London

Howard Hodgkin

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Collections of historical masterpieces have two main ways of engaging with contemporary art, if they don’t ignore it completely: One is to feed the mouth that bites them, so to speak, by bringing in some institutional critique; the holdings will look stronger for having survived the in-house sniping (as Karen Knorr’s recent exhibition of photographs at the Wallace Collection demonstrated). The other is to show a “contemporary classic” in harmony with the classic classics. This, surprisingly, is the riskier option. Between the old masters and even the most conservative contemporary artist there lies a vast breach. The juxtaposition can show everything in the worst light: Old art looking fussy and fusty; new art, slapdash and superficial.

That’s the chance Britain’s oldest public gallery took when it asked Howard Hodgkin to exhibit his paintings alongside its collection. Seeing thirteen mostly recent Hodgkins scattered among the gallery’s Watteaus and Fragonards could be disconcerting. The most obvious reason was Hodgkin’s palette. Works like Out of the Window, 2000, or Afterwards, 2000, seemed keyed painfully high in comparison to the tonal restraint of the surrounding work. Hodgkin can be a subtle colorist even in bright pictures—Memories, 1997-99, is a good example-but this context made it awfully hard to see that; paintings that matched the coloristic sobriety around them (Autumn Foliage, 1998-99) or even outdid it (Dirty Mirror, 2000) looked best here. Still, if you gave yourself time, you could make the adjustment. A more serious problem was posed by Hodgkin’s worrying at the idea of framing—the way he paints on the antique frames around his panels. You might think Hodgkin’s ornate moldings would be a link to the pictorial past, but it turns out they only emphasize the contemporary painter’s playful but very anxious ambivalence toward the self-sufficiency of his images. Old-master paintings are glad for the separation frames provide between themselves and real space; Hodgkin’s are constantly compelled to assert their objecthood. Therein lies an almost unbridgeable gap between eras.

For all that, Hodgkin’s presence here is justified by the emphasis on painterliness his work shares with the Dulwich collection, which was built around holdings amassed at the end of the eighteenth century, originally with the intention that it become the basis for a national gallery in Poland. In this context an incipiently Romantic dimension seems to emerge even in Poussin. Hodgkin’s exacerbated contemporary painterliness may seem weak in comparison to such mastery but serves to highlight the hidden strengths of some of the collection’s smaller figures. In one of the few juxtapositions that seems based on a formal echo, Hodgkin’s oval When in Rome, 2000, draws attention to the shape of the Archangel Michael’s shield in Sebastiano Ricci’s adjacent Fall of the Rebel Angels, ca. 1720—a passage that anchors great centrifugal force in its own conspicuous painterliness. Likewise the startling disjunctions in Jan Weenix’s Landscape with Shepherd Boy, 1664, the compositional imbalance of Sébastien Bourdon’s A Brawl in a Guardroom, ca. 1643, and the daring vacancy of Arent de Gelder’s Jacob’s Dream, 1710–15, seem to take heart, as it were, from their continuing relation to Hodgkin's present—just as that present, in turn, may recognize its own brutal image in the raw-meat red slathered across the bottom of Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Young Man, 1663, an inarguable excuse for the sitter’s cloak.

Barry Schwabsky