Unsurprisingly, the powerhouse London gallerist Alan Cristea is one of the latest trendsetters to pick up and leave Cork Street in search of greener pastures. Following in the footsteps of Philip Mould and his established gallery of ‘Fake or Fortune’ fame, Cristea has taken over a vast, whitewashed contemporary space on Pall Mall which perhaps heralds the start of a mass exodus and the end of the traditional Mayfair nexus of dealers. What is fascinating however, is Cristea’s choice to give the responsibility of drawing the crowds to his new space over to Howard Hodgkin.
Hodgkin is a British painter best known for his thick, expressive daubs of paint, dragged across the canvas and wooden supports. Mystifying and oblique, I became aware of Hodgkin in 2006 with the opening of his magnificent Tate Britain retrospective. But Hodgkin was trying to make a name for himself long before his full introduction into the art world celebrity of the 1970s when he was playing with a Pop Art language of interiors and portraits. He often gets compared with Matisse, Vuillard and Degas as well as Abstract Expressionists or even Pahari miniature paintings, but crucially – Hodgkin is really a law unto himself. Painting right up to the edge of the canvas and beyond, Hodgkin makes objects that cannot be defined.
An Eton and Bryanston public school boy known for its unwieldily pupils, Hodgkin became one of the movers and shakers at Camberwell art school in the 1930s. He also came from art world stock, with a family that collects art and the critic Roger Fry for an ancestor. And while Hodgkin has become one of the most important gay artists of the 20th century, his rise has been slow. Compared to his contemporary David Hockney, it took Hodgkin years to be recognised and for a time he considered throwing himself in front of a train. For that reason, working in solitude from his whitewashed studio in London, Hodgkin has become something of a lonely, reclusive figure. But now with the Venice Biennale, Turner Prize and a title behind him, Hodgkin has become a household treasured name.
From hard edged forms to fluid vivacious curves, Hodgkin’s painting reflects his own pasionate and dramatic nature that has become legend. He is “a man who loves and hates with a passion, and is very emotional. He will cry very easily and flares up, both in terms of colour and of temper, very quickly,” Nicholas Serota lamented in 2001 about Hodgkin’s famous emotional ways. And as Hodgkin has aged these outbursts have only risen closer to the surface. But perhaps this reputation is just a cruel commentary on our society’s cruel stereotype of masculinity, which is more ready to embrace Francis Bacon’s violent relationships as the basis for tormented work. Hodgkin stayed married to his wife Julia Lane for many years and has only a few years ago separated to be with his long-time partner Antony Peattie: the music writer that balanced the tempestuous Hodgkin. But while Hockney and Bacon’s work is so often riddled with sexual desire, Hodgkin’s addresses the basic instincts of despair and inadequacy.
Born only four years after his last remaining rival in powerful expressive painting Cy Twombly: Hodgkin has become something of a dinosaur. Now in his 80s, we have to wonder whether Hodgkin is still at the forefront of British painting. Is he respected in the same way as his contemporaries Gillian Ayres, Anthony Caro, Patrick Caulfield and John Hoyland. And of course the age old question whether, like Turner or Picasso, Hodgkin can keep up the momentum in the final days of their life.
Cristea and Hodgkin have had a long relationship. And with 20 years worth of spats, revolutions and celebrated exhibitions, it is perhaps no wonder that Cristea would turn to his friend as a loyal frontman for the new gallery. It was Cristea in 1995 that convinced Hodgkin to continue making prints and Cristea has seized the monopoly on the market. The show itself, titled quite aptly ‘After All’ is breathtaking, with bold and confident strokes of colour that create structure to the white walls at once restrained and filled with uncontrollable emotion. Only time will tell if Hodgkin and Cristea will stand the test of time as iconic partners in art world crime have such as Picasso and Ambroise Vollard or Paul Durand-Ruel and the Impressionists. After all it’s only the opening show.