'Without the frame, that particular central image would be vulnerable in all kinds of ways. One of the reasons I use frames in the way that I do - and I think it goes back to Romantic artists like Turner, who deliberately chose very sturdy, thick frames for some of his smallest, most evanescent pictures - has to do with my instinct that the more tenuous or fleeting the emotion you want to present the more its got to be protected from the world' (H. Hodgkin, quoted in M. Price, Howard Hodgkin: The Complete Paintings: Catalogue Raisonné, London 2006, p. 227)
'I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances. I paint representational pictures of emotional situations' (H. Hodgkin, quoted in S. Sontag, About Hodgkin, pp. 97-109, E. Juncosa (ed.),
Writers on Howard Hodgkin, Dublin & London, 2006, p. 104).
With its powerfully evocative title and glorious outburst of glowing colour and spontaneous rhythm, Sir Howard Hodgkin's On the Edge of the Ocean is an outstanding demonstration of the artist's unique vocabulary of abstraction. Executed in the years immediately following his victory in the second Turner Prize and his representation of Britain at the Venice Biennale, there is a confidence and belief in his brushstrokes and the use of vibrant colours which show an artist at the top of his game. Close examination of other works made around this time reveals that he was heavily influenced by Venice and Tangier in the late 1980s. The work itself immediately conjures up visions of a warm summer evening watching the waves drift in. The painting evokes memories and thoughts, and this is further enlightened by the three year time frame of the dating of the work, 1986-89. As with so many of his greatest works of this period, these paintings became labours of love, and time and memory are central to their creation. This is visible in the layers of colour in On the Edge of the Ocean, where flashes and glimpses of paint from previous states teasingly peek through the veil, adding a greater substance to its entirety.
The lapis-like blue paint that undulates across the canvas, with the darker purple undertow, gives a heady vision of the sea, while the upper blue area conveys a sky increasingly saturated by the red and pink of what appears to be a sunset. However, it is not the image itself that is conveyed, but instead some insight into the emotional associations that that view provoked. Hodgkin has lent his own memories palpable, sensual form in the rich blues and reds of this painting, demonstrating the extent to which, as Susan Sontag quoted him, he paints, 'representational pictures of emotional situations' (Hodgkin, quoted in S. Sontag, 'About Hodgkin', pp. 97-109, E. Juncosa (ed.), Writers on Howard Hodgkin, Dublin & London, 2006, p. 104). This quality had gained a new force during the 1980s, as is reflected by the presence of works from the period being in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and Tate, London.
The completeness of Hodgkin's works, so in evidence in the colour-brimming surface of On the Edge of the Ocean, is heightened by his framing devices. On the one hand, the paint appears to have broken the bounds of the picture surface, covering the wooden frame as well as the central area. And yet, within that central rectangle, Hodgkin has introduced another framing device, with red bars compressing the area in which the ocean is represented. This bleeding in and out of the frame recalls some of the Indian manuscript illustrations that he has collected for decades, and which were until recently the subject of a dedicated exhibition in the Ashmolean, Oxford. Just as some of those illustrators introduced painted frames to their works and allowed the figures to breach their confines, so Hodgkin also allows an intriguing interplay between frame and motif, resulting in a total vision, a total picture surface. In this way, he concentrates the effects of the colours at the centre while also allowing the red of the frame and the almost Pointillist dots on the upper and left edges to add another layer of information to the picture, serving to convey a sense of emotional vibration relating to the scene and to the artist's own memories.
This framing technique allows Hodgkin to manipulate the vivid colours which are the driving force in his evocative, poetic visions. Hodgkin has long been entranced by colour, inspired in part by the example of Henri Matisse. Where Hodgkin may have originally been inspired by some of Matisse's paintings, the intensity of colour in On the Edge of the Ocean and the lyrical, eloquent short-hand with which he has evoked the scene recall instead the cut-outs, for instance Le lagon of 1947. It is telling that On the Edge of the Ocean was completed just before Rain, another evocation of water which is one Hodgkin's largest paintings and is now in the collection of Tate, London.
Hodgkin is now one of the most celebrated of Great Britain's living painters, and this status has been heightened by the growth of interest in his work during the past half decade. He was the subject of a retrospective at Tate Britain in 2006, the year that Marla Price released a large, updated catalogue raisonné of his work, and his recent work was until recently the focus of a show at Modern Art Oxford. Hodgkin's sumptuous, colour-drenched visions teeter between the realms of figuration and abstraction to evoke sensations and memories through a unique idiom that places him apart from the various movements that have occurred parallel to him during his long career: he is both modern and timeless.