The voices that will not be drowned

Oceans, fathers, and lovers teach painter Maggi Hambling how to die

When Maggi Hambling was a toddler, she would talk to the ocean. “I don’t know what I said and I don’t know what it said to me,” she admits. But there was something about the water that held her captive. More than half a human lifetime later, a month after Hambling’s 57th birthday, the ocean spoke powerfully to Hambling again. It was a November morning in 2002; a violent storm swept over the seawall on the eastern coast of England, whipping the ocean into an angry soup.

Hambling beheld the storming ocean and something inside her rattled. The sea was a “primeval force” both “beautiful and terrifying … I realized that what was inside me was that storm.” For a period thereafter, Hambling woke up early every morning to draw the waves. “Now that I am older, I listen to it,” she says of the ocean. Over the length of an artistic career, Hambling has churned out canvas after canvas of urgent, swirling brushstrokes. She paints like a servant of an elemental power, furiously, relentlessly, as if possessed: “the sea still has me.”

All rolling waves or rolling flesh

Now 71 years old, posed (or rather, un-posed) in her self-portrait with a cigarette in the corner of her mouth and a riot of white curls frothing over deep-set eyes, Hambling possesses a corpus of drawings and paintings unified by their kinetic energy. Whether it is ocean waves, the blazing fire and ash of a battlefield, or a careening bullfight, her works are variously explosive. Under Hambling’s hand, even a portrait of a resting female nude feels like it is somehow writhing. The thighs of a woman lying on her stomach disappear into a mass of brushstrokes that could just as easily be messy sheets, storm clouds, or bubbling water.

The goal of fine arts, Hambling says, is not just to freeze time as in a photograph, but to capture the immediacy of a creative moment as if it were forming before the viewer’s eyes. Standing in the center of Hambling’s exhibit “Walls of Water” at the Tate Modern, one is dwarfed by eight six-feet-tall oil paintings of curling waves writhing with daubs of yellow, red, brown and magenta. The impression is not that you are inhabiting Hambling’s memory of a November day over a decade ago, but that you are walking through the veritable eye of a storm.

However, art doesn’t require a room full of gargantuan oil paintings to inspire wonderment. Sometimes it is the scribbles that speak the loudest. In Hambling’s exhibition “Touch: Works on Paper” at the British Museum, we see the artist staggering through her darkness and feeling out the contours with asking hands. Strewn on the table are ordinary sketchpads with light pencil sketches taking up less than half of each page. In Hambling’s style, there are few straight lines. “Drawing is the beginning of everything for me,” says Hambling. “It is the most immediate, most intimate thing an artist does, like handwriting.” On one sketchpad, we see faint grey smudges to the right of the portrait, as if the edge of Hambling’s palm had just rested there. One almost wonders if the paper is still warm.

Sketchbooks in the British Museum

The first page that catches my eye features the profile of a head arched backward, mouth ajar and gums toothless. The man looks like he could be yawning, but a curved line behind his head suggests a pillow. Wisps of hair begin far back from the forehead. The cheeks are sunken and the skin hangs slightly loose from the bones. An old man snoring? Perhaps about to sneeze? I glance down at the placard, and it reveals that the subject is from the “Father sketchbook, 1998.” The location is Ipswich Hospital. The placard reads: “Fluid but precise marks capture him in the strained pose of death, his mouth a mass of intense blackness.” Although the portrait tapers off at the neck, suddenly you can sense the white bedsheets, incandescent hospital lights and bedside chair. One imagines Hambling sitting there, softened from her characteristically defiant air, clutching this sketchbook and recording the face of her father in his last days of life.

Although some have nicknamed her Maggi “Coffin” Hambling, her fixation with deathly portraits comes from a deep appreciation for the ephemeral joys of life. “It’s a positive way of grieving,” she explains, “a natural thing for me to do. Artists are lucky: that person goes on being alive inside them.” To see that celebration not in death, but through death, we only need to look to the series “My Father from Memory” from the year of death. The black, white and burgundy oil paint portraits are titled “Father Flirting” (chuckling at something, mouth curled like a feline) and “Father Laughing” (all teeth showing, nose crinkled, eyes squinting, cheeks taut). “You’ve got to have a laugh,” says Hambling. “I couldn’t exist without laughing and I don’t have much to do with people who don’t laugh. I don’t know how they go on living.”

As much as some of Hambling’s portraits of the dying are sober or joyful, others are absurdist. One sculpture on display at the British Museum that critics have called “pivotal” is a mass of white plaster in rollicking curls in gaps and swells. When I first saw this sculpture in a corner of the British Museum, I admit that I had no idea what it was. It took reading the label, “Henrietta Eating A Meringue,” to decipher a gigantic pair of lips and a cookie entering. The sculpture is far larger than life, seeming to lend grave drama to the consumption of this meringue. Why the lips? Why a meringue? Why any of this?

Henrietta Eating a Meringue (2001)

My gut reaction was to laugh. Then I read more. At the time that Hambling made this sculpture, Henrietta was old and her health was deteriorating. “When she was told she had diabetes,” Hambling explains, “she took to cream cakes in a big way.” Perhaps this sculpture is a middle finger to death, a monument to grasping small pleasures from the clutches of time. (Yes, even a meringue.) Although the sculpture is grotesque in its form, resembling a tangled ball of worms reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s tatarigami demons, the sculpture does what much of modern art does: make a point. The viewer feels a connection not to the art but with the force driving the artist’s hands: a desire to triumph over death.

Hambling believes that she does not pick her subjects. Like all artists, Hambling is concerned with capturing the truth of a person, place or thing. For her, that truth is attained through sensual experience. “Eye and hand attempt to discover and produce those precise marks which recreate what the heart feels.” The bisexual Hambling developed a relationship with Henrietta Moraes, who posed for Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud in her younger years. “We fell in love,” says Hambling, “and the work became a product of our relationship.”

In the end, art, for Hambling, is an act of love. In portraiture, “the challenge is to touch the subject, with all the desire of a lover.” Hambling recalls of her sessions with Henrietta, “I was trying to get her intensity. I was also discovering her.” Henrietta passed in 1999. Recalling the features of her face, Hambling notes, “the right side of her face was optimistic, the left more tragic.” Finally, Hambling adds, “Henrietta, who died with style and panache, asking for a hug and a cigarette, taught me how to die.”

On the shores of Aldeburgh beach in Suffolk, where Hambling grew up, sits a three-meter-tall stainless steel oyster shell. Glinting silver like the eternally churning sea it faces, the shell echoes with the roaring of the waves. “You could come to Scallop when you’re miserable and have a conversation with the sea.” Across the rim of the shell, Hambling has engraved lyrics from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes: “Hear the voices that will not drown.”

Scallop (2003) by Maggi Hambling

At the end of the end, with art as in love, Hambling’s work is an attempt “to make some pathetic little human marks that might have something to do with the mystery of this great, great thing in front of us.” Standing on the shore and squinting out over a cold grey sea, one can imagine Hambling picking up a pencil and beginning to sketch. She has no fear. On the precipice of the unknown, a cliff before a great nothingness, Hambling chooses art. When asked what her five-year plan was, the septuagenarian Hambling responded, “To stay alive.” When asked what the point was, she replied, “Beauty.”

Graphite cascades onto the page. Seagulls squawk and soar. “It’s coming towards me, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Hambling says. “There’s nothing any of us can do about the fact we’re going to die.”