So many shared affections bond Howard Hodgkin's pictures to the Phillips Collection: sympathies, quiets, intimate agreements.
Unlike modern paintings that yowl for our attention, Hodgkin's have the calm of superior works of art. At the Phillips, in a show opening today, they appear embraced by their surroundings. What we value most in Duncan Phillips' pictures -- their sweet domestic scale, their gingerly approaches to the realms of pure abstraction and the music of their colors -- we recognize afresh in Howard Hodgkin's art.
Phillips, an American, taught Washington about French painting. Hodgkin, an Englishman, also loves it. He is as fond as Vuillard was of spots of subtle color, dapplings of light. Like Picasso, like Matisse, he is anchored to the look of things and refuses pure abstraction -- but he fears it less than they did and frequently approaches it more closely than they dared. Some of Hodgkin's pictures, "Jealousy," for instance, are soaked in hurt. Others, like Paul Klee's, seem made to make one laugh. Study, for example, that unswallowable egg in "Mr. and Mrs. E.J.P." (1972-73). But Hodgkin's art is never flippant. His pictures, like Bonnard's, even at their sunniest -- and they often shine with sunlight -- exorcise obsessions.
It often takes him years of pondering and pausing to complete a single picture. Hodgkin, as he composes patterns or arranges colors or presents what he's seen, is not doing these things merely. He is portraying his emotions. Metaphoric memories of privacies, of lovemakings and voyages, load his exhibition.
He is a gray-eyed, gray-haired Englishman who did not show his art until he was 30. He is now 52. Four years ago when Robin Cafritz of the Phillips asked him for this show, Hodgkin was a painter who had not yet achieved fame.
Fame came to him last summer when he was the only painter to represent his country at the 41st Venice Biennale. "Not since Robert Rauschenberg's appearance at the Venice Biennale some 20 years ago," wrote Robert Hughes of Time magagzine, "has any one painter so hogged the attention of visitors or looked so effortlessly superior to anything on view."
Much fine British painting -- Francis Bacon's, David Hockney's (to say nothing of the "conversation pieces" of 18th-century England) -- is concerned with social intercourse, good manners and people in interiors. So is Hodgkin's. He is English, but atypical. Unlike, say, the Beatles, he did not rise from nowhere. Unlike, say, Lord Snowdon, he did not descend from above. He belongs instead to what one might call the rim of the Establishment. Rarely in his country do people of his station make first-rate works of art.
"He is not -- though he would be the last to say so -- an everyday Englishman," observes his old friend, the art critic John Russell. "The Hodgkins are a Quaker dynasty with all that that implies . . . Among his forebears in the 18th and 19th century were the antiquarian author of 'Rairoria,' the founder of the Aborigines Protection Society, the author of the standard history of the Anglo-Saxons, the man who first classified cloud formations and the physician after whom the dreaded Hodgkin's disease was named . . . At present there are two Hodgkins among the 24 holders of that highest of British decorations, the Order of Merit, and on the female side there is Dr. Dorothy Hodgkin, who in 1964 shared a Nobel Prize for chemistry."
Howard Hodgkin is the family's first famous painter. Something of his background -- plainness before privilege, some earnest Quaker decency, some praising of the good and willingness to teach, to be silent and to serve -- is apparent in the painter and his art.
Hodgkin, as a child, came to the United States during World War II, and was taken to Long Island, the Long Island of Jay Gatsby, where the wealthy dressed for dinner. He says he took all that for granted. What astonished him, instead, was his first exposure, when he was only seven, to the Museum of Modern Art. Back in England he fled Eton, and other well-known public schools. It was not that school distressed him -- he preferred art. Hodgkin has since then earned his living as a teacher -- at Charterhouse, the Slade, at the Royal College and the Chelsea School of Art. He has been artist-in-residence at Brasenose College, Oxford, and has also served as a trustee of both the Tate and the National Gallery of Art.
He is, in short, a serious man. And he paints serious pictures. They are gathered, centered objects, often framed by bands or patterns or rectangles of color, that make them act like windows. Looking at his pictures with their peripherals and centerings is like looking at the world. Hodgkin's spaces are deep. One peers into his art.
It takes seriousness -- and patience -- to see what he has put there. His paintings, at first glimpse, seem solid decorations, but then they become much more. His "Egypt" (1983) contains the frontality of pharaonic statues and the lotuses of Karnak. There are faces in his pictures, and moons and trees and crisp clean sheets. There is a bronze by Henry Moore in his "A Henry Moore at the Bottom of the Garden" (1975-77) and a seascape by Corot, or at least its spirit, in "After Corot," a splendid little picture of 1979-82. His "None but the Brave Deserves the Fair" (1981-84) is a sort of warrior's dream, a haze of breeze-stirred veils and soft, perfumed flesh. Often it is not easy to recognize his subjects. He says that they "would lose their meaning if too specifically presented."
What gives his art its gravity? Perhaps it is his patience. "Most of my pictures have had nine, ten, twelve lives," he says. Perhaps it is his modesty, his willingness to paint relatively small, half old-fashioned pictures.
He is a virtuoso painter who refuses virtuosity. It is that sense of rectitude, of holding back, of scruple, that lends such moving grandeur to his strong, good-looking art.
An exhibition of his prints will be on view, through Nov. 10, at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St. NW. His exhibit at the Phillips will travel to the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, to Hanover, Germany, and to the Whitechapel Gallery, London, after closing here Dec. 16.