I went today to see the Chris Ofili tapestry Weaving Magic at the National Gallery. It had flickered on my cultural radar but no more, however the friend I went with had picked up on it, and we agreed that it would make a good pairing with Howard Hodgkin at the National Portrait Gallery.
The tapestry is really very impressive and great fun. It hangs in splendid isolation in the Sunley room, where the walls have been covered in coordinating Ofili designed grisaille figures. The original design for the tapestry, or strictly speaking the three tapestries because it consists of a triptych, was done in watercolour, not even the dry, precise watercolour of an eighteenth century landscape painter but the bleeding, splashy sort that really puts the water into colour. Unlike Grayson Perry's tapestries, the new Ofili tapestry was handwoven by a team of five people working for three years in close collaboration with the artist. After the exhibition it will hang permanently in the Clothworkers' Hall in the City of London.
As was explained in the accompanying short film, the Clothworkers' Company offered the commission to Chris Ofili partly on the strength of his some of his previous work designing stage sets, because they knew he could envisage his work at that scale. He was initially cautious in case a commission meant that they would want to influence the the work, but accepted their assurances that they wanted a genuine Ofili and would not interfere. The choice of watercolour had an element of mischief: he wanted to see how the weavers could translate something so graduated and subtle into the solid medium of wool. The answer turned out to be, with great skill.
Figures in the two side panels pull back curtains to reveal two other figures in a landscape beyond, one playing a guitar while the other reclines drinking from a cocktail glass perennially replenished by a barman in the sky. It is a very watery landscape. The whole thing is done in jewel colours, purples, emerald greens and bright blues, very rich and intense and very subtly blended. The whole thing is wonderful, and possibly slightly kitsch. I would need to think about that. Most people would not class the Fauvists or Henry Matisse as kitsch, so would I count the original Ofili watercolour as kitsch, or was that my response to seeing it blown up quite so large and enacted in tapestry?
My only gripe was that I would have liked to know more about the process of weaving, how they started a new colour in and secured it so that there weren't any sags or bobbles, whether they floated threads across the back between areas using that colour, what was the thread count (or whatever the term is when it is tapestry), how many colours there were in total, and so on. I wish they had made two little extra bits to hang somewhere in the room, that we were allowed to touch and so that we could see what the back looked like. The accompanying book cost twenty-five pounds and didn't give any more information than we'd already gleaned from the short film. I don't know why I would have liked to be told all that when I am quite happy to spend an afternoon looking at Dutch landscapes of the Golden Age without a tutorial on oil painting techniques, but that's what happens when you start crossing the divide between Art and Craft, suddenly you want to know how it's done.
I went into the Howard Hodgkin knowing very little about him, beyond the bare facts that he was moderately famous, died recently, collected Indian art which he loaned to a very well reviewed exhibition at the Ashmolean which I should have loved to go to but didn't, and that his paintings were colourful. And I liked the one the gallery was using in the advert. My friend knew slightly less, so we visited in a spirit of open minded curiosity.
All except the very early works were pretty abstract, since rather than represent what his sitters looked like, he was painting what he felt when he thought about the encounter. In fact, if I'd been whoever was represented by the rather muddy square of colours on the way in to the exhibition I'd have worried that Howard Hodgkin might not have enjoyed the time he spent with me very much. The show was hung chronologically, and for the first couple of rooms as we progressed through the 1960s I wondered whether my friend minded having paid ten quid to get in. As we hit the 1980s Hodgkin's use of paint became freer, and we began to get to paintings like the one in the advert, and I began to feel cheerful. And I liked the way he continued the paintings up over the frames.
It is probably very shallow and childish to like colour and movement, but I do. Anyway, if a painting is almost utterly devoid of anything representational, and carries no narrative content that anybody not privy to the contents of the artist's head could understand, what are you left with? So I love Rothko and Paul Klee, and I liked some of the later Howard Hodgkins a lot. I am sorry that he died just before the exhibition opened so could not see his paintings from so many decades gathered together, and a new audience discovering them.