‘Absorbed in the simultaneous fat-and-deep of Hodgkin’s colour one no longer seeks to decode it. One dwells on it for itself; in its presence, one is in its company. What paint it is!’ – Lawrence Gowing
‘You always wanted to get close to a Hodgkin. The sensory, sometimes visceral impact of a painting when first seen is followed by a long, evolving negotiation with it, a move into intimate reverie and speculation.’ – Alan Hollinghurst
Painted between 2008 and 2011, Little Garden is a stunning example of Howard Hodgkin’s late work, a coalescence of colour and sensation painted on wood panel. Expanding beyond the confines of figuration, Little Garden is extraordinarily tangible in its evocation of the pastoral: a glaze of cheery yellow, a patch of emerald surrounded by dark green marks that streak vertically like trees, the marks of mid-morning blue. The painting’s aura is conjured entirely through sweeping brushwork and an emotive palette, and yet nothing is explicit. As Hodgkin’s paintings are almost always informed by the trace of a memory, they inhabit the gap between representation and abstraction, an in-between space made hazy by the passing of time and nostalgia. As curator Richard Morphet wrote, ‘Though some of Hodgkin’s landscapes are straightforward embodiments of what he saw, more have the character of inward or psychological topographies that are fused with a perennial astonishment at the effects of nature’ (R. Morphet, Howard Hodgkin: Painting 1992-2007, exh. cat., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, 2007, p. 19). In his signature style, Hodgkin has extended the painting outwards onto the frame, covering both with large daubs of cloudy blue. For Hodgkin, the frame itself is integral to the painting and not simply a formal boundary at service to the scene; often, it seems that the frame is more central than the ‘image’ it surrounds, even as it remains physically differentiated from the picture plane. A slip occurs between the two as paint flows simultaneously outwards and in. It
is a boundary that simultaneously allows for and resists such porousness. Indeed, there is a ‘seductive dialogue between near and far’ reminiscent of how trompe l’oeil artists use frames to intrude illusionistically into the living world (R. Morphet, Howard Hodgkin: Painting 1992-2007, exh. cat., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, 2007, p. 26). That the frame’s status is fluid makes Little Garden accessible and intimate, as familiar as the view through a bedroom window. Part of the intimacy evoked is due to Hodgkin’s gestural and all-consuming brushwork, inspired in part by Édouard Vuillard: ‘Before a picture is a battlefeld or a landscape or a bunch of flowers...it is a series of coloured marks on a fat surface. And he [Vuillard] painted himself like that. And he painted the world he knew, like that. And he painted his emotions like that’ (H. Hodgkin interviewed by J. Tusa, BBC Radio 3, May 7, 2000). Highly individualized, each splotch Hodgkin makes is a blend of paint mixed directly onto a large brush. The process is gradual and deliberate, and the four year development of Little Garden is not unusual. The dimensional marks contain multitudes; Alan Hollinghurst described them as ‘little landscapes in themselves, yielding up greater and greater riches’ (A. Hollinghurst, Howard Hodgkin, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, London, 2008, p. 15). Certainly the spray of blues seems to be both sky and rain, at once a warm grey and icy white, animated, serene, and atmospheric. Little Garden is a mosaic of colours, powerfully eloquent, a chromatic blend of biography and metaphor.