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.
Venture out of the metropolis for the day (or longer) to the small seaside town of Poole, next to Bournemouth, for a small but perfectly formed exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture by Augustus John, at one time considered one of the most famous British artists of the twentieth century, though his sister Gwen is now considered the greater talent.
John had a connection with Dorset from his time as a student at the Slade School of Art in London and in 1911, he set up home at Alderney Manor, in Poole, before moving in 1927 to Fryern Court, near Fordingbridge, on the Hampshire-Wiltshire-Dorset borders. This remained his main residence for the rest of his life.
The exhibition at Poole Museum is the first major exhibition focusing on John’s work since ‘Gwen John and Augustus John’ at Tate Britain in 2005. It’s curated by David Boyd Haycock, who has also curated a companion exhibition in Salisbury on John’s contemporary Henry Lamb, and which opens in Poole in 2019.
Already famous by the time he moved to Dorset, John sought solace and inspiration in the countryside around Alderney Manor. The pinewoods and beaches found their way into his paintings, rendered with a vibrantly-hued palette redolent of the south of France and the work of the Fauves. The portrait ‘Dorelia Among the Pines’ could easily be set in Provence.
Other works in the exhibition feature John’s children, rendered with tender affection. The drawings reveal John’s greatest artistic skill – as a draughtsman – and his famous sketch of T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) is here along with a rapid pencil drawing of Lawrence made in Paris*, strikingly spare and personal. John’s oil portrait of Lawrence in his Arab robes is also included. (Visitors may be inspired to follow the “Lawrence Trail” – as we did – a short drive from Poole to Lawrence’s house Clouds Hill near Wareham, and thence to his grave in the pretty little village of Moreton; take in the Laurence Whistler engraved glass windows in the church as well.)
This is a very fine exhibition, at least equal to a similar presentation at the Courtauld Gallery in London, revealing a more personal, intimate facet of John’s work at the mid-point of his career, while also confirming his status, at the time, as a leading artist.
We will be returning to Poole Museum in 2019 to see the Henry Lamb exhibition.
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
In the year of the artist’s 80th birthday, Tate Britain presents a survey of almost 60 years of David Hockney’s work in the first major retrospective for nearly 30 years and already the gallery’s fastest-selling exhibition. Once the rebel – he was painting queer art (We Two Boys Together Clinging) when homosexuality was still illegal – he’s now considered a national treasure somewhat in the manner of Alan Bennett, and is dubbed Britain’s “greatest living artist”, a title rather indulgently conferred upon him after the death of Lucien Freud in 2011. His work remains perennially popular and highly accessible, with its vibrant colours, classical genres (still life, landscapes, portraits) and subject matter drawn from the places where Hockney has lived and the people he has encountered, including many intimate and personal pictures of family, lovers and close friends.
As an artist, Hockney’s principal obsession continues to be the challenge of representation: how we view the world and how that view can be captured in two-dimensions. Although presented largely chronologically, the exhibition uses thematic elements to demonstrate Hockney’s ongoing interest in challenging the conventions of picture making. Thus the show contains his early forays into photo-montage in the 1980s, a genre which he has extended in recent years into large multi-screen video installations, and pictures created using an iPad app, which reveal his willingness to utilise new technology in the creation of new artworks. The problem is these works add little to the exhibition: they appear merely self-indulgent and attention-seeking – a case of “look at me! Look what I can do!”.
In fact, it was those interminable iPad pictures – vividly colourful, but curiously flat and lifeless because of the medium – which crammed the walls of the 2012 Royal Academy exhibition of Hockney’s work, which finally convinced me that this is an artist who, in his later years, has sold out to gimmicks and popularity over artistic integrity. If Rembrandt’s or Beethoven’s late style demonstrates a creative individual fully at ease with himself who no longer feels the need to play to the gallery nor please the audience, Hockney always has an eye trained on “the market”. In his book On Late Style Edward Said examines the concept of a distinct artistic/literary “late style” and highlights features such as a certain “insouciance” or self-confidence which may stem from a sense of completion, serenity, acceptance, or reconciliation. Sure, there is a distinct insouciance in Hockney’s most recent work with garish, straight-from-the-tube colours, inelegant outsized pointillist blobs, and crudely-drawn stripes. These works may reveal a supreme self-confidence, but looking at these paintings one has the sense of an artist who is very conscious of how they will be received (something neither Rembrandt nor Beethoven seems remotely concerned with in their late works).
Fortunately, the Tate show contains only a handful of dreadful iPad pictures, and there are many crowd-pleasing favourites in the exhibition, works which Hockney himself describes as “old friends”, including A Bigger Splash, Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy, and his celebrated double portrait of writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy (complete with a suggestive banana in the fruit bowl), together with sensitively-drawn portraits of family and friends, including his parents and his long-time friend Celia Birtwell. The works from the 1960s and 70s are, for me, the most interesting and reveal a skilled, confident artist at ease with his subject matter. There’s a sophisticated restraint and refinement of execution in these naturalistic paintings (sadly lacking in the later works), and fifty years on, works like A Bigger Splash still seem fresh and cool (in the best possible sense of that word).
Colour has always been important for Hockney – from the sun-drenched landscapes of California to the glittering azure of the swimming pool paintings, and related works, hot pinks, rich umbers and intense greens leap from the paintings. The later works are notable for both their colour, vast scale and crude execution, and it seems as if Hockney has transferred the intense colours of California to his native Yorkshire: never has the English countryside looked so gaudy!
A whole room is devoted to drawings, which prove that Hockney is, above all else, a fine draughtsman. Thoughtful, intimate and domestic in scale, these works, together with a series of charcoal landscape sketches, are by far the most interesting part of the exhibition and provide welcome relief from the brash palette and vast scale of the later landscapes. I was disappointed to find no prints in this show. His beautiful etchings, made in response to the gay poetry of Constantine P Cavafy, which he adored, are omitted (perhaps for reasons of logistics/permissions) which is a great shame for these, like the drawings, reveal Hockney’s compositional skill and craftsmanship far better than the giant canvasses and photo-montages.
The show also presents rarely-seen works from the late 1950s when the artist was studying at London’s Royal College of Art, plus Hockney’s landscapes from his native Yorkshire to his adopted home in California. New paintings of Hockney’s home and garden in Los Angeles (Garden With Blue Terrace) are displayed for the first time, works which vibrate with glaring colours and lush vegetation, and show that old age has certainly not dimmed this artist’s creative impulse and output.
But as a “retrospective” the exhibition works well – all of Hockney’s life is here – and unlike the 2012 Royal Academy show, there is not an overwhelming amount to take in. It’s a manageable exhibition whose first half is far superior to its second.