- Maggi Hambling born 1945
- Object: 514 x 512 x 215 mm
- Purchased 1996
War Coffin is a small, rough sand-cast bronze sculpture with a partially applied paint patina. The sculpture consists of a horizontally oriented coffin-shaped frame with four long uprights welded to it near each of its corners, which extend down and are attached to two parallel rockers below. Seven long, amorphic bronze objects that broadly resemble fish are suspended from thin wires attached using coloured resin to slender bars that are fixed horizontally to the work’s coffin-shaped frame. One of the uprights supports a pole that extends vertically above the coffin and finishes in an abstract shape in the form of a misshapen flag or lightning bolt. The four uprights consist of square sections of rod roughly welded together and partially cleaned of imperfections. The suspended shapes are hollow and misshapen castings that were made using the lost wax process, with areas partly cleaned with a mechanical grinder. They have a natural red-brown and black patina, while the paint-applied patina in the other areas is blackish-brown with flecks of greenish-blue. The flag-shape at the top has a cleaned surface with a dark brown patina. The work is intended to be shown on a plinth and includes a rocking mechanism that causes the suspended bronze objects to chime when moved, producing what the artist has called ‘strange harmonies when they touch’ (Hambling 2006, p.138).
War Coffin is part of a series of similarly sized bronzes created by the artist between 1993 and 1995, for which the lost wax casting process took place at the Arch Bronze Foundry in Putney, London, the former studio of the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. These works were first displayed as a group in the exhibition Maggi Hambling: Sculptures in Bronze 1993–95 at Marlborough Fine Art, London, in 1996. Hambling began working in bronze in 1993 after the erection of a new sculpture shed in her garden, having felt she had ‘pushed clay as far as I could in terms of balance and line’ (Hambling 2006, p.137). In 2006 Hambling described her experience of finding the correct medium in the lost wax bronze casting process:
The moment I worked with wax I knew it was the medium I needed. We made a bed of dampened sand which I drew into with my hands and other implements. Into these indenetations the hot wax was poured and allowed to cool. I could then assemble elements with a hot metal tool. Once the piece was made it could be cast in bronze. This is the lost wax process, one of the oldest ways of making sculpture.
(Hambling 2006, p.137.)
As well as utilising traditional sculptural methods, at this time Hambling was also looking to the death cultures of ancient civilisations for inspiration. She was initially interested in Etruscan culture, stating in 2006 her fascination for the ‘small rectangular urns containing ashes of dead people with highly animated portraits (often full-length) of them alive, lolling about on the lids’, and she was influenced later by ancient Egyptian and modern Mexican commemorative practices (Hambling 2006, p.137). The texture of the materials and the elongation of forms seen throughout the series also show stylistic links with the work of the Italian-Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966), for example his Four Figurines on a Base 1950–65, cast c.1965–6 (Tate T00773). In 1996 curator Bryan Robertson identified Hambling’s first figures as ‘very much alive in the way that [surrealist painter Joan] Miró’s sculpture is often animated and droll’, yet closest to the spirit of Hambling’s earlier Laugh series of paintings (Robertson in Marlborough Fine Art 1996, p.5).
The works in the group that includes War Coffin are largely elegiac, with many celebrating beauty and artistry as they relate to death (see, for instance, Dancer’s Coffin 1994) or commemorating famous figures (such as Coffin for Marilyn Monroe 1994). However, despite sharing visual qualities with other works in the group, War Coffin is a depiction of grief and injustice. Although the sculpture does not relate to one particular conflict, during the 1990s the British media were saturated by reportage of the Gulf War (1990–1) and conflicts in the Balkans (1991–6). In 2006 Hambling described the dangling shapes in this sculpture as ‘the suspended heads of the victims’ and stated that the work stands as a condemnation of war (Hambling 2006, p.138).
Hambling, whose work often considers death and dying in her sculptures and paintings (see, for instance, Ghost of Cedric 1983; Gulf Women Prepare for War 1986–7; My Mother Dead, 1988), returned to pursue the theme of absurdity and loss in war in later works, as presented in the exhibition Maggi Hambling: War Requiem and Aftermath held at King’s College London in 2015.
Maggi Hambling: Sculpture in Bronze 1993–95, exhibition catalogue, Marlborough Fine Art, London 1996, pp. 4–7, reproduced no.24.
Maggi Hambling, Maggi Hambling: The Works, and conversations with Andrew Lambirth, London 2006, pp.137–9.
Maggi Hambling and James Cahill, Maggi Hambling War Requiem & Aftermath, London 2015.
Supported by Christie’s.