British painter Howard Hodgkin, who died last year, was the subject of a lecture delivered by his longtime partner, the music critic Antony Peattie, at Delhi’s British Council on 26 November. Bhumika Popli writes about the talk, and about Hodgkin’s art.
The black mural on white tiles, visible from afar on the facade of Delhi’s British Council, was painted by the renowned British artist Howard Hodgkin in 1992. This mural, painted with broad brushstrokes, represents a banyan tree and is made using makrana marble and kadappa stone. The branches of the tree ascend towards the library wall of the British Council.
“I thought of people sitting under banyan trees reading … I thought it was appropriate for a library,” said Hodgkin in a BBC documentary clip, which was screened at the British Council during Antony Peattie’s lecture on 26 November. Peattie is a music writer and was Hodgkin’s partner for 33 years.
His Delhi lecture was part of the celebrations of British Council’s 70 years in India. It was about Hodgkin’s illustrious career as an artist and about India’s influence on his work. The talk was also followed by the launch of an exhibition featuring Hodgkin’s paintings.
In the BBC documentary that Peattie played during his lecture, we hear the architect Charles Correa, who designed the British Council building in Delhi, speaking about Hodgkin’s mural. Correa says, “When you come to India, you want to deal in colour but he [Hodgkin] had the guts to say shadows are black and the hotter the sun, the blacker the shadows.”
Hodgkin himself is on record saying that he prepared the designs for this mural with paper cut-outs. It reminds you of the creative practice the French artist Henri Matisse, who at one point in his career was obsessed with paper cut-outs.
Do you think Hodgkin was influence by the Matisse? I ask Peattie. “Yes, absolutely,” he says. “I used to joke with him when he talked about old age. He died when he was 84. He faced the notion of old age and lessening abilities. In fact, it didn’t happen like that. In December 2016, we came to Bombay and he painted six paintings in five weeks. He never did so many. And then his hands shook, he couldn’t hold the brush and his legs couldn’t support him and he was downhill so rapidly. We got back to London a week later and he died. So the body gave way, but he anticipated what might happen when he couldn’t hold the brush. And what happened to Matisse when he couldn’t stand were cut-outs. Howard certainly was inspired by that.”
Peattie showed the audience an image of Wave, a mural Hodgkin made in 1988 at a swimming pool in Broadgate Centre London. The artist used Venetian glass for the mural. Peattie explains Hodgkin’s design: “Notice the areas that are unpainted on the design. This was what Howard did all the time to show that what he was making was not an illusion. He was very keen to remind people of the making of art. He was often quoting the French painter and writer Maurice Denis, ‘Remember that a painting—before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote—is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.’”
Hodgkin came to India for the first time in 1964 and made several works inspired by this country. One of his prints, on view at the Delhi show, is entitled Indian Tree. It combines bright red and green, its broad brushstrokes reminding you of the mural on the library wall.
Peattie spoke to Guardian 20 on the artist’s Indian connection. “Howard once said, ‘I couldn’t do my work without India.’ India freed his imagination and he felt immense sympathy with the vision India has, the openness to experiment with an uninhibited use of colour, for example. Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue magazine, had once said, ‘Pink is the navy blue of India pink.’ Meaning navy blue is all we wear. Pink in India can be used on a building, on a man’s clothes. You are not inhibited in that sense, saying that pink is for girls and blue for boys. Pink is the navy blue of India, which is a completely new, different, original take on colour. And I think Howard’s very uninhibited use of colours owes something to India and Indian art.”
According to Peattie, Hodgkin wanted to reach people’s feelings and didn’t want his work to be just an intellectual exercise. On Hodgkin’s engagement with the public at large, Peattie says, “There is a special bond between Howard’s work and people. Viewers often get very emotionally excited with his work. When Howard had an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the ’90s, a man came up to him and said, ‘You are driving my wife mad.’ Howard was very shocked as the man was very aggressive until it was clear to him that the man meant that his wife was moved by the painting. That’s a very special bond and that’s why Howard’s works are often hung in homes and not in museums.”