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)
educationTo mark International Women's Day, Sarah Brown on how charities have brought proper joined-up thinking to the delivery of education
Arts & Ents blogs
Jared Leto: Best Supporting Actor Oscar sparks backlash from transgender community
In Kony's shadow: Shocking photographs reveal brutality of Lord's Resistance Army
Captain Phillips actor Barkhad Abdi struggles despite Oscar nomination
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill set for new film penned by Captain Phillips screenwriter Billy Ray
First clip of Outkast's Andre 3000 in Jimi Hendrix biopic All Is By My Side emerges
Apple's Tim Cook: Business isn’t just about making profit
Thousands of young people forced to go without food after benefits wrongly stopped under 'draconian' new sanctions regime
Ukraine crisis: New navy chief 'defects' and surrenders Crimean HQ as Putin claims ultranationalists forced intervention
Ukraine crisis: Russia dismisses '3am ultimatum' as 'total nonsense'
Britain's top vet sparks controversy with call for ban on slashing animals' throats in 'ritual' slaughters for halal and kosher meat products
If you're horrified by a flame-roasted dog, you should be shocked at a hog roast
- 1 The future of sex: The first female condoms were derided, mistrusted and shunned - but will their modern counterparts catch on?
- 2 South African rhino finally put down after roaming Kruger park for days with horn hacked off and bullet in brain
- 3 Sir Patrick Stewart patches into David Cameron and Barack Obama's Ukraine talks with packet of wet wipes
- 4 Study suggests that 'gaydars' are real - at least for women
- 5 Man stabbed with Legend of Zelda Master Sword in serious condition