Maggi Hambling: War Requiem & Aftermath @ King’s College London

The Inigo Rooms at Somerset House are hosting an exhibition of recent work by one of Britain’s most established artists, Maggi Hambling CBE.

(The Inigo Rooms are reached through a doorway in the East Wing of the main quad of Somerset House – which is itself accessed either via a grand archway from the Strand or via the river terrace, linked directly to Waterloo Bridge by a sloping ramp.)

Aftermath

To see the exhibition you have to climb down an atmospheric old winding staircase to a long, narrow, darkened corridor with five rooms off it. Each room is sealed by a heavy wooden door giving an eerie Alice in Wonderland effect. But on pedestals the length of the corridor you can immediately see some of the 30 or so Aftermath works, all about human head-size, sitting on four-foot-high pedestals, spotlit in the darkness.

Hambling was born and raised in East Anglia and the sea is a big presence in her work. Probably her most famous – and controversial – piece is the four-metre-high steel sculpture of a seashell, Scallop, unveiled at the north end of Aldeburgh beach in 2003.

Aftermath is the name she’s given to a series of relatively small sculptures, begun in 2013. She’s taken driftwood from the shore, carved and reformed the pieces, coated them in plaster to soften the outlines and to create a dripping, molten look – and then cast them in bronze, and painted and repainted them with thick gloopy layers of paint. They’ve been subject, in other words, to quite radical transformations.

Installation view of the Aftermath sculptures

Installation view of the Aftermath sculptures

What is art if not an act of attention – the creation of an object or sounds or series of words – which themselves command attention? Quite how much attention is entirely up to the strolling viewer.

Walking down the corridor past ten or so of these strange, melted gargoyle shapes painted purple or blue-white or yellow – and then into a room full of twenty or so more – their sheer abundance liberates the viewer to window-shop and alight on this or that object as whims of light, angles or curves, catch your fancy.

Because one hanging on the wall at the start is shaped like a pig’s head, and the next one is a bright yellow glutinous object with tubes protruding which could be a heart, I wondered if they were going to be visions from an abattoir, and that that would be the link with the overall war theme of the exhibition.

But as I explored further I realised that they are far more diverse than that, in shape and colour and intention. I liked:

War Requiem II

The sign on the heavy wooden door advises that only one visitor at a time should enter the War Requiem II room, so I turned the handle and entered with trepidation.

It is a small room made smaller by four wall-sized panels of rough hardboard, on which are hanging about 20 abstract oil paintings all using the same thick swirls of Indian yellow and jet black oil paint to create tortured gashes.

Maybe – I thought – they are the fires burning up out of the oil deliberately released by Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War.

In fact they have titles like Victim XXX and Battlefield XVIII, from which I realise they are intended to be much more figurative than at first appeared.

Battlefield XVIII by Maggi Hambling

Battlefield XVIII by Maggi Hambling

From loudspeakers overhead comes the haunting, swooning sound of the soprano singing the Lacrymosa from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

The room contains an old wooden chair to sit on and also two mirrors, all three objects lightly flecked with the same colours as the paintings.

Maybe as we walk round the small space we are meant to catch our reflection in the mirrors and think these victims of atrocity could be us.

You are the sea

At the end of the long dark Alice in Wonderland-style corridor is another heavy door with a minatory sign on it warning entrants to be prepared.

Inside another small room is a two-metre-wide concrete drainage pipe, placed on its side to form a circular seat. The mouth of the pipe is covered with a metal grille and the whole thing is a recreation of a vent from one of the many drainage systems which cover Hambling’s native East Anglia. Apparently, this one is a replica of part of the sluice at Thorpeness, built to prevent the sea flooding the river Hundred and, more metaphorically, from rushing in to overwhelm the land.

There’s a loudspeaker in the pipe and from it comes a recording of the seasounds, the remote booming and breaking of waters far below, which you can hear in the real vent. And mixed into the swashing, crashing sounds are fragments of speech, phonemes torn from Hambling’s 2009 poem You Are The Sea.

Dominating the wall is one of her very large Wall of water paintings – as so often she’s painted a series on the same theme – thick garottes of oil paint depicting the unruly element which threatens to wash us away.

Figurative

Those were the highlights. In other rooms are more obviously representational works. A vivid charcoal copy of a detail of Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian stands as their mascot, reopening the possibility of an immediately understandable figurative art. They include:

  • A large striking painting of a line of women in black burqas holding rocket launchers – Gulf women prepare for war – taken from a photograph, a snapshot of the absurdity and incongruity of a war which is still raging.
  • Cuddling skulls evocative depiction of a timeless theme for moralists.

In the 1990s Hambling created a series of bronze sculptures titled War coffin – consisting of small frames with fragments of metal dangling down – and the figurative room contains a TV on a pedestal showing a video which features the sound of the metal pieces knocking each other like wind chimes – an eerie tinkling which echoes down the darkened corridor.

Comment

For me the Requiem room didn’t really work, much though I liked the individual paintings: they felt too samey hung together, their similitude drained them of impact.

By contrast the walls of water paintings seemed to me to successfully vary a theme or subject and a style, ensuring visual consistency by the use of the same palette of whites and greys, but producing lots of new and fresh images.

They were helped by their scale. Whereas the victim paintings are all small and close to each other in the viewer’s field of vision, and so have a similar affect, the big walls of water had more space in which to express the variety of the canvases. You had to physically turn to address each one individually, which involved a slight but important mental adjustment as well.

But in my opinion it is worth visiting the show just to see the Aftermath pieces, to wander among these strange combinations of accident and artifice, and let the shapes and colours and configurations sink in, striking chords in your mind, opening visual and tactile possibilities. God, I wish artists let you touch their sculptures!


Related links

Britten’s War Requiem @ the Royal Festival Hall

To the Royal Festival hall to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski with Evelina Dobraceva soprano, Ian Bostridge tenor, Matthias Goerne baritone and Neville Creed conducting the chamber orchestra. along with the London Philharmonic Choir and Trinity Boys Choir perform Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

It was premiered in 1962 at the opening of the new cathedral in Coventry, built on the ruins of the old one, demolished like half the city in a catastrophic German air raid.

Among requiems it is notable because Britten intersperses the texts of the Latin requiem (the Missa pro Defunctis) – the ones set by Mozart, Brahms, Verdi and numerous other composers – with poems by the greatest poet of the Great War, Wilfred Owen. Thus it harks back to, or can be seen as a summation of, Britten’s lifelong interest in creating song cycles.

What struck me in performance was:

  • The size of the chorus – I counted 145 choristers – when they sang forte in unison as during the Dies irae and the climax, before Strange Meeting, I was pushed back in my seat by the power, and the power of Britten’s intentions to overwhelm us.
  • By striking contrast, the smallness of the chamber orchestra of about 8 players who accompanied the tenor and baritone when they sang the poems. And the way, throughout the requiem, Britten used tics and habits which I associate with Peter Grimes and Billy Budd – the use of little trills on trumpet or horn to punctuate phrases, of a snare drum to accompany phrasing – both these and other tics have the affect of distancing and alienating the music so it is not lush and orchestral and comforting. There’s something of Stravinsky’s ‘Histoire du Soldat’ or Weill’s Weimar songs in their deliberately patchy, scratchy orchestration.
  • I am not sure this was a great production. Despite myriad high points (including the piercing soprano voice in the Lacrymosa and the swaying orchestration of the final Let us sleep) the offstage voices of the boys choir (which I take to be intended as a heavenly choir) were so offstage that at moments it became inaudible; I found the deep notes of the baritone in the Abraham poem so low that I wouldn’t have been able to understand it if I hadn’t had the text in front of me.

There was a minute’s silence after the last notes died away. Maybe that is traditional and it was certainly well observed here. And as the applause started I felt a tear well up in my eye. My great uncle fought at the Somme. “Such a waste, a bloody waste,” he said on the only occasion he was ever known to swear. But I wasn’t as moved as I have been listening to the CD in the privacy of my home. As soon as the clapping died away the usual audience chit-chat started up and I felt we hadn’t been as traumatised as we should have been.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the North German Symphony Orchestra in Britten’s War Requiem on Youtube

Three years after the War Requiem‘s premiere, in 1965, Gyorgi Ligeti published his Requiem. Innovative though Britten’s introduction of Owen’s poetry might have been, comparison with Ligeti makes it clear that it is an innovation by moving backwards, towards 50-year old (and very traditional) English poetry and using the small-scale orchestration which appears throughout the operas. It is an innovation from Britten’s roots, a recapitulation: whereas Ligeti has invented a dazzling new way for music to exist altogether and, arguably, a more appropriate sonic response to the horror of 20th century war.

Related links

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

%d bloggers like this: