Known for her sculptures Scallop (2003) and In Conversation with Oscar Wilde (1998), Maggi Hambling has established herself as one of Britain’s most significant and controversial painters and sculptors. In her latest exhibition Wall of Water, Hambling returns to the National Gallery to celebrate her work in painting, with a vivacious presentation of contemporary seascapes inspired by the gigantic crashing waves the artist experienced at Southwold, Suffolk, in 2010. Running concurrently with the more conventional work of Norwegian artist Peder Balke (1804-1887), the Wall of Water series bursts with a painterly restlessness, and features exuberantly coloured canvases alongside a group of abrupt, stark monotypes. Aesthetica speaks to Hambling about her ongoing motivations as a painter and sculptor working in Britain.
A: Can you explain the initial idea behind Walls of Water?
MH: There is no ‘idea’. The paintings are my response to unnervingly high waves that I encountered challenging the sea wall at Southwold, Suffolk, late in 2010. The sea wall appears along the bottom of all the canvases and monotypes, and the waves themselves become another wall, of water. A subject chooses me and I try to be a channel for the truth of it.
A: One of the works responds to Amy Winehouse’s death. What was it about her that inspired you to produce a painting?
MH: I find Amy Winehouse’s voice extraordinary, in its power, vulnerability and nakedness. Her life is in that voice and when she died, tragically young, I felt compelled to paint her. I first worked for some months on a large (4 ft x 3 ft) portrait head, and then a painting of her tiny figure, performing in a huge space (again vertically 4 ft x 3 ft). Neither painting worked so both were destroyed. After the second destruction, I took out a new canvas of the same size, turned it horizontally, and by then the subject was so engrained inside me, that the painting painted itself. It is my response to the colour of her sound, her movement and her spirit.
A: These pieces react to the movement of the sea, do you often find nature inspires your practice?
MH: The North Sea off the Suffolk coast got me by the “short and curlies” on 30 November 2002, during the pause between making the maquette for Scallop and then the sculpture (Scallop was unveiled on Aldeburgh Beach in November 2003 — my celebration of Benjamin Britten). The storm I had witnessed that morning was the subject of my first North Sea painting and the series continues, most recently in the Walls of Water. During the 1980’s, the Suffolk sunrise had been my subject, during the 1990’s, the human loss, and then waterfalls joined my sea paintings as the source of my more recent work.
A: When producing these pieces did you consider the space they would be presented in at all?
MH: No, I just painted them. I had no idea when or where they might be shown. Wall of Water VIII formed part of my installation, You Are the Sea at SNAP (Art at the Aldeburgh Festival) in 2012, and will feature in my forthcoming exhibition War Requiem & Aftermath, opening at the Cultural Institute at King’s College London in early March 2015. I began making Walls of Water again in monotypes in 2011, and these were shown at the Hermitage in 2012. When the National Gallery invited me to show my Walls of Water, I selected eight of the large works (over 6 ft x 7 ft) to surround the visitor in Room 1 — making an environment of crashing waves.
A: What do you have planned for next?
MH: The Wall of Water series continues. But I am not a fortune-teller; my work responds to whatever moves me in life — a death, a newspaper photograph, anything that demands a response. My installation War Requiem, shown at SNAP in 2013, has been purchased by The Monument Trust for Aldeburgh Music and will be reinstalled at Snape Maltings for April 2015, coinciding with War Requiem & Aftermath at the Cultural Institute. The new Aftermath sculptures began after War Requiem as a result of suddenly seeing the possibilities in pieces of dead wood I had collected for several years. A work chooses when to be made, just as a subject chooses me.
Maggi Hambling, Wall of Water, until 15 February, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN. For more information, visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
War Requiem & Aftermath will run from 4 March until 31 May, Cultural Institute, King’s College London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS. Additional details can be found at www.kcl.ac.uk.
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1. Maggi Hambling, Wall of Water I (2010). Courtesy of the artist and the National Gallery.