Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin | Ashmolean Museum, 2 Feb - 22 April 2012
If Oxford's drab winter skies are getting you down, then this superb new exhibition at the Ashmolean is certain to lift your spirits.
Howard Hodgkin's outstanding collection of Indian court painting - which flourished under the Mughals from 1550-1850 - is on public show in its entirety for the first time here. Hodgkin's first inspired purchases began as a schoolboy in the 1940s. Since then, he has returned to the Indian sub-continent many times, drawn by its difference. 'I think my main reason for going back to India is because it was somewhere else,' Hodgkin said, in 1984. It is a deeply personal collection, formed with an artist's eye.
'These pictures have been chosen because I thought them beautiful, because they touched my emotions, and not for any scholarly purpose,' Hodgkin has said. Now in his 80th year, visitors to the exhibition will surely share Hodgkin's delight, being 'struck all over again by [the] quality': the refined naturalistic works of the imperial Mughal court, the poetic and subtly coloured paintings of the Deccani Sultanates, and the boldly drawn and vibrantly coloured styles of the Rajput kingdoms of Rajastan and the Punjab Hills.
Along with epics and myths, royal portraits and scenes of hunting and court life, there are vivid illustrations of urban and daily life in India, meticulously observed or imagined, and exquisitely painted.
Curator Dr Andrew Topsfield has noted 'exciting passages or juxtapositions of colour' - characteristics found in Hodgkin's own work, which the artist's outstanding 2010 exhibition Time and Place at Oxford's Museum of Modern Art attested to.
Although many of the 121 exhibits are paper manuscript illustrations, Hodgkin has acquired some unusually big pictures, some even on the scale of palace wall-paintings. His choices of lightly coloured brush paintings show an expressive mastery of line, including some works left unfinished - evidence of Hodgkin's interest in the artistic process. Others, such as the great Kota artists, demonstrate a mastery of outline and contour which raised their work far above the conventional: a powerhouse of exuberance and re-invention.
Hodgkin's great love of elephant paintings - shared with the greatest of the Mughal rulers - is wonderfully represented here, unrivalled in their energy of line and sense of mass in motion.
'I just wanted great art', Hodgkin said. Few can doubt he has achieved it.