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June 19, 2006

Christie Davies goes to see Howard Hodgkin at Tate Britain and remembers pious men crapping on the beach in Mumbai, the Arab slave-trade, Tennyson, Hodgkin's running away from Eton and his decision to leave his wife and become gay

Posted by Christie Davies

Howard Hodgkin
Tate Britain, London
14th June - 10th September 2006
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid
18th October 2006 - 8th January 2007

The curators tell us serotonically that Sir Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin CH, now in his mid-70s has a "singular visual language" and that the exhibition is about "the evolution of his vocabulary". Leaving aside the crassness of the metaphors, why on earth should this be a virtue? Would you want to listen to a speaker who spoke a singular language or read a text written in one? You would not. You wouldn't know what he was on about.

That indeed is Hodgkin's problem. Visual communication like any other, is social and is rooted in our common experience of the world we see and feel. A private language or one known only to a coterie is useless. Why should we bother to learn such a language? Would we not gain more from investing the same time and effort in studying the unfamiliar conventions of Chinese art and entering an entire new universe? To try to understand Hodgkin makes about as much sense as studying born-again Cornish, a lot of effort for a slim reward. And so much of Hodgkin's work will remain for not just the philistine or the conventional, but for those interested in a broad range of art, a mass of bars and blobs and painted over frames.

Hodgkin we are told

creates a visual equivalent for his specific memory of this experience
and can
depict transient moments not by describing them but by suggesting them indirectly
and convey
moments of anger, jealousy and pain.
However, Marcel Proust he ain't. We do not and can not have access to his mind, his memory, his mood, his emotions at the time when he was painting nor indeed his intentions nor what he was recollecting and how he had felt then. All we have is an object he has made and, unless we can translate this back into his interior state by means of a set of roughly agreed rules, then his interior state of thought, aim and feeling are indiscernible. We can simply look at the objects as pleasing coloured patterns in and of themselves. Many of them are - notably Clean Sheets, 1979-1984, Rain 1984-9, Snapshot, 1984-93, and Night and Day, 1997-9 - but you would be pushed to know that they are sheets or whether he revelled in their clean feel or that it is raining and he is glum or whether night is a science-fiction tree dreamed after over-doing the cheese. Perhaps none of this would matter, had he not given his pictures such precise titles.

The proof of what I say lies in those pictures that do work at two levels such as Undertones of War, 2001-3 as the black fights its way into the territory of the red, while hell lies underneath. Here Hodgkin has used a recognisable social convention and one familiar to us from Franz Marc's Kämpfende Formen (Fighting Forms) 1914.

Likewise with Come into the Garden Maud, 2000-2003 inspired by Tennyson's poem. Here are blocks of blobs of flowers in pink and dull red, bright red, green, blue and white that make up Tennyson's garden, each corresponding to a flower in that well-loved poem that speaks to us of a better age than our own. Time was when it would be recited soulfully by florid, weeping middle-aged men in every English-permitted eisteddfod in Britain or brightly by emerging women at fetes better than life itself. The garden spills out onto the frame but the dominant core is the bright red of the heart of the Victorian alone at the gate tempting Maud to join him and come:

To the woody hollows in which we meet
And the valleys of Paradise
But these are very late works by Hodgkin, ones in which he seems to have accepted the social nature of art, not in the sense that it has any social purpose, merely that it calls on shared and by implication, social meanings. Hodgkin really did get better over time; he is now at his peak.

By contrast it is only by a very odd coincidence that I can relate easily to his paintings Bombay Sunset, 1972-3, and Foy Nissen's, Bombay, 1975-7.

By chance I was in Bombay at that time and I knew Foy Nissen, a Dane employed by the British Council to smooth the ways of those such as Howard Hodgkin and myself who had been invited to India. Foy was also a historian and a lover of Bombay who wanted to write about it and as he drove me from the old Bombay airport to the seedy hostel for Protestant Christian missionaries just off the rat-infested Grant Road, where I lived, he pulled in at the side to take a photo of the traditional dhows in the bay that sailed the Arabian Sea. They were the same traditional vessels that once brought boatloads of captured African slaves from the slave market of Zanzibar to Muscat to be distributed throughout the Muslim world, the men to be castrated, the women to become domestic slaves.

Later I was to meet an entire village of these former slaves on the shore of Gujarat, stranded when the British told the local Muslim ruler in a fit of petulant imperialism that multiculturalism did not extend to slavery. Today, of course, we behave far more sensitively - over say forced marriages - so as not to marginalise and stigmatise our Muslim community.

But I digress. Too many petites madeleines have that effect. Foy pointed his camera at the peaceful dhows and then swore a horrid oath, or at least as horrid an oath as is permitted to an official of the British Council. There in front blocking his vista were rows and rows of squatting Hindus crapping on the beach waiting with well-tucked up dhotis for the tide to come in and purify their nether parts. I remembered the old British soldier's song sung for them:

Sarf karo, sarf karo
Sarf karo with pani, sarf karo!
Swill it up your ********
Sarf karo!
And here were the pious Hindus waiting in serried ranks for the great foaming waves of the Indian ocean to clean them good and proper. The scene was to inspire me to study the works of Mary Douglas, Alan Dundes and the French anthropologist Louis Dumont. Shit is destiny. Tell me how a man shits and I will tell you what he is from the incorruptible Brahmin to the untouchable sweeper with his brush.

The same scene had inspired Khruschev when he had made an official visit to India some years before. As he drove in from the airport with Mrs Gandhi, Khruschev pointed to the rows of innumerable doubled-up shitters that lined every expanse of open water and said rudely to the Indian Prime Minister: "We don't allow this sort of thing in the Soviet Union. We are much more civilised than you".

Mrs Gandhi was embarrassed and resentful but she needed Soviet aid and weapons and bribes, so she said nothing. However, the next year she made an official visit to Moscow and as they drove in from the airport to the Kremlin she noticed a small figure squatting at the side of the road. She plucked Khruschev's sleeve and pointed, saying: "I thought you said this didn't happen in Russia".

Khruschev was furious. He stopped the car, called over a guard on a motor cycle and told him to have the man arrested immediately and sent to Siberia. The KGB man walked over, spoke to the squatting figure and then came back. He said to Khruschev: "I'm sorry, sir, but I have no jurisdiction. He's the Indian ambassador".

This joke was told to me by an Australian cultural attaché who added:

The great thing about that joke is that you can tell it absolutely everywhere.
Since he had just told it to the diplomats at the Indian High Commission, I suppose he must have been right.

But again I digress and Lieutenant Lukacs is telling me to come to the point.

Foy Nissen was not amused. The scene was unFoy. Yet here is its antithesis as painted by Sir Howard Hodgkin in Foy Nissen's Bombay, a clean world ordered by the standards of rational Scandinavian hygiene, of Purefoy, not those of ritual pollution. The red striped blinds and the solid interior are all summed up in a series of resolute oblongs.

Equally enticing is Bombay Sunset where a wavy flat dark brown sea stretches out to a black horizon above which the red, brown, black clouds high above imprison and break up the yellow sky of the sunset. I am taken back to the youthful excitement of working in Bombay, of my long discussions with A. B. Shah and Dhirendra Narain, of watching those sunsets over the Indian Ocean. But these are purely personal memories. How do the paintings look to someone who has never known the charms of the city of Kipling and Shiv Sena?

It is only when he turns to the erotic - as in Waking up in Naples, 1980-4 where the waker sees next to him the back of a naked human still snoring - where Hodgkin's pictures have a wider resonance. Behind her is a pattern like a green sea with red and green seaweed and a tan sand that matches her body. As you come out of the sea of sleep and dreams, there she is in the half-light. But this is a general image that most men will know and recognise, it is not just a purely private memory.

Or is it? After being married for many years, Hodgkin decided in the late 1970s, after a near-fatal and severely depressing bout of amoebiasis, an India induced disease, that he was gay. A dangerous place, India. From 1983 he lived with the music writer Anthony Peattie.

So what manner of person is in the picture? Can it be that my perception was deceived by a contrived lady-boy androgyny? Oh vile! Oh horrid! Oh beastly!

Hodgkin knows his clouds. In the series he painted in Venice - Evening, 1984-5, View from Venice, 1984-5, Venice in the Autumn, 1984-5, and Venice Sunset, 1989 - what we see is not Venice but a sky. It may well be the case that much of the pleasure we derive from Turner or Whistler's paintings of Venice are from the skies but we also get a feel for Venice. Here it is only weather and time of day and weather and time are everywhere. He could as easily have been in Trieste or Rijeka. But they are good skies, worthy of Howard Hodgkin who was named after his ancestor, the first classifier of clouds, the meteorologist, Luke Howard FRS whose work influenced Constable and Turner.

Hodgkin's cloud masterpiece is Old Sky, 1996-7 and it is just that, an old sky. Like his skies, Hodgkin, now in his mid-70s, got better as he got older. His finest work has been done in the last twelve years. Look out in particular for Evening, 1994-6 a study in green sliding from malachite to olivine. If I had the money or indeed if I had a wall I would hang this picture on it and ask the artist's advice about what colour the wall it adorned should be. He has the kind of feel for colour one associates with someone who ran away from Eton after only eighteen months. If he had stayed there and gone on to Oxford he would have ended up confusing blue with pink and green like a schizophrenic chameleon.

Finally, it is worth noting the artist's sense of, or at least achievement of, humour, something to be seen even in his work when a student.

I laughed most at Mr and Mrs Robyn Denny, 1960. Two unrecognisable people stand beneath a blue and white big chequered marquee where bent rhombuses are being blown towards them. Mr Denny has a tie and jacket to match. His tanned face's eyes are whirling red circles or perhaps pretentious sun-glasses and his bluey white line of a mouth or is it a moustache has an air of Alf Garnett. His wife with short hair painted on her head is glazed white except for two bright cheeks rouged by God, sun or blood pressure. It is difficult to see what she is wearing but a single undersized nipple seems to stare at you sideways. Denny, himself an artist, and his wife have been immortalised as clowns by Hodgkin in a portrait that will long outlast Lord Snowdon's photographs of him.

After Visiting David Hockney, 1991-2 by contrast is a disappearance up a tan tunnel with a blue lintel like a technicolour megalithic tomb. Even as a student he made fun of the world as in Memoirs 1949. Even though he did not intend it, nor even portray it, he has in his composition exposed the silliness and corruption of psychoanalysis. What a great cartoonist he could have been.

Go and enjoy it all. Not many artists are far better at 70 than they were forty years before. Then go to India for the delightful and exciting people and paintings as well as scenery but never, ever eat the local food.

Professor Christie Davies was a younger scientists visiting scholar in Bombay and in Gujarat in 1973-4 and wrote for the Indian journal Quest, later New Quest. He is the author of The Mirth of Nations 2002 and The Strange Death of Moral Britain 2004.

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The author raises the issue of the fate of African slaves captured by Arab traders. Often I find myself at variance with authors on this site, and defending the Arabs and their civilization against stereotyped attacks. But on this issue I am vehemently in agreement with the author. While learning language and culture from Arab friends, I nevertheless found, when the conversation turned to history and politics, that they are in total denial over this issue, and if pressed would argue back fiercely with denunciations of British and American slavery. However, in both countries first pioneers, and then the large majority of the population, renounced slavery, and we are I hope moving steadily to a position where people of African ethnic origin can be completely at home on both sides of the North Atlantic, and even the concept of “black people” as a separate category will seem completely “retro”. This even despite the efforts of gangsta rappers and Jesse Jackson to make capital, political or financial, out of the situation.

It is not so in the Middle East. Even recently, it was reported that the Janjaweed are referring to their Muslim Darfurian neighbours as “black slaves”. Perhaps they themselves do not feel fully accepted as Arabs, and want to prove a point.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 21, 2006 08:26 PM
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