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Wilde at heart

VISUAL ARTS: Maggi Hambling; National Portrait Gallery, London
It's high time that London was graced with a statue to commemorate the life and work of Oscar Wilde. It was the dying wish of the film-maker Derek Jarman, and the project has advanced admirably since his death in 1994. From a strong short-list, Maggi Hambling was chosen to design the memorial, and the fruits of her labours are currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery.

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)

Andrew Lambirth