Artist of memory

Renowned British painter Howard Hodgkin’s universe is one of colour and line. The artist is having, for the first time, a show of his paintings in India.

April 04, 2015 04:20 pm | Updated 04:20 pm IST

The British Council HQ in Kasturba Gandhi Marg, New Delhi, designed by Charles Correa, showing the front mural facade by Howard Hodgkin. Completed in 1992, it evokes the shadows cast by a tree and is executed in black stone and white marble tiles.

The British Council HQ in Kasturba Gandhi Marg, New Delhi, designed by Charles Correa, showing the front mural facade by Howard Hodgkin. Completed in 1992, it evokes the shadows cast by a tree and is executed in black stone and white marble tiles.

Rain. The large painting has swathes of black, framed by grey; a bolt of cobalt and a sly showing of a gentle yellow as a growing orange stretches over greens. I am completely mesmerised. Memories come rushing in; of monsoons in childhood, the light through the pelting rain, the scent and lushness of the greenery at once nostalgic intermingles with a heightened sense of emotion. That’s when it hits me. He is a genius — an artist of place and memory.

Howard Hodgkin, by far the most distinguished British painter alive, is having for the first time a show of his paintings in India, an effort that has come about with the patient perseverance of his friend Maharukh Tarapor, herself a distinguished museum director, and a coterie of close Indian friends marshalling the energies of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, the Tate, Gagosian gallery, the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation and the British Council.

‘Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1984-2015 A Tribute’ is a show that consists of two large paintings lent by the Tate and 12 hand-painted gouache on intaglio impressed on Indian Khadi paper work from 1990-91, which are part of a larger collection of 30 and six small new works done in Mumbai over last winter.

As you traverse the gallery, stop and look at them, you are struck by the boldness of colour. They become pieces that need a different manner of looking; mediating almost with one in an empty white room. The thought of them being placed at the centre of a Japanese tea ceremony altar — an aesthetic appreciation needing time to be internalised. Abstraction is a challenge for the viewer but Hodgkin, gives his paintings names — Black Rainbow, Goanese, Marine Drive, Dusk, Waves, Sunshine... Thus speak Hodgkin’s works. The titles are a suggestive hook for the viewer’s imagined narrative.

He knew he wanted to be an artist from a very young age. Migrating to the U.S. twice, where he was exposed to the work of Picasso and Matisse at the Museum of Modern Art, he did not pursue the regular path of an artist. Running away from school often and moving back and forth from the U.K. to the U.S., Hodgkin found a métier that he developed over time. His work included prints of all scales, canvases and now painting on wood, a surface which allows him “to know where you are”. His work has included commissions and designs for interiors as well as sets and back cloths for the theatre and contemporary dance.

Awarded the prestigious Turner prize in 1985, after he represented the U.K. in the 1984 Venice Biennale, he was knighted and soon made Companion of Honour in 2003. Shown at and collected by the top museums and gallerists of the world, he wears his fame lightly and is deeply devoted to India and his collection of Indian miniature and other paintings.

Introduced to a Mughal painting of chameleon by Mansur by his tutor at Eton and exposed to others at the nearby Windsor Castle, young Hodgkin started collecting these paintings from his teens. Using pocket money, losing and winning bets at races, asking friends and family for cash in lieu of Christmas gifts, he financed his collection of Indian paintings for over six decades, putting together an eclectic group of paintings, now on loan and travelling to museums across the world.

His first trip to India in 1964 was started with a charming anecdote of a night on the railway platform in a bedroll due to a miscommunication with his host — Moti Chandra, then curator of the Prince of Wales Museum. Since then it has been 50 years of visiting India consistently, making friends and absorbing India’s many avatars of experience. He says he “would not have been able to produce the art he has if it were not for India. I couldn’t work without it.”

‘Britannia, Bombay’ is a joyous expression of his times at the famous Irani café of Bombay. Green, turquoise and teal swirls play into each other and bring us a sensory recollection of satisfied meals (berry pulao), circularity of conversations and a sense of amity forged. Even today he often enjoys akuri for breakfast and often orders butter garlic crab from the seafood restaurant Trishna. Through the years Hodgkin took back memories and, in time, they became paintings.

In her interview with him, Sharmista Ray says that human encounters, by his own admission, have engaged him most deeply, as have “unfortunate love stories, failed marriages and awkward dinner parties”. Freed of the anxiety of description, Hodgkin’s paintings have become, in his words, “relaxed and straightforward and simple”. Simplicity should not be mistaken for ingenuousness, however. Each painting can take years; the pain and pleasure of painting are still vital for the painter, who realises he doesn’t have much time left. “Strangely, the older I get,” he says, “the easier I find it to produce an emotional punch to my soul.”

He has also made a mural in the British Council building in New Delhi designed by Charles Correa. Black stone and white marble in undulating curves evoke the shadows, as if cast by a tree. In time he was sent to represent the U.K. in the first Delhi Trienalle; “a great mish-mash where most pictures were rubbish” but for three paintings that he discovered by the late Bhupen Khakhar. He also curated six Indian artists for a show at the Tate following his immersion into Indian contemporary art.

A very large painting on wood called ‘Come into the garden, Maud’ is a series of coloured daubs but there is a very clear feel of a garden and a gentle rustle of a breeze among the flowers. As I leave, the gallery, the image of him sitting sideways in front of this painting stays, as if he has called the viewer to come and share his garden. A universe of essentialised colour and line; of light and truth.

Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1984-2015 A Tribute ; Till April 15; At the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS, Mumbai.

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