Howard Hodgkin & Edgar Degas

January 26 - February 2, 2008

Like all our series of artist 'pairings' (this was the 15th of the 26) the premise of this exhibition was a simple one - a conversation between objects. In this case, a new and previously unseen painting by Howard Hodgkin alongside a little painting, 'La Femme de Candaules' by 19th century French master Edgar Degas.

 

The two paintings are separated by more than 160 years and there is no immediately obvious link between them. One is a small nude in a gilded frame, the other an unframed abstraction purporting to be a landscape. The Degas depicts a story from Heroditus: the wife of King Candaule, spyed on by Gyges as she prepares for bed. It pre-dates his most famous series of nudes and bathers but suggests an early interest in the theme, with its possibilities of eroticism, exposure and fragility. The landscape, with Hodgkin's familiarly phallic brushstrokes floating across the surface, is arguably the more erotically charged of the two, but for all the apparent distance between them the two works have an unmistakable sympathy.

 

Degas is one of a small group of French artists who helped to define 20th century painting and who Hodgkin has always admired: Vuillard; Bonnard; Matisse; Degas; and of these it is Degas that he holds most dear: "Degas has always been one of my heroes - perhaps more than almost any other artist...His technique is amazingly inventive, but surely without conscious virtuosity; it was a search for a language of maximum directness and simplicity" [Letter from Howard Hodgkin to John Elderfield 23 February 1995]

 

Hodgkin has written of Degas' life-long search for "different ways of making marks" and of "the classical wall of expressed feeling that he has built for us", something that might equally be said of Hodgkin's own paintings with their unmistakable quality of being 'built' over time with marks assembled, like bricks in a wall. There is also in their work a shared belief in the value of what the mind remembers over what the eye can see, or as Degas described it "of seeing things vaguely".