Arts: What's it all about, Sir Howard?

He's one of Britain's most admired artists. So why does Sir Howard Hodgkin feel painting is overlooked?
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The Independent Culture
Sir Howard Hodgkin moved away a screen and revealed his latest picture. In the centre a sort of typhoon or twister separated lighter and darker zones. Around the edges were sweeping brush-strokes forming a frame of colour, and also overlapping the actual wooden frame.

Vigorous, immediate, looking as if it had been produced in one furious burst of inspired activity, and yet tautly constructed as a watch - it would have been identifiable as a Hodgkin at 40 paces. It will be included in his exhibition of new work at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery opening in November. But what is it all about?

Now in his late sixties, Howard Hodgkin is one of the senior figures in British art. Long ago he won the Turner Prize, shortly after the Turner Prize itself was inaugurated. He has represented this country at the Venice Biennale; he has been knighted, his career crowned by a large exhibition which travelled from America to Germany, before ending up on the South Bank two years ago - where it proved so popular that its run had to be extended. So Hodgkin is an artist not only admired by art-world insiders, but also - which of course by no means necessarily follows - genuinely popular with the art-going public.

It wasn't always so. Hodgkin springs from what in another country might be termed the intelligentsia - his family are related to that of the critic Roger Fry, and a medical forbear had the well-known disease named after him. Although reticent about his own work - everything an artist says about which, he once remarked, "may be taken down in evidence, etc" - he has something of the urbanity and articulacy of Bloomsbury when talking about anything else. (And Bloomsbury, near the British Museum, is, as it happens, where he lives.)

His own road to artistic prominence, however, was a long and slow one. The fifties for him were, according to the critic and curator Richard Morphet, "a decade of painful isolation". It wasn't until the seventies, that he found that he was able to "join everything up together" - join up, that is, all the elements of his unique approach. So it wasn't until the eighties that Hodgkin emerged as a major figure. His painting may look abstract, and in some ways grew out of abstraction, but he is, as he explains, "a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances", "a representational painter of emotional situations". His painting, apparently so straight-forward with its singing colour and ebullient execution, contains hidden complexities, paradoxes, and mysteries.

Take, for example, this painting. "The title", Hodgkin vouchsafes, "is Night and Day. Now, that is an important clue. The naming of the work - unimportant for many artists, who prefer such tags as `Untitled', or `Number 32' - is crucial for Hodgkin. "The title is totally important," he explains simply. "It is what the painting is about." On the other hand, he is reluctant to expand on titles. And when he does so, the result can be disconcerting.

A painting called Tea, whose mysteries he once unwrapped a little in an interview with David Sylvester, turned out to be not about crumpets and Darjeeling.

Or rather, it is about the former, but only in an unguessably quirky fashion. It is about an ordinary, decorous tea party at which one of the guests revealed he was a male prostitute, and went on to describe his life in detail. A precise visual memory such as this - of an occasion, a place, a person, an emotional situation - is the starting point for each of Hodgkin's paintings.

He continues to paint it, and repaint it, and repaint it, making it larger perhaps, working radical changes day by day, possibly for many years, possibly for much less. He carries on until it has been transformed into a combination of brush-strokes, shapes, light and colour - pared down to the essence - which somehow "brings the memory back".

"What is important," he insists, "is that what I feel, think and see turns into something. I mean, ideally, it starts off in my head, and ends up a thing."

So what are we to make of Night and Day? A moment of crepuscular transformation of light to darkness? (Hodgkin has painted many landscape's, including some, one hopes at least, straightforwardly decodable ones of Venice, Naples and India, in particular.) Or is this painting about something quite different? A moment, perhaps, significant to Hodgkin, which occurred while Cole Porter's song was playing? For the moment he's not giving anything away.

Of course, that means that viewers can hare off in the wrong direction altogether. I tell him how a year or two ago I saw a painting at the d'Offay gallery - a rather splendid painting dedicated to his late friend the architect Max Gordon. Being a jazz fan, however, I instantly connected it with another, also recently deceased Max Gordon, the proprietor of the Village Vanguard club in New York. I had triumphantly interpreted the painting as an evocation of the atmosphere of that celebrated cellar dive before someone put me right.

Hodgkin is greatly amused and not at all disconcerted by this. But then, the story of the painting is not the point. "The picture" he once told Robert Hughes, "is instead of what happened. We don't need to know the story: generally the story's trivial anyway. The more people want to know the story the less they'll want to look at the picture." The point is for us to respond to the painting in front of us, with the title as a - possibly allusive or elusive - guide.

This sounds more puzzling than it is. Nationally, we tend to like our art spelt out in comprehensible verbal terms. Told that a cow by Damien Hirst is about mortality, or a bed by Tracey Emin is an updated version of la vie de boheme, and we are satisfied. But told that a series of dynamic brush-strokes on a piece of board represents a memory of the artist's whose exact nature may not be revealed, and we're flummoxed. Or at least, some critics have made heavy weather of this point.

In fact, the procedure is more normal than might appear. Often, the crucial point about a piece of visual art resists easy verbalisation. A ceiling by Tiepolo is not entirely about the apotheosis of some unremarkable Venetian aristocrat, it is about the way the apricot light strikes the side of a cloud, or a Levantine in a turban peeps out from behind the entablature. It is concerned, in other words, with matters which are hard to put into words.

Which is one reason why Hodgkin has long railed against the "tyranny of words" which reigns (or perhaps reigned) in this country. He has often complained that (in comparison with literature) visual art is not taken seriously here. When I press him on the question of how a dab of paint can be transformed into the representation of a thing let alone an emotion, he replies: "I think you are asking something which is simply beyond verbal communication." When talking about art, as Virginia Woolf once put it, you may move into "the silent land".

But on the subject of Anglo-Saxon incomprehension of the visual, on which he has often spoken in the past, he has changed his view. "To be an artist in Britain is perhaps, even certainly, special, more traumatic and probably more fraught with the absolute certainty of failure than in any other country" - or so he told the students of the Slade in 1981. Does he still feel that? "I'm not sure that I still would say that. I don't think painting is taken terribly seriously, but I think other kinds of visual art are."

Why not painting? Because, he answers, not many people seem to be doing it any more. Does that make him sad? "No, I think it is a movement of history. I would hate to think that what I make personally didn't communicate, but that's as far as I would go." He need not worry. It may be hard to say just how, but his work unquestionably does communicate, powerfully, vividly, beautifully.

Howard Hodgkin at Anthony D'Offay Gallery, Dering Street, London W1 from 12 Nov to 9 Jan