Wilde at heart
VISUAL ARTS: Maggi Hambling; National Portrait Gallery, London
Friday 23 May 1997
Perhaps better known as a painter, Hambling turned to sculpture some five years ago and exhibited her bronzes to great acclaim at Marlborough Fine Art last year. She has been obsessed with Wilde since hearing his stories as a child, demanding the poet's Complete Works as her 12th birthday present. She first painted him from the imagination in 1985, and the resulting diptych is the first thing you see in the NPG show, on the corridor wall flanking the exhibition room. It shows just how brilliant a moulder of paint Hambling is, a fact underlined by a series of further paintings of Wilde made last year. We are shown Oscar smoking, talking, thinking, kissing, or suffering a hangover. In this last painting, Hambling makes the face deliquesce and drop realistically with crapulence.
Within the room itself are the sculptures, drawings and maquettes for the monument. Four magnificently moving pencil portraits done by the artist with her eyes closed, as if in some mediumistic trance, demonstrate the familiarity with Wilde's lineaments that Hambling enjoys. She knows these features so well she can take risks with them, reworking for varied effect. Hambling draws like the wind, whether in the earliest studies for a statue influenced by Rodin's great Balzac, or in the later experiments of how to depict Wilde rising from his coffin. One drawing, Wilde Laughing, has the animal emerge, the splendid humanity for a moment fiercely diminished. The graphic freedom and vigour, the sheer invention, has been fed into the open-work bronzes. Colouring the metal a wonderfully decadent turquoise, Hambling confers upon the man she sees as a creature of the night the emblems of star and crescent moon.
The head and hand sculpture, titled We Are All in the Gutter, But Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars (after Lady Windermere's Fan), has an additional frisson to it. A photograph of it adorns the catalogue cover. If you block out Oscar's right eye and nose with your hand, following his hairline, a much older, perhaps neolithic mask emerges of an ancient and possibly menacing idol. Hambling thus suggests that the anarchic spirit that underlay Wilde's debonair exterior reaches back beyond the borders of time.
The maquettes for the memorial propose a granite sarcophagus from which Wilde emerges, and on which the passer-by may sit. The idea is that you have a conversation with the poet. The inspired informality of the thing (unlike most statues, it's at ground level rather than louring over you) is compounded by the appearance of Oscar, who might be leaning back in his bath enjoying a cigarette. It's intended to install the sculpture in Adelaide Street, London WC2, in time for Wilde's birthday on 16 October, and an appeal has been launched to raise the necessary funding. Hambling's response to the commission has been an intensely celebratory one: this exhibition may be small but it is powerfully concentrated. It's the first time Maggi Hambling's sculpture, paintings and drawings have been shown together. What a unity of intent they manifest, an ability to pierce to the heart of a subject and make it her own. An artist at full-throttle.
`A Statue For Oscar Wilde' is at the National Portrait Gallery, London W1 to 3 August (0171-306 0055)
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 McKamey Manor: This 'extreme' haunted house is the stuff of nightmares
- 2 Russell Brand says he will 'probably' give up acting to focus on his revolution
- 3 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 4 David Beckham's Haig Club whisky is exactly what’s wrong with the Highlands
- 5 Ottawa shootings: Bruce MacKinnon's cartoon is the perfect tribute to soldier Nathan Cirillo
This is what a film sex scene actually looks like on set (mostly awkward)
Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
After Sam Smith’s Mobo success, is the help of a pushy parent the surest route to stardom?
Pottermore: JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story featuring 'greying' 33-year-old wizard
JK Rowling to publish new Harry Potter story online for Halloween
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Tony Blair 'says Ed Miliband will lose 2015 general election'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Putin: The US is to blame for almost all the world's major conflicts