Howard Hodgkin’s New Show Illustrates The Artist’s Fascination For India
Among the paintings by 86-year-old, Turner Prize-winning artist Howard Hodgkin on display at his ongoing show at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya is “Come into the garden, Maud”. The title is derived from the eponymous poem by Alfred Tennyson about a lover obsessively waiting for his beloved in a garden, at the crack of dawn, when the “black bat, Night” had vanished and the “musk of the roses” wafted in the air. The connection is not arbitrary because like the Romantic poet Tennyson, Hodgkin also makes art based on impressions the world makes on his senses. These take the form of splashes, squiggles and slabs of colour. In “Come into the garden, Maud”, Hodgkin arranges furry spots of pinks, greens, muddy browns and blues on the canvas. The text of the poem is the only clue to the painting, which could make an imaginative onlooker identify birds, roses, lilies and the fervent steps of a waiting lover on the grass.
Like Henri Matisse, Hodgkin rejects figurative narratives in his art. In his visual language, memories and sensations are translated into pure colour and form. In 1996, he collaborated with author Julian Barnes on the collection Evermore, a visual interpretation of the writer’s eponymous short story. It’s a story about a woman, “a connoisseur of grief” who ritually goes to the grave of her son, who died fighting in World War I. Over the years she has accumulated memories of other soldiers buried with him. Her only longing is to see the memories of these dead, decomposed bodies hidden under headstones to be lit up once more before the cemetery is converted into farms “fertilised with blood and bone”. One could say that Hodgkin’s art lights up memories of lost moments as fragmented colours. For example, “Come into the garden, Maud” does not represent the present moment of the lover waiting for his beloved but the memory of that moment. The solid forms of the lover, the garden and the birds have disintegrated, leaving behind residues of that moment as dabs of colour.
This particular show Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1984-2015 – A Tribute focuses on Hodgkin’s time in India. A collector of Indian miniatures, he had been fascinated with the country long before he began visiting it 50 years ago. The show at CSMVS consists of paintings from two time periods. One series of gouache on khadi dates back to 1990-91 and the other oil on wood series was made in 2014-15 especially for this exhibition.
In all the gouache paintings, we see a printed foundation, a repeated pattern of a blue, wave-like squiggle on the lower half of each sheet and a dash of green on the upper part. The green suggests the hills or the sky, while the blue suggests the sea. For example, in “Marine Drive” stripes of red and yellow punctuate the blue and green canvas right at its stomach suggesting sunset. In “Waves”, a mass of agitated water leaps at a green horizon. Despite the repetitive patterns, Hodgkin’s paintings are far from monotonous, brimming instead with constant movement. Coiled, serpentine shapes can be spotted in his seas, which seem mysterious receptacles of things like drowned horses, wrecked ships and lost objects.
This blue and green repetition breaks in the oil on wood series. In “Britannia, Bombay”, named after the Irani restaurant in Mumbai famous for its berry pulao, green squiggles are chained together like harlequins dancing and feasting during a ritual. These pulsating figures express the feeling of happy satiety. “Hello & Goodbye” is a somber take on meetings and partings. Two woodcuts are juxtaposed; one has a slanting band of black painted across it, in the other the exposed wood is first layered with black paint and then with green. The green shape looks like the mouth of a dark lair, the equivalent of a dejected lover’s state of mind. Then there’s “Bed Clothes”, a square woodcut painted with a patch of brown resembling a bed cover. In a corner are two looped, body-like shapes painted in yellow. They are lying almost on top of each other but there is no joy in their pose. The bodies emanate the sadness of lovers who are about to part. As Hodgkin said in an interview to the New Statesman, he can make yellow look melancholy.
Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1984-2015 – A Tribute is on view until Wednesday, April 15 at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation gallery, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Kala Ghoda. Tel: 022 2284 4484. Open daily, from 10.15am to 6pm.Tickets for Indian visitors are priced at Rs60 per head for adults and Rs10 per head for children between the ages of five and 12; tickets for foreign visitors are priced at Rs300 per head for adults and Rs10 per head for children between the ages of five and 12.