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Howard Hodgkin on Seurat

Part 4: Seurat's Bathers

A few years ago you made a painting base on the painting Une Baignade, Asnières, in the National Gallery, which was then hung next to the original as part of the exhibition Encounters. What was your relationship to Seurat at that moment?

What I was doing, which seemed to offend English people tremendously, was to try and make a revised version of the Bathers, very humbly, I hasten to add. I wanted to paint a version of it in the style of a three-quarter size study for La Grande Jatte that is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which I've long thought of as one of the most successful of his large paintings.The scale of the marks to the size of the picture - they hit the target again and again and again. If you compare the study to the final version, which is monumental, rigid, decorative, then the study looks almost like a defrosted version.

Had you always wanted to make a painting based on the National Gallery Bathers?

Yes, I certainly had, but I never thought that it would be possible. I was asked what I'd like to do, and I knew immediately which painting I wanted to use. I was really delighted - and, although it became a frightening thing to carry through to the end, really it turned out, in my terms, to be much more successful than I could have thought possible. When I saw them together I wasn't, to my surprise, disappointed - most people were, they were furious. But I wasn't trying to improve on what he'd done, I was just trying to make it a little more open-ended.

You said once that your idea of classicism in painting was 'a beautifully articulated anonymous architectural memorial'. Could this be applied to Seurat's classicism?

He was one of the first people who tried to use anonymous marks in a way that quite a few twentieth-century artists have tried to do since. He managed to do this of course despite the fact that his work is instantly recognisable from across the room. My version of Seurat's Bathers was really a memorial to the original - the subject matter of my painting was his painting - that's why it was called Seurat's Bathers.

Seurat is often connected to anarchist circles in late-nineteenth century Paris, but the exact extent of his involvement is not really known. You too have been called an anarchist. Is he an anarchist? Are you?

Well I may well be but I don't think he is. Because eventually, especially in the later paintings, he is perhaps more than anything else an old-fashioned French rhetorician. Can't you imagine him saying 'La France c'est moi!' - I can. The rhetoric in his large pictures is something that I find unattractive. But he was much less a great conservative artist than he liked to think, and these small paintings show that very well. This collection of small studies do make him seem very near, near to us now while we are sitting here.

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