‘You talk about art, and I’ll talk about money’, Hodgkin growled, reaching for a glass of red wine. It was like watching a rare, venerable giant Galapagos tortoise being tempted out of its shell by an engaging, charming schoolboy with a bunch of dandelions – each bloom hand-picked, delicately proffered and tactfully withdrawn at the slightest exhalation from Hodgkin’s wary nostrils. ‘I don’t mind being an endangered species’, Hodgkin declared last night, an artist for whom privacy and secrecy within which he can create have always been paramount.
Graham- Dixon’s approach differed markedly from the BBC’s 'Imagine' documentary being shown as part of ‘Time and Place’ in which Alan Yentob’s confident prompts as to what Hodgkin might have intended have the effect of a very sharp stick, reducing Hodgkin from demurring monosyllable to silence – although he does startle Yentob at the end by picking up a brush and applying it in a perfunctory, mischievous manner to a small canvas which he then turns to the wall.
But Hodgkin last night was thrilling: revelatory, incisive, surprising, amusing. When Graham-Dixon suggested that rooting his paintings in reality kept Hodgkin ‘honest’, avoiding repetition and reduplication ‘without feeling’, Hodgkin replied: ‘We’re leaving something out here’, and paid tribute to his teachers, particularly Wilfrid Blunt, brother of Anthony, who in the brief year he spent at Eton encouraged Hodgkin to value paintings as things, rather than mere images or illustrations, unlike most of his contemporaries, particularly from his social mileu. ‘Culture is the enemy of art’, he’s commented, previously.
Blunt’s African statue of a dog with an erect penis which ‘startled parents’ but expressed ‘up yours’ gave Hodgkin a sense of the integrity of the outsider, a state of mind which still persists, despite the late recognition he has received in the UK.
More prolific than ever as he enters his 78th year, Hodgkin admits to long periods of contemplation, sprung from memories, before completing recent work relatively quickly. ‘The most successful are the barest – I’ll stop there’. He scans the audience. ‘I’m working now’.
‘Motorway in the rain’, ‘High Wycombe’, Graham-Dixon wondered. Hodgkin’s gaze was unwavering.