Maggi Hambling creates artistic encounter to showcase new War Requiem work
Maggi Hambling takes a step away from her sea paintings to revisit her War Requiem series for a new London show. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to her about creating an exhibition which serves as an artistic encounter
Less than a month after Maggi Hambling’s Walls of Water exhibition closed at the National Gallery in London she is back in the capital with a new show and a new series of paintings inspired by Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.
The exhibition is being staged in the Inigo Rooms at The Cultural Institute at King’s College London, housed in the East Wing of Somerset House. The show will encompass a new series of War Requiem paintings, sculpture entitled Aftermath and a re-mounting of Maggi’s site-specific installation You Are The Sea.
Maggi said that the second series of War Requiem pictures were triggered not only by the haunting images of Holocaust victims which inspired the original paintings but also news footage from trouble spots around the world. She is also showing a specially shot film of her multi-faceted War Coffin sculpture which forms part of Tate collection.
The exhibition reflects Maggi’s continuing creative surge as work pours out of her studio and she wrestles with her life-long obsessions with life, death and the sea. In this latest exhibition which is accompanied by a large format book, War Requiem and Aftermath, co-written with James Cahill, Maggi gets to bring all her related works together in one place. The show also features one of her previously unseen obituary paintings of doomed artist and Soho resident Sebastian Horsley, who famously had himself crucified in The Philippines as part of an art installation project.
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Maggi said that the setting of the exhibition was very appropriate because it echoed the multi-level layout of the original Dovecote show at Snape. “It is a very labyrinthine display. Whereas with The Dovecote show, everything was going upwards, here the show goes down underground and is laid out in a series of rooms.
“You go down into the bowels of the earth and you discover rooms that go off a central hallway. The first room has early works which are very important before you encounter War Requiem II.”
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She said that early works with war themes like the 1980 study she did of Manet’s Execution of Maximilian and Gulf Women Prepare For War were also included in the show because they also reflected her on-going fascination with the themes of war and death.
The genesis for the War Requiem paintings can be traced back to a visit Maggi made to Berlin in 2005 and a visit she made to the Holocaust museum where the images she saw of the concentration camps and the people who were interred there made a lasting impression on her.
“My visit to the Libeskind Jewish Museum in Berlin in 2005 I found very chilling and things stay with you and you don’t know how they will resurface. I have said that I am sure that the beginnings of Scallop were to be found going down to Aldeburgh beach to watch fireworks. So that room in Berlin was bound to have been boiling away at the back of my consciousness and when I was invited to contributed something to the Britten centenary The Dovecote installation was jointly inspired by Britten’s War Requiem and that room in Berlin.”
She said that war seems unending and that people are suffering across the world all the time. “The moment one war ends another is begun and after a while they all start to blur into one another. I remember a friend of mine at The Slade writing a book in the 1960s called Peace, The Impossible Concept – which is a good title but we have proved them right.”
She said that during the Falklands Conflict in the early 1980s she turned down the offer to become an official war-artist because she had just finished a high-profile residency at The National Portrait Gallery and she thought people would regard her a cheap publicity-seeker and also she didn’t believe a shot would be fired.
“For this show I have made a second series of War Requiem paintings with new battlefields and new victims and again we will be playing Benjamin Britten’s exquisite music. I remember the first time I heard it, the piece’s strangeness, horror, lament, fear, strife, tenderness, chilling authority and grandeur was unlike anything I had previously experienced.
“So the music is an integral part of the experience of encountering these paintings. As with the Dovecote, the Inigo Rooms have big heavy doors which can seal you off from the rest of the world. There will be notices, like there were at Snape, advising people that these works are best viewed alone with the music, so you become part of the experience.”
This is then followed by a further room filled with a huge painting Wall of Water, War, which has been transferred from the National Gallery. It also features a film of the bronze sculpture War Coffin gently rocking which causes the suspended heads to knock into one another making a strange chime-like sound.
The next room features a floor to ceiling installation of Maggi’s Thorpeness Sluice painting which was first unveiled as part of the SNAP festival in 2012. This installation features a recreated well, dominated by a vast Wall of Water painting and emanating from the dark recesses of the well is the sound of water, crashing waves, backwash and dripping water all mixed in with the recitation of a poem written by Maggi.
This was Maggi’s first installation and was such a success that she has decided to reproduce it in the catacombs of Somerset House.
The huge floor to ceiling painting of an explosion of water witnessed as the River Hundred meets the sea is juxtaposed against what appears to be a deep cavernous well with sounds and voices drifting up from the depths.
The soundscape recording was made and shaped by Tom Taylor, a sound engineer who works at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall. Maggi first tried to create this work in 1998 but couldn’t reproduce the sound she heard in her head until she was introduced to Tom Taylor by SNAP curator Abigail Lane.
“Now we have this remarkable sound which appears to be coming from a vent in the ground,” says Maggi puffing on one of many cigarettes which punctuate our lengthy conversation.
The show comes to a startling climax in the final room and hallway where visitors can encounter a forest of found wooden sculptures which have been painted and worked to a greater or lesser extent to create a world where you feel you are surrounded by the fall-out of war. This is a world where the shattered architecture, the broken cathedral gargoyles and smashed statues of a peaceful world have been collected up and put on display as an exhibition of collateral damage.
“I had collected several pieces of wood for years before realising what I wanted to do with them. I had them because they looked interesting but then they themselves suggested a use to me.
“The pieces were inspired by gargoyles on churches, faces on coffins and old relics. These are part of an afterlife of conflict, of death, because we go on living. For me this last section is the most interesting bit of the show because it is exciting to be showing for the first time these Aftermath sculptures. You can wander around and in amongst them.”
She said that the exhibition was conceived as an encounter rather than a straightforward art show. “You walk from room to room and you encounter art in different spaces.”
She said that work continues to play a central role in her life. The drive to work is still present every morning. She still rises with the sun; 4.30am in the summer and 6am in winter to dive into her studio before the world and the telephone distract her and wrench her away from her canvas.
She is also pleased that her most recent exhibitions have been marked with catalogues and books because the work becomes dissipated once a show has closed and a book allows the work to be viewed in context and provides a permanent record of what you are doing at any one time.
“I am fortunate that people have wanted to publish books of my work and I am fortunate that it allows the artist a voice.”
The exhibition War Requiem and Aftermath is on at the Inigo Rooms at The Cultural Institute at King’s College London, Somerset House and runs until May 31.