BOOK REVIEW / The colour of feeling: Art's revenge on intellect? A new study of Howard Hodgkin reveals his unEnglish attitudes to tradition, to emotion, and to his palette: Howard Hodgkin - Andrew Graham-Dixon: Thames and Hudson, pounds 24.95

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SUSAN SONTAG described interpretation as the revenge of the intellect upon art. In his new book, Howard Hodgkin, Andrew Graham-Dixon quotes this wise saying and turns it round. Hodgkin's paintings, he says, are art's revenge upon the intellect. And indeed the first response to this brilliant book, with its 96 coloured illustrations, is a kind of sensuous glee, a rush of energetic delight in the fact that there is such colour in the world, such blues, such oranges, such lively greens and ferocious reds, such black shadows and such fountains and veils of violet light, such columns of shocking pink overlaid with sky-blue dots. Such authority, such sure power, one wants to say, and then has to ask how authority is recognised in a patchwork of strokes and splashes, swipes and magnified pointillist spots.

Writers about art, even writers as good as Andrew Graham-Dixon, are happier writing about the meaning of paintings, or placing them as part of the culture they were made in, than trying to find language for the nature of paint, for the way one colour sings or sulks against another. Only perhaps Lawrence Gowing can make a non-painter share for a moment Matisse's reasons for placing a particular orange against a particular violet shadow, or for choosing the other colours placed in the predominant blue field of La Fenetre Bleue. Writers tend to latch on to any words they can find in the picture's field, which usually means the title. Hodgkin's titles are exemplary in that they are terse, and helpful and revealing enough. He has said that his paintings are 'representational pictures of emotional situations', and Graham-Dixon wisely encourages us to mistrust this apparent simplicity: 'Howard Hodgkin paints emotional situations. Cezanne painted apples.'

Nevertheless he teases out with tact and intelligence the possible relations of a screen of grey-green dots over an obscured swirl of violet, orange and white forms to its title Souvenirs, or the reasons for the food writer Paul Levy to appear as 'a pasty smear of pink with smudged eyes and mouth surrounded by thick blobs and blotches of paint the colour of confectioner's custard'.

The 'Artist's Statements' at the end of the book reinforce the idea that Hodgkin is primarily interested in rendering human feelings. A painting, he says, can be kept true, by 'going back to the subject', which is 'the original feeling', even if it is 'resolved' in terms of 'pictorial language and in terms of the physical object . . . The impetus for that resolution comes from the feeling, which is what they're about.' Graham-Dixon identifies the feelings, predominantly in terms of sadness, the patchiness and quirkiness of memory - a wonderful oval Love Letter is 'a blue oculus in whose centre you see what could be a landscape prospect interrupted by a translucent vertical shimmer of grey that could be a sunbeam breaking through cloud cover or a sudden squall. A flesh-coloured fragment in the foreground could be a detail of a human body.' But the references cannot be resolved: it is 'a picture about the imperfection of memory and the incommunicability of experience'.

There are paintings of Jealousy - 'a poisonous little painting of a poisonous little emotion', a curled red figure, or snake-head, or sexual recoil facing another patch of red overpainted in yellow and framed in dark and darker and scraped red-browns. Or Counting the Days, or Clean Sheets, or None but the Brave Deserves the Fair, Discarded Clothes, or Lovers, where arching and coiling and interlocking curves of scarlet and green move around an almost flesh-coloured countercurve.

As the book shows, Hodgkin's painting of sexuality is at once blatant, rich, funny and intensely private. He is a master of the cylindrical form both menacing and bland, in all its postures, driving, drooping, rising, inert, and in many pinks and reds and browns. There is a portrait of David Hockney in Hollywood as a triumphant erect red phallus among palm-tree curves, blobs of light veiled in blood-red and a thin line of what Graham-Dixon identifies as swimming-pool blue. The cover painting In a Hot Country contains a rushing pink horizontal arrow, thick enough with paint to have the body of a battering-ram. Graham-Dixon observes that 'here Hodgkin's device of the heavily framed image becomes charged with sexual, physical intimacy. The inside of the painting is the inside of the body.'

Graham-Dixon is particularly good on Hodgkin's frames. Hodgkin, he says, 'knows that a painting's edge is its most vulnerable point. It is where the work of art ends and the world begins.' His paintings start on blank framed panels of wood and the paint work moves over and on to the frame, sometimes in borders within borders, sometimes as a movement of the design of the surface out over its confines, as though a Vuillard wallpaper was setting out to spread over the garden and sky outside. Graham-Dixon describes the feeling of the viewer who is looking into these works of art as an experience of peeping through a keyhole, or alternatively of looking into a miniature theatre. Or looking in at someone else's window. 'It feels like looking surreptitiously, even a little furtively,' he says.

The wonderful Snapshot is a large picture in which brilliance - a red-gold sunlike circle, partly occluded by violet, a curtain of varied bright greens, a dark hemispherical shadow, a patchwork of violet-blue and red and gold and white stains - is encased by a heavy frame of strokes of black and grey and stained white, the shutter of the camera, the restraining frame of a window, the uprights and cross-stone of Stonehenge at sunset. It is, as the author says, a large painting about smallness, a monumental snapshot.

He is very good indeed on the small scale and modest claims of Hodgkin's paintings, of which the archetype may be the beautiful A Small Thing but My Own. They are domestic, they are private, they assert their temporary and provisional nature, they are marks, they are representations, and, as he says, representations are always sad, always partial. If these are paintings about the nature of paint, and its relations to the world, they do not have the monumental ambitions of Rothko or Barnett Newman. One of their pleasures is that their relation to the history of painting is both eclectic and full of interest and delight: this is an art of inclusion rather than rebellion. Vuillard, Bonnard, Matisse, Corot, Degas, the flat brilliance of Mogul paintings, Turner's Venice, all are evoked with wit and transformations.

Both Hodgkin and Graham-Dixon insist on the unEnglishness of his colour. Hodgkin says: 'There is an in-built puritanism about the English attitude to colour which is really quite bizarre', and 'I have a feeling that it is only in the Anglo- Saxon world that sunsets are to be described as 'vulgar',' and 'I think a lot of people in England are afraid of pictures which have visible emotions in them.'

Hodgkin paints hot, bright places - a red pyramid in Egypt, a swirl of red, blue and green in Morocco, a triumphant spouting green palm tree against orange and yellow in Tangier, Kerala bright and hot and dark and threaded with fine black- green lines like Madras cloth. And yet I feel that his reluctance to abandon the material world as source, his delicate, precise notation of mysteries and particulars, the absence of any doctrine, dogma, or programme for the betterment of the world, his steady vision are in some sense English, as his brilliance and richness are those of the English vision, developed in watery veiled lights of blues and greens and greys, suddenly faced with meridional sun.

He likes sunsets, he says, because they are 'very red, very orange, which at the red end of the spectrum are the colours of tumescence'. Graham-Dixon quotes Picasso on the symbolism of modern painting: 'Painters no longer live within a tradition and so each one of us must re-create an entire language. Every painter of our time is fully authorised to re-create that language from A to Z' This brings me back to my original question - how do we know, when we recognise the 'authority' and beauty of Hodgkins's marks, what 'authority' means, or where it derives from? All cultures have made symbolic structures of colours, from the blue of Mary's cloak to Van Gogh's certainty that he was painting 'the terrible reds and greens of human passions', which chimes with Hodgkin's blood-filled tumescent sunsets. There seem to be few constants, though linguistic anthropologists have apparently produced a possibly invariable order of acquisition of colour-words in cultures - first black and white, then red, then yellow and green, in either order, then blue and brown, and last come purple, pink, orange and grey. This is thought to be a neurophysiological rather than a utilitarian hierarchy, and offers yet another reason for responding strongly to red. Synaesthesia appears to be quite haphazard - different musical notes recall different colours to different people.

What does appear to be constant is a kind of transformation of consciousness worked by moving among colours, looking at the relations of one colour to another, entering their world - just to try to describe this experience is to move into a language I don't like, an illegitimacy of metaphor, a blurring and slurring and straining, exactly the opposite of the precision and wonder of looking. It is an experience that is not always the same - paintings by Rothko that used to disturb my brain and change my sense of the world now seem, sometimes, simply flat areas of paint on large canvases. Reading Matisse's letters about his struggle with the relations of colours, one has a sense of a man in a hotel room with his brain humming and stretching in a kind of paradisal or daemonic cage of different lights, a haunting of the visible more powerful than any unseen forces. Hodgkin's colours have the same effect on me - they excite and enliven. Graham-Dixon quotes Lawrence Gowing: 'Absorbed in the simultaneous flat-and-deep of Hodgkin's colour one no longer seeks to decode it. One dwells on it for itself.'

'Howard Hodgkin' is published by Thames and Hudson at pounds 24.95

(Photographs omitted)