Howard Hodgkin: What's in a self-portrait?

Portrait of an Artist Listening to Music Image copyright PA
Image caption Portrait of the Artist... was Hodgkin's attempt to describe how he remembered himself

Sometimes with art, it is instructive to gauge public opinion. It can help blow away the cobwebs of pretension that get spun in your mind's eye if you hang around the art world too much.

It's a particularly useful exercise with modern art, and almost essential when it comes to the abstract stuff. Hence, I arrived on Piccadilly this morning armed with a photo of one of the last paintings Howard Hodgkin produced before he died two weeks ago.

Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music (2011-16) is a self-portrait, made while Hodgkin listened to Jerome Kern's The Last Time I Saw Paris and the zither music Anton Karas composed and performed for 1949 film The Third Man.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Howard Hodgkin's hallmark was to paint abstracted memories, not literal subjects

(Neither appeared on his Desert Island Discs line-up, which just goes to show what terrible frauds castaways are.)

By now you will have seen the picture and arrived at your own first impressions. Those on the mean streets of Mayfair earlier today were not favourable.

"Rubbish," said a middle-aged man in a pinstripe suit, who looked like Jacob Rees-Mogg but wasn't.

"What is it?" asked a lady in Lycra.

"Terrible!" said a Polish mother of two indignantly.

The most positive remark was made by an elderly woman outside Hatchards, who said it reminded her of Cynthia.


"My great-granddaughter," she said.

Whatever one's opinion, I think it's fair to say we're not in Rembrandt or Picasso territory when it comes to the sub-genre of late self-portraits.

(I suspect Cynthia might think Picasso's Self-Portrait Facing Death was more within her range.)

Image copyright National Portrait Gallery
Image caption Howard Hodgkin's paintings go inside the mind and paint consciousness

I do like it, though. It's easier to grasp when you know that Hodgkin's shtick was to paint abstracted memories, not literal subjects.

Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music is his attempt to describe how he remembers himself, which is a meta kind of thing to try and pull off when you consider it is a lifetime of being Howard Hodgkin he's tried to capture.

Do I see a person in the painting? No. Nor do I hear music. But I do see emotion. And integrity.

Ever since the invention of photography, artists have been trying to carve out ownership of an area of representation that is beyond the mechanical lens.

By and large they have ceded the self-portrait, accepting that the camera is always going to be the winner. But Hodgkin was a more tenacious artist, not one to give ground on matters he thought important, such as painting.

So he took painting in a new direction, not completely abstract, nor wholly figurative, but somewhere in between. And he ended up in a place the camera can and will never go. He went inside the mind and painted consciousness.

Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends runs from 23 March to 18 June at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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