I still remember the first time I saw Bridget Riley’s vivid, abstract paintings. It was at a provincial gallery, Wolverhampton or somewhere similar, in the mid-1970s. Coloured stripes and shapes shimmered and bounced, their contrasting yet consonant colours jostling and vibrating on the large canvasses. I was fascinated by the rhythm and energy of these paintings, but also the meticulous way in which they were created.
Bridget Riley is as ubiquitous as David Hockney and probably almost as popular, and her singing, zinging paintings are familiar and instantly recognisable. The Hayward Gallery’s new retrospective of Riley’s work celebrates the vibrancy and seriousness of her work. It’s her third exhibition at this gallery and the largest retrospective to date, spanning her early forays into the daring juxtaposition of colour and shape and the expressive pointillism of Seurat to the development of her own distinct style which seemed so in keeping with the mood of the Swinging Sixties yet is also timeless and fresh today, the mesmerising effects of her paintings not dimmed by the passage of the years. Now in her late 80s, Riley is still creating and her latest explorations with dots using a limited palette of muted colours are on display in the final room of the exhibition. Their colours are subtle but their impact is just as powerful.
In the large white spaces of the Hayward Gallery, Riley’s paintings can be viewed to their best advantage. Her black and white paintings – graduated dots and squares, waves and lozenges – trick and disturb the eye and brain, suggesting infinite depth and dimension in their two-dimensional surfaces, as visually cunning as a painting by Escher and equally challenging. Perception and sensation are important in all of Riley’s work, but the black and white paintings really test our ways of seeing. In Continuum, the viewer actually enters the work of art and is encircled by a continuous painted surface which spirals around itself, creating an unsettling immersive experience which Riley rejected as too literal, in favour of the flat canvasses which mesmerise and excite.
Look closer and one appreciates the care and attention which goes into producing these works (Riley uses a meticulous process of studies to work out her paintings, which are then finished by her studio assistants). Structure and process are hugely important to Riley, yet one has the sense that she works by the maxim of “through discipline comes freedom”: each painting has a freshly-minted immediacy.
On the upper floor of the gallery, this important process is examined in more detail with a display of her studies, which reveal how her decisions about colour, contrast, tone, tempo and scale influence the finished work. Here, there is also an opportunity to see her early work, when she was still a student and before she developed her distinctive style. There are some elegant life drawings and sketches of friends, intimate and touching in contrast to the large, vivid canvasses which populate this generous, uplifting exhibition.
Aporrhais Pespelecani is a marine snail, the thing that lives inside a seashell, a little mollusk that can be found from the Norwegian coast to the shores of the Mediterranean. It has a very pleasing shape, which seems designed to fit into the human hand – a deep bowl, and 3 or 4 spiny ‘fingers’, radiating out like the struts in the webbed foot of – well, a pelican, which is how the snail gained its name.
About 500 years BCE, a workshop somewhere in Greece or in its islands began sculpting these shells in marble. We have no idea how many were made, but only a very few have survived (the British Museum has one; so has the Getty), and given how complex and delicate the shape would have been to sculpt, maybe all of them were the work of one single workshop, maybe of one single mind that saw the natural original, washed up on a beach somewhere, and was inspired, and worked at the design, and then worked at it some more, until they had perfected it. They made it bigger than the shell is in life, so this one, if you were to hold it, would project either end of your palm, with the tips of your fingers fitting between the spines.
This is far and away the finest of the survivors. The marble it is carved from is snow-white, and has tiny sparkles of quartz in it, like snow again. As you crane your head to see all the way around it, held upright in its display case, you begin to realize how magically put-together is the shape – the soft round of the bowl, the delicate spines, the tiny whorl at one end (a separate piece, like the stopper to a bottle), the flat lip at the other. The way all these shapes fit together is half the enchantment of the piece. The other half is what it tells us of us, that human impulse to take something from nature, and recreate it, give it new form, give it rebirth as art, and how that defines us and has propelled us forward from all those centuries ago to what we are today.
Its surface tells of a final chapter in its history. The marble has been eroded by the action of water and sand. This shell that is not a shell was returned to the ocean at some point, which took the bright paint that would once have covered it (there’s a tiny trace left, on the whorl), and gave it its foamy whiteness, and wore at its spines, just as it would have done a real Aporrhais. In other words, it is so beautiful, it fooled even the sea.
Real Pelican’s Foot shells, with that suggestive, hand-friendly shape, were used as libation vessels, and then maybe cast back into the sea. Their carved marble cousins were probably made for the same purpose. Perfected, painted, used – and cast back into the element that inspired it. Everything about this is as perfect and organic a whole as it is possible for a work of art to be.
Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends – National Portrait Gallery, London
The title of the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition of portraits by British artist Howard Hodgkin has an added poignancy: called ‘Absent Friends’, the show opens just two weeks after the artist died at the age of 84, and thus Hodgkin himself is an absent friend to this exhibition, with which he was very much involved in the planning. It’s the first ever exhibition of Hodgkin’s portraits and contains over 50 works from around the world, dating from 1949 to the present, including a recently completed self-portrait by the late artist together early drawings from Hodgkin’s private collection, made while he was studying at Bath Academy of Art in the 1950s, and exhibited for the first time.
Howard Hodgkin has never quite attained the same status nor acclaim in the contemporary British art world as David Hockney or Lucien Freud, yet for me his work seems far superior to the former artist’s later creations, in particular in its execution, imagination and refinement. Compare Hodgkin’s sprezzatura brushstrokes, vibrant dots and exuberant joie de vivre with the clumsy faux-pointillism and migraine-inducing colours of Hockney’s most recent landscapes, currently on display in a retrospective of his work at Tate Britain, and Hodgkin wins hands down in my book.
There aren’t many faces in this exhibition and initially one may find it strange to encounter so many obviously abstract works in an exhibition billed as portraiture. But for Hodgkin, portraits were not about figurative representations of people – friends, lovers, colleagues – but rather the private realm of experience that connects one more intimately with the world and its inhabitants. “I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances.” said Hodgkin of his work, “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.” Hodgkin’s portraits move far beyond literal appearance and instead represent more subjective aspects – memory, experience, emotion and expression associated with the person. Rather like Elgar’s portrayal of friends in his ‘Enigma Variations’, Hodgkin drew on his accumulated experiences and the paintings became the physical equivalent of the artist’s experience and feelings: “they should be like memorials“. These works are highly personal and often intangible, created with wit, warmth and intimacy, whose colours, shapes and brushstrokes express the artist’s evocation of specific individuals in particular situations.
The early works from the late 1940s and 50s are far from abstract. These are purely figurative works, but Hodgkin’s interest in colour is evident from the outset. The drawings, on display for the first time, demonstrates key characteristics of Hodgkin’s approach which continued throughout his career. In all three works, including a drawing of his landlady ‘Miss Spackamn’, he evokes the appearance of the sitters very precisely, with confident pencil marks, yet they are based entirely on memory, a factor central to Hodgkin’s work, and reveal his remarkable powers of recall. Two Women at a Table explores the physical relationship between the two sitters, with the underlying theme of the intimacy of their situation. The works from the late 1950s are also the result of recollected images: their subjects are recognisable, but the artist’s expressivity is used to recapture his “original feeling” of recalled experiences with and about that person. In the 1960s, the art critic Edward Lucie-Smith described Hodgkin as “the nearest thing to a classical artist at present working in England” and for Hodgkin the notion of “classical art” was connected with “making art out of feelings”. This psychological dimension – picturing reality as he felt it rather than as he saw it, going into the mind and painting consciousness instead of reality – would assume greater prominence in his later work. The works from the 1960s are witty and affectionate, highlighting aspects unique to their subjects’ lives and work: for example, ‘The Tilsons’ (1965-7) portrays the British Pop artist Joe Tilson, whose handmade, constructed work reflects his background in carpentry. Hodgkin uses bold colour and repeated geometric shapes which recall Pop Art’s appropriation of techniques from advertising and commercial design. Meanwhile in ‘Mr and Mrs Robin Denny’ (1960), a double portrait of the painter Robyn Denny (1930-2014) and his wife Anna, Hodgkin’s bold brushwork and vibrant colours may be an affectionate riposte to Denny’s geometric compositions and restrained palette.
From the 1970s, Hodgkin’s work moved further into the realms of abstraction, and while these paintings may appear to have been created in a matter of hours or a few days, they are the result of much painstaking work and revisions over many years. Yet they vibrate with an irresistible spontaneity and vibrancy. These are the paintings I remember from childhood visits to art exhibitions with my mother (also an artist and art historian). I was fascinated by Hodgkin’s habit of painting right across the frames of his works, something which seemed highly subversive in a tradition concerned with edges and defined limits. And so just as he challenged the received notion of what constitutes a portrait, he also made a statement about how we define “a painting”.
It is these later works which really sing from the walls – simple in composition with broad bands of colours, dappled surfaces, jewel-like colours – they feel fresh, newly-created and replete with a zest for life. The final room displays Hodgkin’s last major painting, Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music, completed in late 2016 with the National Portrait Gallery exhibition in mind. This large oil on wood painting, (1860mm x 2630mm) evokes a deeply personal situation: the act of remembering memorialised in paint. While Hodgkin worked on it, recordings of two pieces of music were played continuously: ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ composed by Jerome Kern (a song about looking back and reliving the past), and the zither music from the film The Third Man. Both pieces were favourites of the artist and closely connected to earlier times in his life that the experience of listening recalled. Surrounded by a hefty frame, which does not contain the picture but rather allows it to extend, its colours and broad gestures invite one to step into it, to explore it further. The colours are more muted than in the other paintings which precede it, but its celebration of the experience of being alive vibrates across the work. This is a work of genuine emotion and integrity.
Paul Moorhouse, the exhibition’s curator says of this picture: “When we look at this painting it’s got such a highly-charged, emotional message which is rather different from the more celebratory pictures elsewhere in the exhibition. To me, it’s a deeply-moving painting and I think it is a painting in which Howard was confronting what he saw approaching. I think he knew.”
The exhibition begins with Hodgkin’s earliest portrait, and the story ends with this final work. What is in no doubt is that this exhibition is a wonderful tribute to and celebration of one of Britain greatest artists.
FW (reviewed 22 March 2017)
HOWARD HODGKIN: ABSENT FRIENDS 23 March -18 June 2017, at the National Portrait Gallery, London www.npg.org.uk