Exhibition review: Maggi Hambling: Walls of Water at the National Gallery

Lilias Wigan reviews an exhibition by the National Gallery’s first artist in residence.

In 1980, Maggi Hambling became the National Gallery’s first artist in residence. Now, almost 35 years later, this sometimes controversial artist has returned with a collection of paintings made between 2010 and 1012 and seen here in public for the first time. The series consists of eight vast oil paintings all depicting scenes of the North Sea at Southwold, together with one smaller canvas devoted to Amy Winehouse, which sits somewhat at odds with the others.

Hambling lives and works near the Suffolk coast and is endlessly fascinated by the brutality of the North Sea, the way it victimizes and erodes the shoreline of her native East Anglia. ‘I draw the sea each morning, very early before anyone else is about, when it’s often very difficult to see’, she says. She is intent on trying to understand the feeling of the sea, to record its mystery as well as capture its rhythm in what she calls her ‘pathetic little human mark’. Feeling a certain affiliation with her fellow Suffolk countryman Constable, she says: ‘I do for the sea what Constable did for the sky.’

Hambling started her series of North Sea paintings during a period of wild weather in 2002. ‘I’d come to look at the sea in the morning, with the storm raging and waves charging and then I went back to my studio’. She’d stand in the face of the tempest to experience the full sensation of waves crashing violently into the sea wall. This is the moment that the paintings reveal, the moment when the waves break and rebound. The wall is represented at the bottom of each canvas by a single broken line that appears to be dissolving under this great power.

Her skill with oils is a performance in its own right. Hambling spurts and splashes the canvas with vigorous upward movements of paint, which then drips down the surface. In places, she hurls it at the canvas, or swirls it about with her fingertips. The exuberance of her colour conveys both the energy of the waves, and their destructiveness.

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Seeing these paintings within the confines of a gallery reminds us of our own vulnerability in the face of nature, for the waves seem to hit us from all angles. They are a metaphor for life and death; we become aware of our own mortality at the mercy of the sea’s relentless force. As Hambling warns us: ‘Death will come, the sea will come.’ Yet, in spite of the danger and sense of foreboding, there is something positive to be gained from the experience, and it’s undoubtedly an uplifting sensation to be surrounded by such energy and vigour. Walls of Water celebrates the omnipotence of the sea. It is at the National Gallery, London until 15 February, 2015 (020 7747 2885; www.nationalgallery.org.uk)

The exhibition offers a contemporary comparison to the seascapes of the Scandinavian artist Peder Balke (1804-1887), which are also on display at the National Gallery and highly recommended. And admirers of Hambling’s work can see some of her monotypes on display in the downstairs espresso bar. Next year, opening in March 2015, is Maggi Hambling: War Requiem & Aftermath, a survey of her recent work encompassing painting, sculpture, installation and film, at The Cultural Institute at Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, King’s College, London WC2R 2LS 4 Mar-31 May, 2015, accompanied by James Cahill’s new book of the same name.