The art of Maggi Ham­bling

As she turns 73, Maggi Ham­bling tells An­drew Lam­birth about two new shows and her grow­ing ad­dic­tion to paint­ing

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - An­drew Lam­birth

Iin­ter­viewed Maggi Ham­bling in her south Lon­don stu­dio, sur­rounded by in­tense paint­ings and heaps of ci­garette butts, and she at once be­gan to talk of the projects cur­rently oc­cu­py­ing her. This month, at the Jer­wood Gallery in Hast­ings, there’s a group show of work by Ham­bling, Se­bas­tian Hors­ley, Sarah Lucas, Ju­lian Sim­mons and Juer­gen Teller.

‘In the big space will be what you might call the in­ter­ac­tive work,’ ex­plains Ham­bling, ‘like my two por­traits of Sarah and her por­trait of me, which is a sculp­ture, called Magi rather than Maggi.’

I won­der if there’s any ref­er­ence to Eliot’s Jour­ney of the Magi, but don’t get the chance to ask, as Ham­bling is for the mo­ment un­stop­pable, de­ter­mined to give me a proper ac­count of this un­usual show of work by friends.

‘When Ju­lian, Sarah’s part­ner, came to my stu­dio to sit for his por­trait, he was con­stantly look­ing at this paint­ing, Tsunami Whirlpool (2013); so I made his por­trait into a dip­tych. He is do­ing one of his great big round draw­ings of me.’

She shows me pho­to­graphs of four of her re­cent draw­ings of the pho­tog­ra­pher Teller – the best was drawn while he was pho­tograph­ing her, his fea­tures ob­scured by his cam­era. ‘He took a lot of pho­to­graphs of me that morn­ing, so he’s mak­ing a col­lage or some­thing… Then I’m show­ing these post­hu­mous por­traits of Se­bas­tian Hors­ley, who died in 2010. They’ve never been shown be­fore.’

Hors­ley, artist and dandy, died at 47, in 2010, of a drug over­dose [see Gyles Bran­dreth’s Di­ary, page 36]. He in­tro­duced Ham­bling to Lucas at the Colony Club in Soho. Ham­bling was his friend, and this long se­ries of por­traits, in some of which the skull grins out from be­neath the flesh, was a way of com­ing to terms with his death.

‘In the other gallery at the Jer­wood will be self-por­traits, and the film that Sarah made of Se­bas­tian be­ing cru­ci­fied. That will be his self-por­trait.’

Ham­bling and Lucas share a birth­day. Ham­bling turns 73 on 23rd Oc­to­ber, and Lucas will be 56. When the younger artist came to live nearby in Ham­bling’s na­tive Suf­folk, they be­came close. Later, Teller also be­came a friend, through Lucas. The Jer­wood ex­hi­bi­tion is a meet­ing place of paint­ing, draw­ing, film, pho­tog­ra­phy and sculp­ture, and promises to be thought­pro­vok­ing, to say the least.

A con­cur­rent show, at Ham­bling’s dealer, Marl­bor­ough Fine Art, opens on her birth­day. This will con­sist of a large self-por­trait (ex­e­cuted in a sim­i­lar style to her cel­e­brated 2016-7 por­trait of Leonard Co­hen) and a group of smaller imag­i­nary por­traits, mostly from this year. Sub­jects range from Greta Garbo and Don­ald Trump to more ab­stracted im­ages such as Ter­ror (which looks like a Ku Klux Klans­man), Head with Ghosts, The Widow, Age­ing Rock­star, Politi­cian or Valkyrie. ‘These are from the imag­i­na­tion and are quite vis­ceral, as you can see,’ she says.

When I say that their lack of clear fea­tures may ren­der them some­what ob­scure to the unini­ti­ated viewer, Ham­bling ri­postes tartly, ‘I would have

thought to any­one at all these lit­tle paint­ings reg­is­ter as heads. And then, art is for peo­ple to find in it what­ever they find – which is part of the whole point as far as I’m con­cerned. The ti­tles are mere sug­ges­tions. Take Head with Ghosts. I’m sure you can see two fig­ures quite clearly in it, can’t you?’ I as­sent. ‘I hope they feel real, but are the op­po­site of any kind of re­al­ism, par­tic­u­larly that un­speak­able photo-re­al­ism. I’ve thrown out [of this ex­hi­bi­tion] ones that haven’t just hap­pened on the can­vas, with the paint tak­ing me where it will. These all painted them­selves.’

Ham­bling sees her role as an artist as a con­duit for dif­fer­ent kinds of emo­tional en­ergy, chan­nelled through her onto the pa­per or can­vas. The re­sult is mar­vel­lously di­rect, gutsy, flam­boy­ant, painterly im­ages, each one a lit­tle bit of her­self, as well as com­pris­ing a pan­theon of con­tem­po­rary he­roes and vil­lains, of types and in­di­vid­u­als. These are not por­trait like­nesses but el­e­men­tal pres­ences, to do with feel­ing, which Ham­bling con­sid­ers the most im­por­tant as­pect of art, ‘as op­posed to a lot of the fair­ground stuff one no­tices around the place’.

She be­came an artist as a teenager at Ben­ton End, the pri­vate art school in Suf­folk run by Sir Cedric Mor­ris and his part­ner, Lett Haines. I ask her about the cur­rent re­vival of in­ter­est in Mor­ris’s work.

‘Lett, who spent so much of his life pro­mot­ing Cedric, would have been de­lighted, but Cedric would have gig­gled,’ she says. ‘As they brought me up to mis­trust deal­ers of any kind, re­gard­ing them all as crooks and shits, I think that it’s rather ironic. I’m still hop­ing to put on a show of Lett’s work, be­cause that’s never been done. And he de­serves a bit of at­ten­tion.

‘I was very much a Lett per­son at Ben­ton End, hav­ing re­alised that the Cedric peo­ple all tried to paint like Cedric, whereas Lett en­cour­aged each per­son to dis­cover their own vi­sion. I think that’s what teach­ing is about.’

Ham­bling’s prin­ci­pal sub­ject is peo­ple. She does paint the sea, but it’s an in­hab­ited place, in which spec­ta­tors spot the lin­ea­ments of all sorts of beasts and peo­ple emerg­ing from the waves.

‘I don’t mind that at all – I don’t de­liver in­struc­tions – peo­ple dis­cover these things in the paint­ings and that’s great. I try to paint the en­ergy of the wave break­ing and, with these por­traits, to trans­late the spirit of the per­son into paint. Re­cently, I’ve tried to paint self-por­traits of me draw­ing. I don’t know what I look like draw­ing – but I paint what it feels like.’

Asked whether she thinks her work is chang­ing, she replies, ‘I some­times look at the very first oil paint­ing I did, of a swan, which I painted for my mother. She ac­tu­ally called it a “swoose”, as she thought it looked half like a goose. But when I look at the way the paint went on in that tiny paint­ing, it’s very close to the way the paint goes on now, though in a slightly more or­dered way. I don’t like the word “change”. One thing has al­ways led to an­other in my work, and I’ve al­ways re­sponded to what hap­pens in life. If some­body very close to me dies, I go on paint­ing them – that sort of thing.’

Is the whole process of mak­ing art as ur­gent now as it was when she was 30?

‘More ur­gent! Although I gave up maths when I was 11, when I reached 50, I knew it was half a hun­dred, so I felt half­way there and that was fine. Sixty was more of a prob­lem – that’s when I bought a Bent­ley. I had to do some­thing, as even I knew I was in the se­cond half. But the fact of the mat­ter is that I’m go­ing to be 73 this year. So there’s less and less time, and I’m up at five ev­ery morn­ing in sum­mer and six in win­ter and go straight to the stu­dio; oth­er­wise I would be pot­tier than I am. That dis­ci­pline is the only way I know how to live. When I’m in the stu­dio, life is real; out­side the stu­dio it’s one big cha­rade.’

‘The Quick and the Dead’, a group show in­clud­ing Maggi Ham­bling, Jer­wood Gallery, Hast­ings (20th Oc­to­ber6th Jan­uary 2019). Ham­bling’s work is also on show at Marl­bor­ough Fine Art, Lon­don (23rd Oc­to­ber-27th Novem­ber)

El­e­men­tal art: left, Self-por­trait in Gallery (1986); above, Por­trait of the Artist Sarah Lucas III (2013); and aboveright, Se­bas­tian Hors­ley IX (2011)

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