing some of the work themselves. If too much is done, as we know with Hyper-realist painting, it doesn’t work, because it’s all been done, it’s all closed up. Representation of any surface – modern surfaces are just the same, I assure you, are just the same as old surfaces. Synthetic fabrics are no different, in essence, for representational purposes, to silk; and so it’s simply that there isn’t an agreed language. The lingua franca of painting now, so far as it exists, goes back, as we were saying much earlier, to fifties painting – large abstract pictures where you say – in whatever way you choose – ‘yes, here is the picture surface’. But the sort of lingua franca that Chardin used to paint light on the surface of a fish, light on a peach and light on a porcelain dish, or a pewter plate, all in the same picture, doesn’t exist anymore – it’s been degraded. It could easily come back – it could easily exist again, but it doesn’t at present. And so we have individual versions of a language of representation. Bacon, certainly, in his earlier pictures was very adept at doing that. And particularly brilliant at using the technique, much used by seventeenth and, particularly, eighteenth century French artists, of making the viewer do an awful lot of the work, so a smudge here is as good as a wink there.

AW: That’s another thing I’ve never found the words for, Chardin’s language. You never actually lose sight of the medium. Everything in the picture is at once differentiated and united by the paint itself.

HH: Ah, but that is very important. When I was a peripatetic teacher, which I was at one time, teaching in different art schools, I was amazed to discover that, unlike the kind of training I’d had myself, however imperfect, there seemed to be a general lack of awareness of that famous remark of Maurice Denis, ‘Remember that a picture, before being a war horse or a nude woman or an anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order’. You never should lose sight of the medium. It’s not the same as the kind of “see me dance the Polka” brushwork of Augustus John. It’s paint being used for a purpose. But it’s no good pretending that the paint is actually porcelain. It’s got to be paint, saying “here I am porcelain, there I am the skin of a peach”. But all along you’ve got to say, “I am the picture, I am a flat surface, I am paint”. Because otherwise, unless you tell the truth like that, nobody will believe the lies that you go on to say, like, “here is a hole in the wall, here is a bunch of grapes”. One of the earliest anecdotes about painting is the famous Greek painter, by whom no work survives, naturally enough, who painted such life-like cherries that the birds came to try and eat them. Well, it was painted in fresco, so I expect the birds were not really deceived.

AW: They weren’t real either! Somebody else painted the birds!

HH: Yes! [Laughter.]