John Hoyland: Blood on the canvas, by a modern master

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John Hoyland has been called Europe's answer to Mark Rothko. On a visit to his London studio, esther walker discovers why the celebrated painter has turned to Robert Fisk of The Independent for inspiration in his latest artworks

"I borrow anything from anything," says the artist John Hoyland. "I'll borrow from other people's work, nature, flowers – anything." In his latest exhibition, Greetings of Love, Hoyland borrows from a more unlikely source, perhaps: a photograph of blood-spatter on the floor of a hospital in Lebanon, accompanied by a piece, about the 33-day conflict in Lebanon and northern Israel in 2006, by The Independent's Robert Fisk.

"I've always liked Robert Fisk's writing and I admire him. I thought the piece that he had written was rather moving, and I looked at the photograph that went with it and it looked just like one of my paintings." The piece, published in August 2007, was a reflection on the previous year's war in Lebanon and, in part, a review of the book Double Blind by the Italian photographer Paolo Pellegrin.

Pellegrin's picture, taken in Tyre's main hospital, shows a large splash of blood on the black-and-white tiled floor of a hospital; the victim had been badly injured in an Israeli rocket attack on 6 August, 2006.

"I hate wars," reads Fisk's piece. "I was thinking this over as I pawed through Double Blind, from which these photographs are taken. Its terrible, rage-filled, blood-spattered pages are an awful memory to me of last year's war in Lebanon. It began on my birthday – my 60th birthday – when a dear friend called me up and told me what a terrible birthday I was going to have, and I asked why, and she told me that two Israeli soldiers had been captured by the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and I asked Abed, my driver, to head south, because I knew that the Israelis would bomb across Lebanon. And I was right."

The resulting work by Hoyland is a powerful, richly coloured image, with the artist's trademark layers of thick paint, rivers of colour running down the canvas, and his nerve-cell-like central focus. But Hoyland insists that the piece is not deliberately political.

"I don't see Lebanon as a political piece, although the title would indicate that. I was simply struck by the constant threat to people living in the Middle East and the sheer horror of the things that happen. I suppose my sympathies would always be with the victims and the underdog, so I suppose in that way it is political."

Lebanon is part of a wider exhibition inspired by loss. Both Patrick Caulfield and Piero Dorazio, both artists and close friends of Hoyland's, died in 2005 and Greetings of Love is, in part, a farewell. He has referred to the paintings for Dorazio, Poem for Piero, and Caulfield, Souvenir for Patrick, as "letters to friends" and "elegies".

"I spend a lot of time looking for structures and looking for things to hang a painting on," says Hoyland. "You've got to have a structure otherwise you'll just paint chaos. But at the moment I'm in this thing where I'm not painting sexy or structured pictures, I'm just surprising myself with what comes out. And I've done a lot of paintings recently that, without thinking about it, turn out to be about loss."

Hoyland, now 73, is regarded as the leading abstract artist of his generation, and is sometimes referred to as Europe's answer to Mark Rothko. "I don't think he would have liked that comparison," says Hoyland, laughing. "I knew him a little bit and he didn't really like other people following him at all."

Hoyland is part of a band of post-war "Mod Brit" artists such Albert Irvin, Alan Davie and Bridget Riley who , after briefly falling out of fashion, have enjoyed a recent return to popularity. Last year Davie sold a work for £234,000, and Hoyland's bright creations have been selling for £50,000 each. ......... V

C War and conflict are a subject close to Hoyland's heart. National Service was scrapped the year that Hoyland was due to be called up. "I was lucky that I never had to confront that. I would never have gone into the forces if I had been called up, even though some of my contemporaries seem to have enjoyed it. And the whole purpose of becoming an artist is to be an individual; the idea of going somewhere and being given a number and doing everything you're told doesn't appeal to me. I just don't go in for all this shooting people who you don't know; it sounds crazy to me."

The war in Iraq, Hoyland feels, was similarly inexplicable. "I've always been 150 per cent against the war, the folly of it and the lack of wisdom on behalf of our leaders. I mean, they might be smart people but they've got no wisdom. They're just like smart lawyers. But I'm older than them so maybe that makes a difference."

Hoyland was born in Sheffield in 1934 and attended the Sheffield School of Art and then came down to London to study at the Royal Academy school of art in 1957. As a child, he constantly drew and made things. "I just had a sort of craving to make something. I don't know why." His parents were supportive of him going to art school and his mother always encouraged him to draw. "She would say: 'Oh, let him draw, he's in the mood.' It was also a way of getting to stay up late."

The Royal Academy, although prestigious, was something of a disappointment. "In the Sixties we were just taught in the old manner of drawing from the figure, and painting landscapes, still lifes – things like that. I did it and I did it reasonably well, but I didn't have a flair for it. It was all about learning to draw in a Renaissance manner. I was always better when I picked up a brush and a palette knife. We really weren't taught much at all, it was very dry. And when we were taught history of art it was all a bit pointless. If you hadn't seen any of the stuff, mostly in other countries, what was the point? I've always thought that history ought to be taught backwards – start with today and then go back."

He then taught at the Chelsea School of Art, where he met Caulfield, who became one of his closest friends, and then at the Slade and Royal Academy art schools. He continued to paint, exhibiting in a variety of one-man shows at the Whitechapel Gallery, the Marlborough New London Gallery and, annually, at the Waddington Galleries.

It was Hoyland's meeting with the artist, architect and pioneer of abstract art in Britain, Victor Pasmore, that accelerated his creative progression. "I was very lucky to meet Victor on a course. All the ideas I'd been reaching towards but I had no intellectual grasp of – those were all clarified on the course. Victor sat me down one day and explained in about half an hour the difference between perspective and other kinds of space, and ideas on visual perception, and that helped me a lot – ways of rendering space without perspective. That helped me no end. I was stuck painting in Formalism, although I didn't know it was called that at the time."

Hoyland moved to New York in 1964, where the kind of abstract impressionism in which he was interested was at a more advanced stage. "Of course, at the start we couldn't make head nor tail of this American art. It seemed far more sophisticated and passionate than the British art of the same time. The stuff was really mystifying. Looking back, what was amazing was that somehow Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell had taken two opposite things, Constructivism and Surrealism, and somehow blended the two. They made a new hybrid."

From then on, Hoyland didn't look back and became one of the most celebrated artists in the UK. "If I had died in 1969 I'd be a legend by now," remarks Hoyland of his early success. "Someone once said to me that artists don't really get better, they just change. If you're no good to begin with you won't be any good at the end.

"I read a piece by Kenneth Clark once who was also saying that it's rare that artists get better as they get older. He put it down to a sort of 'unholy rage' you get in young men. When you're young, you start out wanting to be a tough guy and to beat everyone up with your work – the instinct is to be dominant and aggressive. And then you get into middle age and start wanting to be an intellectual and showing people that you know all the polemics of the game and to show people that you can match anybody in that way, too. And then when you get old, you just go crazy."

When Hoyland moved down to London from Sheffield he moved into the flat he still lives in now. It is part of an old abandoned hat-factory near Smithfield that he and 13 others, including the pop artist Allen Jones, bought in to for £120,000 between them. There is just one large room to live in, with a wall partially dividing the living space from the small sleeping space which you can just see while sitting on the low-backed brown leather sofas.

"The bed gets made twice a week: once when my girlfriend comes round and once when the cleaner comes round," says Hoyland. "I don't think you really need to make the bed with duvets, you just clamber back into your pit at night. I live like a kind of fairly rich student."

Today Hoyland is wearing a red-and-white checked shirt, black trousers and black cowboy-boots. ("I always thought fashion was rubbish – I still do.") His hair is a spiky shock of white and he wears large, tinted glasses, which keep slipping down his nose.

Attached to the flat where he lives is his studio, a once-large room-space now encroached upon by hundreds of canvases. The floor is thick with paint-spatters and everything else – chairs, books, doors, is covered in more paint. Hoyland's canvases, which he has the luxury of buying pre-stretched these days, are laid onto the floor and he works above them. The canvases are tipped this way and that to achieve a dribbled effect and he uses an iridescent paint that, when it catches the light, gleams like metal.

"Everyone always remarks on the floor," says Hoyland. "They all want to buy the floor and not the paintings!"

There is also a foot-high stack of catalogues detailing Hoyland's 40-year exhibition history. It's a back catalogue that speaks of a ferocious work ethic and a dedication to art. "There's that ridiculous cliché, you know, 'If you remember the Sixties then you weren't there.' Well, I was very much there and I remember them. We were never into drugs. I didn't even really drink in those days – we couldn't afford it. When I was a student I couldn't even afford to take a girl out for a cup of coffee.

"I remember Patrick [Caulfield] going to Rome on this hair-raising drive in a souped-up Mini with Robert Fraser [the art dealer] and they went to this very smart party with princesses and so on. Well, someone passed him a cigarette and he took it, thinking that they'd given it to him because he was next to the ashtray, and stubbed it out. It was a joint, of course, and they all looked at him like, 'Who's this guy?' We just had no idea. A lot of our students were doing LSD and they all turned out the same kind of paintings – sort of fuzzy things. They all thought they were highly original, of course. No, I was just trying to be respectable.

"I was always interested in serious art and serious literature and I had a wife and kid. I thought the Stones were overrated, although Mick Jagger's a great showman. I preferred the blues, Miles Davis, or Bach and Berlioz." The wife he refers to is Airi Karakainen, with whom he had one son; they divorced in 1968.

The modern art-scene seems to leave Hoyland cold; he is disappointed in the venal element that has crept into artistic endeavour. "The thing I miss in a lot of younger painters is the lack of passion and soulfulness. Nowadays to them it's all about succeeding. When we went to art school we never dreamed we would make a living out of art, make a lot of money or become famous or anything. Now they're all got their stuff set out with their [website addresses] and their business cards printed up.

"A lot of young artists now have an idea and want to illustrate it, but they do almost everything they can to avoid paint and the sensuality of painting. It's all so concept-based – and the real killer is computer art. Some of it is all right when you first look at it, but when you look closer it becomes more vacuous. The whole thing for me is the spontaneity that happens in the process of creating something."

Does he think people like Charles Saatchi, who make superstars out of art students overnight by buying their work for huge sums of money, are to blame? "Saatchi has his own taste and his own raison d'être," says Hoyland carefully. "He's taken a lot of risks, he's bought some good stuff, but I think he's bought a lot of junk as well. But it's up to him what he does with his money.

Sadly, people's success today is often based on how much they're written about. These guys are very savvy – that whole generation that came out of Goldsmiths, they're very savvy about the media. Damien [Hirst] is a smart guy. They reckon he's the richest artist in the world. But I don't think you make great art unless you paint it yourself."

A lot has changed, says Hoyland, but some things are still the same. "Someone asked me the other day what the teachers at the Royal Academy were like when I was there. And I said: 'Oh... just a bunch of grey-haired old fogeys who didn't know what we were doing.' And then I realised, well, we've come full circle!"

Greetings of Love is at Beaux Arts, Cork Street, London W1 (020-7437 5799) from 30 April to 31 May

****

'You become accustomed to the smell of blood during war'

As a witness to unbearable horror during his years in the Middle East, Robert fisk has – on occasion – been lost for words. But he believes that John Hoyland's artwork, capturing the brutality of conflict, is as eloquent as any journalist's article

I was in the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron once, in 2001, and the Palestinians had lynched three supposed collaborators. And they were hanging so terribly, almost naked, on the electricity pylons out of town, that I could not write in my notebook. Instead, I drew pictures of their bodies hanging from the pylons. Young boys – Palestinian boys – were stubbing out cigarettes on their near-naked bodies and they reminded me of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, all arrows and pain and forgiveness, and so all I could do was draw. I still have the pictures. They are ridiculous, stupid, the work of a reporter who suddenly couldn't bring himself to write the details on the page.

But I understand Hoyland's picture, even if it is not my picture. After I saw the oil fires burning in Kuwait in 1991, an Irish artist painted Fisk's Fires – a title I could have done without – in which she very accurately portrayed the bleached desert with the rich, thick, chocolate-tasting oil we tasted in the aftermath of the war. Sometimes, I wish these painters were with us when we saw the war with our own eyes – and which they could then see with theirs.

But John Hoyland's Blood and Flowers quite scrupulously directs our eyesight on to the bright, glittering centre of gore that we – be we photographers or writers – look at immediately we enter the centre of that little Golgotha which we wish to visit and of which we never wish to be a part: the hospital. Blood is not essentially terrible. It is about life. But it smells. Stay in a hospital during a war and you will become accustomed to the chemical smell of blood. It is quite normal. Doctors and nurses are used to it. So am I. But when I smell it in war, it becomes an obscenity.

I remember how Condoleezza Rice, when she was Secretary of State, visited Lebanon at the height of the war – at the apogee of the casualties – and said that the birth of democracy could be bloody. Well, yes indeed. The midwifery was a fearful business. Lots of blood. Huge amid the hospitals. God spare us Ms Rice's hospital delivery rooms...

I'm not sure how sincerely we should lock on to art to portray history (or war). I have to admit that Tolstoy's Battle of Borodino in War and Peace tells me as much about human conflict as Anna Karenina tells me about love. I am more moved by the music of Cecil Coles – one of only two well-known British composers killed in the 1914-1918 war – than I am by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. But this does not reduce the comprehensive, unstoppable power of great art to convince – just as a brilliantly made movie can do in the cinema.

I have to admit that I have a few worries about art and war. Can a painter who has never experienced war really understand the nature of the vile beast? Most of Britain's First World War artists were in France, but that does not apply to Iraq. When I saw wild beasts – the desert dogs – tearing apart the corpses of men, women and children in southern Iraq (killed by the United States Air Force and, yes, by the RAF, whose pilots – God bless them – refused to go on killing the innocent) and running off across the sand with fingers and arms and legs, there was no art form to convey this horror. Film would have been a horror movie, paintings an obscenity. Maybe only photographs – undoctored – can tell you what we see.

Goya got it right. I went to see an exhibition of his sketches in Lille a few years ago – the irony of my father's trenches a few miles away (he was a 19-year-old soldier in the third battle of the Somme) not lost on me – and was almost overwhelmed by the cruelty that he transmits. The collaborators hanging, near-naked, from the pylons seemed so close to the raped and impaled guerrilla fighters of Spain that art seemed almost pointless. What is the point of intellect when the brain will always be crushed by the body?

When the Americans entered Baghdad in April 2003, I ran into the main teaching hospital in Baghdad to find a scene of Crimean war proportions. Men holding amputated hands, soldiers screaming for their mothers as their skin burned, a man without an eye, a ribbon of bandage allowing a trail of blood to run from his empty socket. Blood overflowed my shoes. I guess it's at times like this that we need John Hoyland.

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