Howard Hodgkin: 'I want to set things straight'

Can knowing the story behind a painting explain it? Perhaps not. But at 76, the master of abstraction is speaking out

Before I went to interview Howard Hodgkin, I had a fantasy. This man (who had never met me before in his life, but let's not get bogged down in boring detail), this great man, this great artist, would suddenly unveil a little oblong of multi-coloured splodges and swirls and, on a sudden impulse, beg me to take it. I'd demur, of course, but eventually I'd give in. And then I could gaze on the multi-layered jewelled iridescence of a Howard Hodg-kin painting every day for the rest of my life.

Such fantasies, I discovered on reading about him, are quite common. "These are paintings you want to covet," wrote William Boyd in Modern Painters more than 30 years ago, "paintings that boldly change your mind, that – to put it crudely – you want to steal."

And then I discovered something else. Sir Howard Hodgkin, Turner Prize winner, representative of Britain at the Venice Biennale, Companion of Honour, subject of major retrospectives at the Hayward and Tate, is, apparently, terrifying. He doesn't like talking about his work. He answers questions in monosyllables.

The face of the man shuffling painfully towards me is, however, so sweet that all fear melts. He has been ill. He hasn't, in fact, been in his studio for three weeks. But here we are, in a huge, white space, a temple to creativity. If you expect colour in an artist's studio, if you expect colour in an artist-known-for-his-colour's studio, you won't find it here. The floor, the walls and the ceiling (a vast, glass canopy) are all the exact same shade of powdery white. There's a table covered with tubes of paint, and another with brushes, but the furniture in the centre of the room is draped in off-white sheets and the pictures on the walls are all concealed by off-white canvases, and the pictures on the floor are all turned to face the wall. This, you might think, was the studio of a man whose eyes, like those of an albino at risk of exposure to bright light, might be scorched by colour.

And it is silent. It's a stone's throw from the British Museum (where he could, if seized by impulses like mine, nip out to nick one of the exquisite Indian miniatures he collects and adores) and round the corner from bustling Oxford Street, but this Victorian dairy-turned-studio, connected with a little foot-bridge to the Georgian house he has lived in for more than 30 years, could be in a field, could be in a desert. And as I sip the coffee his partner has deposited, before tactfully retiring, and gaze around at the whiteness, I feel strangely suspended in time and space. The world feels far away. This, clearly, is a place where what matters is the world inside.

The journey from the door to the chair where I'm sitting is torturous, a metaphor, perhaps, for the protracted, painful process of producing a Hodgkin painting. When, finally, the slightly monkish figure in grey and black is helped by his studio assistant, Andy into his chair, there's a collective sigh of relief. There is, however, it soon becomes clear, nothing lumbering about the brain.

"So," I say, seizing the bull by the horns or something like it, "Andrew Motion, who I saw at a poetry reading last night, tells me that you're less reluctant to talk about your work than you used to be. Is that true?"

There's a long pause. "Yes," he says in the end, "I think that's probably true. It's a feeling of wanting to put the record straight. Partly also that you know what dreadful misconceptions are lying about and want to correct them." Well, fair enough. Howard Hodgkin is 76. At the peak of his powers, as catalogues say, but no longer in the pink. Who wouldn't, contemplating a path strewn with (real or imaginary) errors, want to sweep a few of them away?

But, I venture, in an argument against this interview, against, indeed, my job, is there any particular reason why any artist other than a writer, maybe including a writer, should be able to speak particularly well, or illuminatingly, about their work? Art and language are, after all, entirely different mediums.

Another long pause. Oh dear. "I couldn't," says Hodgkin eventually, in that clipped, throaty voice that reminds you of his background, his Eton, his Bloomsburyesque relatives (Roger and Margery Fry were cousins), "agree more".

Five minutes into the interview, we have both agreed on the uselessness of what he has called in the past "the tyranny of words". Which gives me a warm glow but could, one might argue, be seen as counterproductive. So, I decide to mention the best of the many words I have read about him. In a catalogue produced by the Gagosian Gallery there's a speech by Seamus Heaney, given at the opening of the 2006 Hodgkin retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. Heaney begins by quoting Philip Larkin's poem "The Trees". "The trees are coming into leaf," the poem begins, "Like something al-most being said." It ends with the suggestion of a metaphor. "Last year is dead, they seem to say, / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."

It seemed the perfect statement about Hodgkin's work, I tell him, the perfect statement about pretty much everything, in fact, and when I read it, it made me cry. Hodgkin's sweet, open face crumples up and his rheumy eyes fill with tears. Ten minutes in and we're both welling up. For God's sake, Christina, get a grip. So, here's Larkin, here's Heaney and here is Howard Hodgkin crying. Is he, I ask, unnecessarily, a poetry lover?

"Oh yes," he says. And who does he return to most? "You'll be horrified," he says. "Stevie Smith." I am not horrified. I tell him that it makes perfect sense. That the poet who wrote that a character in one of her poems was "not waving, but drowning" achieved a level of perceived simplicity, naivety even, which was powerful and moving, but which often worked in quite complex ways and that, like all good art, was more powerful and moving the more you engaged with it. And that that was not unlike the work of an artist called Howard Hodgkin. Was it?

Hodgkin looks as though he is torn between laughter and tears. "Well, what else is there to say?" he says. Well, I say, pointing at the tape recorder, could he please have a go? "I think," he says obediently, "the naivety of Stevie Smith is one of the things I have in common with her and in the past I found I had to be rather defensive about that." Well, yes, between naivety and apparent naivety there's an entire ocean, an ocean in which you could wave or drown. And, in the battle between waving and drowning, the critics have seized on the titles of Hodgkin's paintings – titles, incidentally, reminiscent of Stevie Smith or another apparently naive poet, e e cummings – as ammunition. See, say the critics who want to make the arguments for complexity and richness, here are these titles (Waking up in Naples, In a French Restaurant, In Paris With You) which show that behind the wild splashes of colour are real events, real memories, real narratives. See, say the critics who want to make the argument for naivety, here are these titles which bear no relation to these paintings. They're the painterly equivalent of flirtation. They offer more than they deliver.

So the critics who want to argue for complexity want to know the stories, because how can you understand a painting if you don't know the story behind it? But what, in the end, has a story got to do with a painting? A painting, surely, is like a poem. It's an experience which undergoes a long, painstaking, often painful process of transformation – alchemy if you like – to become something else. The story behind it might be interesting to a biographer, or a voyeur, or an art critic, but it's ultimately irrelevant because it's a different thing. Isn't it? "Yes," says Hodgkin, "it's something totally different."

And then, amazingly, perversely, he asks Andy to dig out one of his earliest pictures and tells me the story behind it. It's called Memoirs. It was painted in 1949 when he was 17, during a summer on Long Island, when he was staying with one of his mother's friends. The friend is lying on a couch, telling him stories and he is gazing, with a beady eye, back. Hodgkin has talked a great deal, over the years, about the "incurable pain" of creation. Was it, even at 17, painful to produce? "Oh yes," he says. The boy who decided at seven that he was going to be an artist always knew, he says, that art would be about pain.

There was pain of a different kind later, when he married, knowing he was gay, and taught, to support his children, knowing that he was on this planet to make art, and then when he left his wife and family to follow his sexual inclinations, and his heart. Now, he is as near to art establishment as you can get and has been with the man he loves, the music writer Antony Peattie, for 20 years, but there is, it's clear from the sorrow etched deep in his face, and the tears that well up at intervals, still pain.

But there's pleasure, too. A potential source of it is the first large-scale exhibition of his prints, organised by the Barbican Art Gallery, at the PM Gallery in Ealing. The gallery is the extension to Pitzhanger Manor, an elegant 18th-century house designed by Sir John Soane, a man Hodgkin regards as "a great unsung hero". Its restrained domestic interiors seem like the perfect foil to his vibrant splashes of colour, surrounded, as they are, by trees and park. I didn't realise, until I saw them, that prints could be so multi-layered, so alive. Here are the palm trees that feature so prominently in his paintings. Here are the proscenia that act as extra frames between the work and the world. Here are the vast sweeps, the gentle layers, and curves. It was, perhaps, unlikely that an artist who can take many years to produce a single painting would be happy with the single roll of a litho press. Instead, after years of experimentation, he has hit on a complex and painstaking combination of techniques to produce the richness he seeks. And it works – my God, it works.

Can he look on it with pride? Surely he can look on this with pride?

Hodgkin's face crumples up again. "No," he says. "I had a great friend, a painter called Patrick Caulfied. I remember going round an exhibition of his, a retrospective. He was crying," says Hodgkin, who is also crying. "He just kept saying 'not enough, not enough'."

But then he shows me some of his recent pictures. They are restrained – sometimes just a few brushstrokes on bare wood. They are confident. They are amazing. Among them is a painting which, says Hodgkin, could be an illustration to the Larkin poem. It's called And the Skies Are Not Cloudy All Day. I'm tempted to say that the title says it all, but actually the picture says much, much more.

Howard Hodgkin: Prints, from tomorrow at the PM Gallery, London W5, to 28 February (

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?