How to capture the spirit of a country so frenetic, so chaotic and bright and bustling as India? How to paint such movement within its landscape, while also rendering its stillness, its quietness? In his paintings of India – great, gestural strokes of colour – Howard Hodgkin sought to show the fleeting moments and conversations that form an impression of a place. An exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield examines the artist’s relationship with the country, marking shifts in his work over a fifty-year period of its continued influence.
Hodgkin made his first trip to India in 1964, when he was still painting recognisable forms on canvas. Of his reasons for travelling, he said, ‘I didn’t know what I was looking for – I was just looking for something else.’ The ‘something else’ was a profound sensory experience that to Hodgkin was as real and tangible as the palm trees, sunsets and ocean. If, at first glance, the paintings displayed here appear to be abstract washes of paint, they are in fact defiantly representational of simply the feeling of being there. As an artist, he resisted any overarching description of the works, leaving it up to the viewer to interpret them. Titles provide clues to the location, time of day or subject, but it is often the particular colour of the mood or the light that determines the painting’s outcome. Hodgkin initially stored up these transient moments for months, bringing them back to England and often spending years completing a work. There was a sustained sense of urgency to the paintings that he described as an ‘attack’, which forced a move from canvas to wood shortly after his first journey to India. Eventually, as shown in a short film at the start of the exhibition that I wished had been longer, Hodgkin rented a studio in Mumbai where he was prolific in painting, under an increased immediacy that took hold during the last few years of his life.
Another key turning point was the introduction of Liquin, a new quick-drying medium that allowed Hodgkin to rapidly layer up paint on the board. The result was a kind of textural language, where brushstrokes jostle in dialogue with each other. Great sweeps of paint swell to a crescendo in one part of the work before quickly falling silent, as large sections of wood were often left exposed. Several of the compositions are outlined by a shadow of oil that has seeped from the paint into the board, and the woody grains add another linear texture to the works. One piece, ‘Evening’ (1994-1995), was painted in shades of green on an octagonal chopping board, the incisions of years of use still visible. A work in the next gallery, ‘Indian Veg’ (2013-2014) – Hodgkin’s only triptych – seems to complete the series with splodges of tomato and courgette.
Works made earlier this year before his death push this metaphorical painting process to its extreme, with stark layers of impasto seemingly suspended in space, yet Hodgkin described this work as ‘closer to the real world than it has ever been.’ Perhaps this is because he expanded his definition of the real world, showing it to be made up of passing emotions, snapshots and snippets of exchange that, when layered into impressions, are just as real as anything.