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.

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
arts + entsFor a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past