Maggi Hambling: Edge, Marlborough Fine Art, London, 1 March - 13 April 2017
One of this spring’s most rewarding exhibitions was Edge by Maggi Hambling at Marlborough Fine Art in London’s Albemarle Street (1 March - 13 April). Hambling (born 1945) is painting at the top of her form, and this is probably her finest solo show yet. Consisting of new oil paintings and painted bronze sculptures, the exhibition dealt head-on with difficult subjects: war, migration, the obliteration of ancient monuments, the melting of the ice-caps. Hambling is nothing if not confrontational.
From time to time, people have suggested that Hambling should return to painting people, after quite a long interlude painting waves and walls of water. She is a powerful portraitist and some of her best early pictures are what might be called genre scenes: figures in very specific environments, such as pub or night club, behaving superbly in character. But no real painter can be expected to submit to what other people think he or she should do. The poet Gordon Bottomley used to say much the same thing to his young friend Paul Nash - when are you going to get back to figures?
Well, Hambling engages with figures in her own way, and on her own terms. In recent paintings we have seen an eye or a mouth emerging from North Sea waves, or a body part gleaming through the murk of destruction in Aleppo. She resists the straightforward depiction, whether in her witty new self-portraits (one at the Marlborough was simply a rather luscious painting of her own smoke-enchanted lungs, the other a deceptive paintpudding with a cigarette stuck in the matière), or in her conjuring forth of Hamlet or Leonard Cohen. Neither of the latter are recognisable likenesses, not portraits as we understand the term, yet they both manage to evoke the potent and complex presence which such a title suggests: Hamlet a mass of
seething contradictions, Cohen a golden god in painful dissolution.
Hambling shapes the outer world to her imagination, filling it with rich colour and tonal contrasts, with the varied textures, figures and forms of her inner world. Externalizing her inmost responses is what she does every time she picks up a brush or moulds in wax or plaster. Her intuitive understanding is bodied forth in potent imagery which she aligns with her perceptions of the visible world. For Hambling, painting is an obsession into which she can discharge the tensions and problems of daily life. There is a great deal talked about art as therapy, and this can operate at all sorts of levels and to different degrees among people who do not claim to be painters. But for the real artist, painting is a means of making sense of life, a way - literally - of living, and if deprived of its consolations, the artist’s sanity can be threatened. There are, of course, differing interpretations of this condition, and not all artists will agree with Munch when he said: ‘Painting is for me like being ill or intoxicated. An illness of which I do not want to be cured; an intoxicant which I cannot forego.’
Art is a means of correlating and balancing the subjective and objective and bringing them into a new and fruitful harmony of utterance. The work of art functions as an expression of the intuitive imagination. It plays a serious and vital part in our lives, not some leisure activity or optional extra. Deprived of sleep and the chance to dream, we quickly lose our grip on reality and descend into madness. Likewise art is the other side of the rational process of daily life, so expertly promulgated through technology. As good defines evil, so does art define and make sense of technology. Allowing ourselves only one aspect of this art/technology duality (as today’s society constantly threatens to do), will mean leading a hopelessly skewed existence. We need both.
Marlborough Fine Art has shown Hambling since 1996, when the late, great Bryan Robertson effected an introduction between gallery and artist and wrote the catalogue for her first show of bronze sculptures. Marlborough’s reputation as the power-house of imaginative realism, showing the work of Francis Bacon, R.B. Kitaj and Frank Auerbach, to name but three, is
a historical fact, though the temperature has rather dropped now that the Bacon Estate has moved elsewhere and Kitaj is dead and strangely in eclipse. Hambling’s presence in the Marlborough stable helps significantly to keep up standards. She is currently exploring new forms of realism which are radical enough to need more than a single glance to comprehend. In fact, it is principally important to experience this imagery, rather than try to interpret or understand it. That may come later, or indeed not at all.
Hambling’s work over the decades has traversed various extremes, but has recently become less obviously representational, in order to conjure forth the human psychological content of the work with the greatest intensity and directness. This represents not a going away from life, but a greater penetration into reality and its significance. We must forget, for a while, the developed, rational and thinking side of the mind, and allow the intuitive and instinctual more say. For instance, consider Hambling’s controversial bronzes. These stump-like presences are the trolls, the chthonic spirits beyond our control, not just satiric caricatures of the rational mind, but portraits of something older and more dangerous - the irrational powers within. Part of the process of living a full life is accepting these demons and learning how to live productively with them. One of the strategies for dealing with them is laughter.
Laughter and its importance as a force in human relations (as much for cruelty as for benevolence) has long been a theme in Hambling’s work. Countless sitters over the centuries have been depicted smiling, but how many laughing? The Laughing Cavalier? He looks as if he’s smirking, at best. In the early years of her genre paintings, Hambling frequently lamented the inability of the average sitter to laugh for any length of time. Two men close to her, her teacher and mentor Lett Haines and her long-time model Max Wall, were able to laugh longer and more unselfconsciously than most. Lett, until the upper denture of his home-made false teeth dropped down, Max endlessly and seemingly effortlessly. But what Hambling made from the unusual skills of these sitters is far more disturbing than might be expected.The painting of Lett Laughing (1975-6) was actually based on a photograph and is intimidating rather than humorous or affectionate,
especially set against its harsh orange background, while Max is usually depicted as being drenched in melancholy. The most spontaneous and natural painting of a person laughing that Hambling has so far achieved is the 1984 portrait of her lover and life-partner Tory Lawrence.
The series of Laugh paintings that came later, at the beginning of the 1990s and largely inspired by Hambling’s friendship with the actress Amanda Barrie, were abstract-looking pictures of the essence of laughter, and often very sexy. (‘Laughter seems to me like the sexual act which is perhaps the laughter of two bodies.’ V.S. Pritchett.) Although humour is never far from the surface with Hambling - which is not to say she isn’t properly and profoundly serious about her work - laughter would later come back into her imagery in other forms and guises. For instance, in the sea: ‘the myriad laughter of the ocean waves’ (Aeschylus), or the menacing laughter of the icebergs in Icelandic sagas. In spite of these ancient authorities, once again Hambling reaches a new and unexpected variant, for the icebergs in her paintings are victims. She says that in some off her latest paintings the icebergs are more like crucifixions. And the laughter can get even grimmer.
The four paintings of Aleppo in ruins shown at the Marlborough are punishingly claustrophobic, as if space has collapsed and been abolished and the buildings (or what is left of them) are only fronts, or backs, with no volume or substance. Aleppo III is perhaps the most beautiful, austere in gold and black, with what looks like a veiled woman holding a gun emerging from the boiling blackness of destruction at the bottom of the picture. I like the idea of the gun-woman coming out of the dust and debris in a pose which quotes but subverts Hambling’s own earlier painting, Gulf Women Prepare for War (1986-7), but the inclusion of a pair of recalcitrant eyes staring out of the swirling pigment is perilously close to the gimmicky. Hambling often runs the gauntlet of the kitsch, with varying degrees of success. In Aleppo IV what appears to be a child’s head emerges from the protean soup of disaster. Somehow this single head is not quite enough in the great sea of choppily impastoed paint. The texture and sheer physicality of the paint is so important, the human is quite lost and overwhelmed; but then perhaps that is the point. My feeling, however, was that this imbalance
flawed the image, much as the outline of the boat in the picture simply entitled 2016, up to its gunwales in water, is slightly too illustrational. I felt the motif ought to be more dissolved, as if the overloaded ship of death was not just sinking but coming apart in the depthless blue ocean.
The handling of paint in these pictures is exceptional. Hambling has always enjoyed the stuff of paint and used it with aplomb, but her deployment of its resources has reached new heights and new depths. As a consequence, these paintings do not reproduce well and they need to be seen in the flesh. Marlborough (aided and abetted by the artist) has hung the show with clarity and distinction, showing the works to best advantage, and giving them plenty of room to breathe. They need it. Among the best of the paintings were the first three in the Edge series, together with Edge VIII. These are hugely impressive paintscapes of great presence and beauty. Without venturing into far-fetched comparisons, it is sufficient to say that one readily thinks of Goya and the apocalyptic visions of John Martin when looking at these awe-filled images.
For years Hambling has been painting the sea, and discovering human features therein. Now she is painting the melting icecaps and finding animals and figures emerging from the surf and liquefaction of her subjects. To emphasise the Edge theme she employs a framing device of vertical black or gold edging, like the surround of a film frame, which can serve to distance the main imagery, although it can also be an unwanted distraction. Hambling orchestrates vast fountains of pigment, directing them energetically but precisely over her canvas, knotting the paint into bobbled and impacted surfaces here, draining it liquidly there. The range of mark is astonishing, the beauty of the paint balanced by its evocative qualities: it seems alive and full of incident. This is not abstract and decorative paintwork, it is profoundly imaginative imagery searched out and consolidated through a lifetime.
The intermediary Edge paintings don’t for me have the same appeal, mostly because of the dominance of a rusty terracotta ground which tends to overpower the ethereality of the subject. In the best of these
paintings, Hambling’s brush dances along a tightrope between materiality and insubstantiality, her balancing act played out over the most superbly modulated seas of paint. Edge VI is an utterly exquisite metaphor of disappearance, vast yet contained, both fragile and ephemeral; it was amazing to me that it hadn’t sold instantly. As we fondly say, there’s no accounting for lack of taste. Hambling’s prices have risen in recent years but they are still remarkably reasonable for a painter of her stature. She is an artist in mid-career with a high public profile who paradoxically has yet to be given her due. Her work has hardly been exhibited internationally, though when it did, for instance, appear in Russia in 2013, it was enthusiastically received. Why isn’t she being shown more in Europe and America? Marlborough, her gallery, has outposts in New York, Barcelona and Madrid, but apparently each is self-determining, and if you show in one branch this does not guarantee an exhibition in the others. Yet Hambling’s art deserves international exposure: it’s far more vital and exciting than most of the fashionable ‘airport art’ (analogous to airport novels) that’s being flogged around the world. What she does is all about enlargement of life, an unofficial view of being (not the accepted Establishment version), a way of approaching truth through the imagination. Pascal called imagination the mistress of the world; she’s certainly Hambling’s mistress. Long may they continue to please each other.