As one of the most foremost and influential figures in 21st century art, chances are you’re already familiar with the contemporary artist Maggi Hambling CBE. Born in Suffolk, Maggi was the first artist in residence at the National Gallery in 1980 and since then, her emphatically charged works have been exhibited and housed in numerous art institutions across the world.
From the beginning of her career in the 60s to today, Maggi’s paintings and sculptures have been the result of her unmediated response to the human condition. Following a retrospective of paper-based works at the British Museum last year, her latest exhibition Edge at Marlborough Gallery in London features new paintings and sculptures from the past three years, acting as Maggi’s overall reaction to to the world as it currently stands. For Maggi, whether it be a portrait of Leonard Cohen or a worldly event, each piece of work serves to demonstrate the human vulnerability inherent within each of us as she says, “The subject is in charge of me, not vice versa, they dictate every mark I make in an effort to find the truth."
Throughout the early days in my first school, when most wanted to be ballet dancers or work with animals, I wanted to be a ren admiral.
They had such terrific uniforms and I thought it best to be an admiral because then you’d be in charge. I definitely don’t think women were admirals in those days. But then at 14, I had an art exam at school where I did nothing but flick paint at people and draw attention to myself because I was deeply in love with the biology mistress who was invigilating the exam. When I checked the time, I knew I had to hand in a painting so I did so very quickly and when the results came in I was top of the class. It was a great shock to me and so I thought, ‘I’ll look into this because I’m good at it and I don’t have to try.’ Later on, I discovered the work of Mark Rothko, Van Gogh and Cy Twombly. I think that all great art inhabits that territory where life and death coexist, where they are together. It’s a mysterious place and a great work of art can take you to that place where you know what it is to be alive and you almost know what it is to die, and that is what the work of these three does for me. W H Auden compared making to art to breaking bread with the dead, which I think is great.
My first impulse to express myself was at 7 years old when I tried to get down on a piece of paper how the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin made me feel.
The fashion in those days was to make patterns with very exotic crayons in old arithmetic books that are full of squares. While all of my classmates were making patterns in these squares, I actually tried to draw some of the more graphic scenes featured in the book. My first response to something visual that was not in nature but in art was in the colours of the stone glass windows in Hadley Church, Suffolk, where I grew up. I still remember the particular blue, crimson and yellow. I left school halfway through A Levels and I went to Ipswich Art school for two years. It was a terrific course - you’d spend one day in life drawing, another in sculpture, another in pottery, another in printmaking and so it was during this period that I had my introduction to sculpture.
From the moment oil paint was in my hand, so was a cigarette.
After coming top in my art exam at 14, my mother paid for me to stay with my art teacher for a week in the holidays on the edge of a field in Suffolk where I used oil paint for the first time. There were insects everywhere and it was very hot. The insects were sticking to the painting, the palette, the brushes - everything. And my teacher wandered across this field to see what I was doing and I asked what I could do about all of these insects and she said, 'There’s only one thing to do and that’s to smoke a cigarette.’ I did give up smoking for five years at 59. I said I’d give up because my father did when he was 59. I believe in doing what I say I’m going to do which I find not many people do in life. I couldn’t say how many I smoke today, a countless amount, innumerable!
The first thing I do in the studio in the morning is draw something just to renew the sense of touch through the interaction of graphite on paper.
I begin early at around 6am, if not before. Then I smoke my first cigarette, drink a cup of coffee and begin with a drawing followed by several more cigarettes. I work until lunchtime, then I take the dog for a walk and come back into the studio at around 6pm and have a look at what I’ve done so far. You can feel as though you’ve had a good morning of work and the next day it can look like shit, or the other way around. There’s really no telling. I have a chat with the work in the evening with a whiskey. I work everyday, I’m boring like that. I never go on holiday otherwise I’d be pottier than already am. Having an exhibition is an exception to real life which to me is what I do everyday in the studio. My latest exhibition is three years work and for those years, I’ve been alone in the studio, painting, destroying a lot of it, living in a state of doubt that anything is going to ever work. I’m a workaholic, and I carry on in the hope of getting better.
Leonard Cohen is one of my favourite musicians.
I’ve always loved his poetry and the economy of the poetry in his songs and then his last collection really felt as though he was talking to God. I made the painting of Leonard when I learnt of his death, it really moved me. In all of my art, I consciously explore whatever moves me in life whether that be the death of someone I love, or the fact of war, or the destruction of an ice cap. It could be a lone drinker in a pub, it could be my portrait of Hamlet and the events in Syria. It’s whatever happens in life that creates an urge within me to respond to it. I think a work of art can only move the viewer in as much as the artist has been moved by the subject. With my art, there is never any planning. Something happens and I feel an urgent need to respond to it and from then on every painting and drawing has to be an experiment. It’s whatever I’m angry about, or whatever I find beautiful.
Maggi Hambling: Edge is currently on view at Marlborough Gallery in London until April 13.