Maggi Hambling b. 1945


The artist


Morley Gallery, London 3 May - 2 June, 1973, cat no.7


A significant aspect of Maggi Hambling’s work over the years has been her concern with the subject of the clown and the entertainer, most notably the comedian and actor Max Wall. Her earliest oil painting, done when she was just fourteen, was of a clown, and she says that if she hadn’t been a painter she would have liked to have been a 'stand-up comic, just alone on stage making people laugh'. It was the kind of independent role she could identify with, so it was perhaps a matter of no great surprise that when she returned to painting in 1972, after five or six years of experimentation as an installation artist while at the Slade, most of her subjects should come from the world of pub entertainers, singers and stand-up comics. Cabaret is one of them, and was included in the 1973 Morley College show that marked the beginning of her mature painting career - or what she has termed humorously her 'pudding phase'. This refers to the fact that in the course of working on them she would, in despair, often scrape off so much of the paint 'that the palette ended up looking better than the canvas so I’d then lift the whole lot off with the knife and put it back on again'. The face of the figure in Cabaret shows clear evidence of this process.
Typically, too, it shows Hambling isolating a single figure by setting them against strong, simple field of background colour, a device that reveals the clear influence of Francis Bacon, an artist she has always greatly admired. But, whereas Bacon uses this to intensify and make clear a broader, more objective sense of human despair, Hambling compassionately identifies with the human predicament of her subject. In Cabaret we see, according to the artist, a jaded, ‘been everywhere’, ‘seen everything’ figure, alone in his own private booth, possibly watching a stripper. The sense we have of the figure is of intense human and emotional isolation, and an expression of anxiety for his fate that is curiously touching for such an apparently unsympathetic character.