George Always

Portraits of George Melly by Maggi Hambling
Walker Gallery (27th February to 31st May 2009)

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

At first glance there is a strong impression of multi-directional Georgeness: hatted and kipper-tied, rakishly eye-patched - his Falstaffian exuberance spilling, like his ample belly, out of the canvases. Maggi Hambling’s swirling life-filled paintings of George Melly recreate the ambience of his tipsy world of saucy songs and laughter, whisky and smoke, nocturnal surrealism and sartorial titillation. The artist has managed to convey his bulk whilst at the same time creating a sense of George made light by song, flowing with the sound, his podgy ringed hands expressively camp.

Closer study reveals George caught in many moods. The smallest painting, George Joking, is paradoxically the saddest expression. Good Time George is the closest we get to the face. There is a still poignancy there and if you look at the painting in different ways, and from various distances it is possible to see the subject from more than one angle – but only if you don’t try. George Describing his Forthcoming Role of Christ - the result of an animated performance by Melly from his sick bed shows the dying man with a face of stone whilst George Dead looked at in a certain way reveals one of his eyes open. He is winking. George Melly 1998 offers aspects of the performer’s persona: boisterous bon viveur, bisexual jazz singer, vaudevillian - the fetishist details of clothing and footwear both sexual and theatrical. The background is non-delineated in contrast to such works as George Always I and II and George’s Ghost Dancing where the hinterland is sumptuous - the face ghastly pale in I and in the ghost painting; the figure and face shadowy in II - like the Sandeman’s Port silhouette.

Undeniably compassionate and affectionate, these paintings are a moving tribute by Maggi Hambling to her friend George Melly, but they go further than that. They are an existential comment on the human condition which hovers between addiction/hedonism, humour/farce and comedy/tragedy. Last Drink before Heaven is a metaphor for living in the desire realm. George is drinking, apparently unaware of the hedonistic opportunity within reach, Calvary on a distant hill or what could be the grim reaper - on a bicycle.

The surrealist comment was irresistible.

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