Opening just two weeks after the artist's death, the exhibition reveals how he was able to capture the people he loved with colourful quasi-abstraction.
He may have had a reputation for abstraction, but many see figurative elements in the work of Howard Hodgkin. And indeed, this major London show will have viewers searching for facial features and physical frames; this is after all an exhibition in a portrait gallery. It’s where we come to encounter individual sitters with all the intimacy that painting allows.
But reputation notwithstanding, the beloved English painter strove to evoke a human presence in his work for some 65 years. Portraiture was his metier. He was able to strike a mood, using his relationship with the sitter to stir up strong feelings.
So whether employing abstraction to capture a friend, or a landscape (and there are always clues in the titles of these paintings), Hodgkin was a very direct artist who managed to make his subjective impressions universal. He used rich colour and heavy brush strokes, both of which work on the limbic system as surely as a colour therapist might claim to.
In 2013, the painter said he was painting better than ever before and producing his most lucid art. But given that he was already an octogenarian by this point, it is inevitable that mortality have been one of the factors that was on his mind. He sadly died just weeks before this show opened.
His celebration of absent friends should offer both grief and nostalgia. Hodgkins' gift means that his friends may well become yours too.