Maggi Hambling on life, death and drawing

Maggi Hambling on life, death and drawing


So here we are in Gallery 90 at the British Museum where there is this great show, Maggi Hambling – Touch: works on paper And here I am with Maggi. So, this show is a retrospective of your artistic career through the medium of works on paper. Yes, indeed, it’s the first time that I’ve allowed the word retrospective to be used about an exhibition because it does make one feel about
150. But as most of the artists here are a lot older than 150 I’m still quite young. You’re in very good company. So the show starts in the early 60s and the latest work is from
last year, is that right? Yep. So the earliest work in the show is a drawing of 1963 of the magnificent Rosie, the rhinoceros. Tell us about Rosie and how she came into
your life. Well I was a student at Ipswich Art School
between 1962 and ’64 and one afternoon we were told to go
into the Ipswich Museum next door to the art school and draw something. I mean actually quite a lot of
people went home. But, the presence in the first great
hall – and it’s still there – of the Ipswich Museum, is the
stuffed rhinoceros and she’s called Rosie and I think
it’s possibly the first drawing I ever did with ink, which
is a very exciting thing to try to draw with because you can’t
really make mistakes. You don’t change ink you just have
to make the right mark in the right place and so its very
challenging and exciting. And although of course Rosie’s dead, the interaction between Rosie and me was certainly very alive and I regard it as my first portrait. It’s very brilliant in that much of Rosie’s form is really made from the white of the paper and it’s as much what you’ve left out as what you’ve put in. It shows an incredible
maturity. I mean what were you looking at, that allowed
you to draw so well? [laughs] I don’t know. I mean drawing had begun for me at an early age at my first school. I remember Uncle Tom’s Cabin was being read to us and
I was about 7 or something and the fashion was to get more
and more exciting crayons and fill in those old arithmetic
book squares in more and more decorative ways,
with gold crayons, pink crayons, whatever…but I, actually listening to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, tried to draw the slaves
being beaten. So, I mean, drawing was sort of always there, long before painting started. And what I think is very interesting is it
introduces a theme that I find reoccurs elsewhere in the show
is your interest in boundaries between states. I mean Rosie is a dead animal, a stuffed animal – you can’t get much more dead than that – and yet you give her this
tremendous sense of animation, as if Rosie is still a
living, breathing creature. Well thank you, good. Good.
I’m well known for going on painting and drawing people long
after they’re dead. You know George Melly said I’d go down
in art history as Maggi ‘Coffin’ Hambling. But maybe
it all began with Rosie, how can you tell? I mean, you
know, when somebody dies, for anyone – somebody you love
or were close to – they carry on being alive inside
you. I think this is where artists are very lucky: that they can
grieve if you like in a very positive – well for me anyway – in a very positive
way. I remember I painted my father after his death, my mother,
Henrietta and George Melly… it is something that I
do I’m trying to make these paintings and drawings as alive
as possible even though the subject is dead. Because they’re still alive inside me. And I think that’s where
artists are lucky, to be able to do that. And what was your relationship with Henrietta? and maybe you should explain that Henrietta was
a model for both Bacon and also Freud. Well Freud did a couple of early ones when
they were having an affair but there are at least 15
paintings by Bacon of Henrietta. Yes, of course, for those who don’t know she was the queen of Soho in the 50s, the Colony, drink, life, serial lover of all kinds … [she lived a full life] Yes, yes a full life. And I think you see that in your drawing of
her, there is that extraordinary sense of vitality and yet
also the physical signs of a life that has been quite
rough on her. Well, she was my muse and model for the
last 9 months of her life and I made many drawings of her. When somebody is posing you want them to be present, you don’t want them to go to sleep,
you don’t want them to be too much off in a dream world or
whatever, you want them to be present and there and alive. People said about Henrietta, if she came into
a party, she was about twice, three, four times as
alive as anybody else in the room. And these eyes looked straight
through you, there was no hiding anything from Henrietta, those eyes just went straight through you as if
you were transparent. She was also the bossiest muse that I ever had She would quite often
tell me when something was finished – you know the really
difficult question of how do you know when something
is finished? She’d say ‘Oh no, that’s finished, that’s
finished’. So although you are best known as a painter
you are also a sculptor and this wonderful plaster of Henrietta eating a meringue relates to your activity as a sculptor.
What’s it about, ‘Henrietta Eating a Meringue’? The minute she heard she had diabetes she really went for the cream cakes in a big way. And the whole of those last months was a sort of dance with the drink – do you know what I mean? She was defiant, she was going to win, if you like. Of course the
drink won in the end, but that defiance and challenge was
part of that spirit There’s an extraordinary sense of movement
in that sculpture, and Henrietta’s great lips clamping
down upon it. Yes the idea is the meringue becoming the
mouth and the mouth becoming the meringue. The division between the two… is ..is… Is not really
there. and it’s one thing and you know I always see
things afterwards – I made that sculpture in 2001
and it was a year later that I really started to paint
the sea. Because all the movement that I try to have in my paintings
of waves and drawings of waves began with that sculpture. You can only see this sort of thing afterwards. It’s
a seminal work but you can only say that when you see it
afterwards. And what I like about it in the show is that
it sits in the middle of the room and is a kind of pivot
between your earlier work on one side and your later work
on the other, which is dominated by these amazing monotypes
and prints you’ve made of the sea. Now you’re
a Suffolk girl – do you feel close to the sea? I can remember when I was a toddler – 3 or
4 or something – I’d walk into the sea and talk to it, quite
a lot. I don’t know what I said and I don’t think it answered
back. But I was never very good at swimming, in fact I can’t
swim. But I’d walk into the sea and talk and talk to it.
Now, a bit later in life I go to the sea to draw it and I listen,
I listen now – let the sea do the talking. My first art teacher, she said ‘the subject chooses you,
you don’t choose the subject.’ And that is how I’ve always
worked, whether it’s a wave, whether it’s Henrietta, whether it’s Rosie, whether it’s John Berger – whatever it is – the truth of that can come through me on to the paper or onto the canvas or into the sculpture. So I just try to be a channel. The connection between you and your subject matter is no more strongly felt in this show than in the marvellous drawing you did of your father, who after he retired from Barclays Bank took to painting. Indeed, Father retired from the bank when he
was 60 and I gave him some oil paints – then suddenly one morning when he was 65 – nothing to do with me – he
took out these paints and started to paint. And as
he’d lived in Suffolk all his life, the whole of Suffolk
poured out of him – wonderful landscapes, extraordinary, very
personal. So when I was there in Hadleigh I would set him
up with his paints and I would draw him while he was painting. It was very moving the way he was determined
to go on. The last drawing of him in this exhibition
which was the month before he died and he was falling
asleep but still determined to go on till the end
and you know the skull emerging as he got more and more
frail. While your mother fidgeted and wasn’t a good
model Yes, yes she was hopeless. She was ok in her
coffin. And that’s obviously a subject matter that
crops up on a couple of occasions in this show – your frank and unashamed look at the dead body and you seem
to be catching that moment when the spirit
is there… but is fading away, is that right? For me it is quite simple – the last time
you see the person is when they are lying in the coffin… But they often look quite different from how
they looked when they were alive which can be startling. Certainly my
mother who had been quite ill towards the end of her
life and I think there is a bit of it in my drawing of her
in the coffin – this quite serene expression, having died
because all the pain was gone from her face. But people are surprised if I draw Henrietta
lying there dead or my mother… But you said Henrietta looked furious Oh yes Henrietta looked absolutely furious Quite the opposite of my mother [laughs] No, death had won so she looked pretty cross. So, as we come to the end on the final wall
of the show there’s an amazing burst of colour – this
large drawing in watercolour with these great swathes of brushstrokes in red and pink with a rather ominous title of
‘Edge’. Now, what are we on the edge of when we are looking at that drawing? You only have to look at the world and
you will see that we are on the edge … I’m… what is
a good word? distressed by the way that we are messing up our
planet – not just the ice caps but the rainforests and the rest of it… I don’t know what is going to be left and It makes me angry and so I began about three of four years ago this subject began in my work of the way that we are destroying the planet and we are on the edge of things and on that
large – ish sheet of black paper it was necessary to use
colour to say the heat rising from underneath the sea,
not just from on top, all the pollution but from the heat rising through the water to destroy the polar regions and so the red was
necessary. It had to be there If we look at this show there is a number
of works that we purchased from you right back to the 1980s
but also through this show you have given us works
so there is going to be a real body of Maggi Hambling. Well I think it is a great honour – it is a
great honour to have this exhibition here. I mean I feel very honoured. I’m not sure quite where one might have another
one, because after the British Museum it seems to me the only grander place might be Heaven. So I feel incredibly honoured… They do a great retrospective in Heaven! [laughs] yes So Maggi, thank you so much for coming in to
to talk to us. It’s a reminder really for everybody to come to the show before it closes on the 29th of January because it’s an opportunity not to be missed. Well thank you, Hugo, for saying nice things and thank you British Museum for having me.

Dereck Turner

6 thoughts on “Maggi Hambling on life, death and drawing

  1. Stuart C Palmer says:

    Great exhibition and very interesting video. I hope this stays up after the exhibition is over. I have linked to it in one of my videos.

  2. William Brashier says:

    willams mom.can i study under you..

  3. David Lafferty says:

    A real inspiration, i never new anything about Maggi until today, i have been looking at other artists of old to get informed about there art and the different styles they worked in from Degas, Rembrandt, etc and find them all greats, and in the present Maggi is very inspiring bloody hard working, the sea near where i live speaks to me often and i laugh back at it. Maybe i will paint a picture of the sensible soul that roars at me one day, food for though !

  4. Lis Engel says:

    True – its all about presence and aliveness

  5. Pía Chavarría says:

    The interviewer has absolutely no sense of humor, stiff as a stick. Lovely works by Maggie.

  6. Olga Balla says:

    Very good artists.

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