Is it still the same old story?


Do all artists have a "late period," in which they exhibit power coupled with exuberance, occasionally even surpassing some of the work they made when younger? Or is this venerable fireworks display only achieved by great artists? The list is familiar (and assembling it a trivial pursuit) - Picasso, Rothko, Rembrandt, Titian, Poussin,  the Verdi of "Falstaff." On  the evidence of his latest show, my friend Howard Hodgkin, qualifies. 

At the Alan Cristea Gallery in London is a show of some of Hodgkin's very large 1995 "Venice" and 2001 "Into the Wood"  hand-painted prints, all gorgeous, vivacious and  animated (and, I'd say, underpriced). 
But then in the corner gallery are just two prints. At 244 x 610cm (96 x 240 inches - yes, 20 feet long), they are the largest prints Hodgkin has ever made. Indeed, they may be the largest etchings ever made by anyone. Called "As Time Goes By," they were done recently. 
One of them has a cherry red rectangular border, the other an amazing blue border, a colour so difficult to describe that it should really be known as "Hodgkin blue" (though like the red border, it actually consists of several tones).  Anyone who knows his work would know these were Hodgkins without needing to be told, because the marks are so familiar: textured, irregularly shaped splodges of strong colours, with non-random splattter marks and trails. Even under the "frame" border there is obvious underprinting, and a moment's inspection tells you that the splodges have been made at different times and are mostly layered.
At a lunch to celebrate the exhibition, I was very lucky to sit next to the master printer of 107 Workshop in Wiltshire, Andy Smith, who explained a bit about the making of these giants. Some of the technical matter was beyond my grasp, (so skip over these next few sentences unless you really want to know) but: each print is made of five panels of 350gsm hand-torn Moulin de Gué paper; the technique is sugar-lift aquatint with carborundum relief, and extensive hand-painting. They're printed from copper etching plates, made up of three sheets, inked with between 7 and 15 colours per panel. A special press was built to accommodate the plates, and the printed sheets had to be trucked to the artist's London studio in a very large van.
Following printing the aquatint, the carborundum relief was made from five plates printed in Rouge Geranium with 30 per cent Cardinal Red, or, for the blue version, in Jaune Capucine. The hand-painted colours were Cadmium Red Light, Pyrrole Red and Cadmium Red Medium acrylic, and Anthraquinone, Outremer and Brilliant Blue acrylic. 
These need an enormous room to display them properly. Though there is near-microscopic detail, especially of texture, you need to stand a good distance away to take in the whole plane of the image. I find a big difference in the mood of the two, with, oddly enough, the blue version being the more cheerful, happy and optimistic. I say "oddly enough," only because we think of "feeling blue," meaning depressed. On the other hand, I find that the red version feels a bit  angry to me - "seeing red?" Maybe it's about the setbacks we all have in the fight for love and glory, or when our hearts are full of passion, jealousy and hate. The blue image, though, certainly makes me remember that the world will always welcome lovers.
In any case the energy conveyed by these two magnificent pictures is the chief impression they make on me. I only wish I had a room with walls big enough to hang them (and a large enough bank balance) to make it possible to look at them every day. I'm confident that they will transfer some of their energy and vitality to anyone who looks at them with enough attention - and what more could one want for one's own old age?

June 5, 2009 3:40 PM | | Comments (1)


I feel that anybody who is still alive and vital can create at any age. It is sad that so many artists are marketed for reasons that have nothing to do with natural processes in making art--being young can mean just a certain kind of vitality in creating; being older can mean acquired experience that gives richness with more time to create the art. That is what people need to understand.

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on June 5, 2009 3:40 PM.

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