A world of his own

Howard Hodgkin paints feelings rather than faces - an exquisitely opaque way to celebrate the strangeness of others

Sir Howard Hodgkin and David Sylvester both looked happy with their work as they finished hanging Hodgkin's exhibition at the Hayward Gallery last week. And little wonder: the Hayward looks better than it has for many a long day, and this is the most convincing show that Hodgkin has ever mounted. It was his decision to take all partitions away from the lower galleries, and he also chose the colour in which they are now painted. I think it's known as "French grey", but Hodgkin calls it the grey of those sacks used by postmen, except of course not so shiny. Anyway, here is the perfect background for Hodgkin's palette.

Then Sylvester put the pictures up, and in such a way that the first thing that strikes a visitor is the large In Memory of Max Gordon. There are only three other pictures in the opening room: another big one about Max Gordon, the disturbing Snapshot and a gorgeously decorated smaller picture in an ornate antique frame, apparently a portrait of two American friends of the artist. The installation thus suggests something we might not have expected: that in the last few years, Hodgkin has become a weightier, even majestic painter. We always knew that his art could have an elegiac tone. Nowadays that tone has come to predominate.

He's still the painter of intimate life, hotly attached to friends and most at home in the social scene of the London haut boheme. But a painting like the recent Gossip, with its slightly malicious title, is much more than social. It resembles a landscape more than an interior, and is poignant in ways that gossips never consider. Though not a lonely man, Hodgkin is a lonely artist. It's often said that he resembles Vuillard and other painters of late-19th-century Paris. Parallels are drawn with the Indian art that Hodgkin collects. None of these comparisons really helps to explain his paintings. They are so full of their own character. Hodgkin's unlikeness to other painters is extreme, and this retrospective is about a solitary vision.

Not that it's a retrospective in the usual sense. The earlier years are not represented. Hodgkin's paintings date from the late 1940s, but the Hayward show begins in 1975. Actually, Sylvester's clever installation makes it start in 1996, when In Memory of Max Gordon was finished. So we are not invited to follow a development. Rather the opposite: the older paintings turn up round the walls not as pointers to something new but as memories of life quite a little time ago. And this is appropriate to Hodgkin's art, which operates by an inspired use of his own memory. He likes to take a person or a situation, make a realistic pencil drawing (never shown to anyone) and then, over some years, paint on board, scrape away and paint again until he feels that the picture is right.

It follows that "rightness" in a Hodgkin painting comes from a totally personal decision. In nearly every picture there are marks that can be described in disparaging terms. We can call them daubs, smears, accidents (never splashes, though, since he likes the brush to feel his wood surfaces). I think Hodgkin deserves praise for his disobedience. There is seldom any sign of cultivated professionalism in his handling. That is for obedient painters. However, all the daubs and smears are correct and eloquent within the terms of Hodgkin's view of his own painting. You can't argue with them or suggest improvements. The daubs have their own sophistication, and never was an artist less amateur.

Hodgkin was often accused of amateurism (sometimes by other painters) in exactly the years before the earliest pictures in this show. The purist side of the art world noticed that he lacked interest in abstraction, modernism and so on. He was also called an amateur because his work did not resemble nature and seemed laboured, as in truth it often was. It appeared wrong that he could never paint on a canvas and only responded to wood or board. Today, all these characteristics are accepted as a natural part of the Hodgkin character. He still doesn't fit with the trends of contemporary art and probably never will, but his pictures are regarded as treasures.

They are treasured for many reasons. There's the unusual and plangent colour, an atmosphere that mixes experience with wonder, and above all the way that the pictures insist upon themselves. It is right that Hodgkin's paintings should be impenetrable. If we could read them more easily they would not be so powerful. Famously, Hodgkin's portraits less resemble their declared subjects than any portraits in the history of art. The Hayward has First Portrait of Terence McInerny (1979-82), D.H. in Hollywood (1980-84), Patrick in Italy (1984-93). Is this opaque portraiture the clue to Hodgkin? He goes round town all the time, lunches with his chums and then goes into the studio to knock himself on the head with the constantly weird experience of knowing people.

n Hayward Gallery, South Bank, SE1 (0171 960 4242), to 23 Feb.

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