The Naked and The Nude: an art historian's response to Maggi Hambling's 'Statue for Mary Wollstonecraft'

 For me, the naked and the nude 

By lexicographers construed

As synonyms that should express

The same deficiency of dress

Or shelter stand as wide apart

As love from lies, or truth from art.

Robert Graves, ‘The Naked and the Nude’, 1957

 Robert Graves responding to Walter Sickert’s 1910 essay ‘The Naked and the Nude’ managed to hijack the concept for his own purposes. But they’re illuminating, and art critics like John Berger certainly knew the original essay and 1957 poem.

John Berger himself wrote on very similar lines. ‘To be naked is to be oneself. Nakedness reveals itself, nudity is placed on display….  To be naked is to be without disguise.’ (Ways of of Seeing) Berger asserts: ‘To be nude is to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The site of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object).’

One of the classic breakouts from nude to naked and back again is Manet’s Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe of 1863. Here famously the working nude is part of a pastoral idealised landscape but with bearded French painters like satyrs and frock-coats recumbent around her. It’s literally a deconstructed idyll of the objectified nude, stripped bare by her painters even. So a real model in a real place (within the painting’s frame). The unnamed model breaks out of her nudity to become naked against 1860s male attire, as a working girl out of her ’nude’ environment – a boudoir or grove. Her glare is unabashed – straight at the viewer, not offering herself up for sexual ownership, placed as she is amongst men in the business of objectifying her, turning her into a nude. She’s paid, they’re participating in what Berger terms the commodification of art and yet… She’s still sexy, naked for several men’s gaze, can still be objectified if uncomfortably. Is she half-naked and half-nude?

Manet can be seen to be challenging the concept of the nude in what was shocking and risque for it’s time, as in Manet’s Olympia.

But is she still pandering to the male gaze? Or challenging the male gaze? Although she seems confident in her nakedness, is she at home with being naked or is she still the nude as in an object for male consumption and objectification?

When Maggi Hambling unveiled her nude – or naked – statue of pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) the consternation extended to anti-trans activists shrouding the statue’s brazen nudity with a t-shirt. There’s no confusion in cisgendered historical Wollstonecraft choosing lovers and husbands. However, representing this moral philosopher as naked imbued with pubic hair raises issues of objectification. Maggi Hambling claimed the sculpture ‘was meant to reflect Wollstonecraft’s spirit, not depict her likeness.’ That worked. In defending her piece  “The figure had to be nude because clothes define people,” she says. The Islington Gazette canvased opinion. Jodi Taylor, 18, commented: ‘She literally looks like a Barbie doll in some silver foil… Her whole point was to prove we’re equal, and that’s not by stripping off and being naked.’ Anna Birch founding member of the Mary on the Green campaign group, said ‘What’s so shocking about the female form? It’s ridiculous in 2020.’ She urged the public to appreciate the whole piece, rather than focussing on the top-piece. True, though this skews the question away from the beacon of nudity on the top.

 Amy Todd – Programme Manager of the Newington Green Meeting House,  herself modelled a contemporary photograph as Wollstonecraft depicted as in the 1797 William Opie painting of the writer. Inserted in the essay by Richard Crawford, he wrote: ‘A nude Mary Wollstonecraft departs from all previous portraits that have depicted her clothed, usually in loose fitting drapes with her head covered… The strong upright posture echoes the statuesque posture of Wollstonecraft in Stewy’s stencil portrait; architectural rather than naturalistic. Hambling draws on the Classical tradition by representing Wollstonecraft as an idealised nude figure… to make a general point, rather than sculpt her likeness. In this representation, her heroism is on show rather than her appearance….Mary’s depiction in art has always been contentious. To see a feminised version of Mary? Eileen Botting  refers to the covering up of the nude as ‘Victorian prudery that had once labelled Wollstonecraft’s life and ideas too revolutionary for public consumption in mid-nineteenth-century London’. Amy Todd herself then asks ‘Has her image been sanitised too? ….Mary did not fit into the box of what a ‘woman’ should be, she was a revolutionary, ‘unpatriotic’, a fearless critic of the state…. {rather than} entombed in her woman’s body, where most historians wanted to keep her.’.

Crawford and Todd clearly depict Hambling’s Wollstonecraft as liberating.

 Perhaps we should ask the statue herself?

 ‘A man or woman of any feeling, must always wish to convince a beloved object that it is the caresses of the individual, not the sex, that are received and returned with pleasure..’ (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman)

Wollstonecraft herself clearly has no time for objectification, indeed sees sexuality as a personal, if liberating mutuality or “Taught from infancy that beauty is women’s spectre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around it’s gilt cage, only seeks to adorn it’s prison”. Berger also writes: ‘a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures and voice. And “to be born a woman has been to be born within an allotted and confined space in the keeping of men’. 

So by contrast the paintings of Jenny Saville, although she uses traditional methods of oil-painting on canvas, her depiction of the naked female sitter is anything but traditional, the naked sitter is not conventionally beautiful, but grossly overweight, appearing older and weathered by life with an uncompromising glare at the onlooker. Saville famously states in the Guardian: ‘I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies, taken from Baudelaire’. She talks about how women’s bodies have been distorted both by plastic surgery and liposuction and wants to portray women as they are, unflinching, uncompromising. Her paintings depict life’s ravages, scars and pain, women proclaiming this is what I’ve been through.

Saville paraphrased and inscribed into the paint, in mirror image, a text from Belgian born and feminist writer Luce Irigarary (‘If we continue to speak in this sameness-speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other.’). It’s a complicity shared between painter and sitter.  The words are a secret message, a secret language. Saville proclaimed herself ‘anti-beauty and focused instead on exaggerating bodily elements that society generally deemed unsightly’. The sitter, a naked overweight partially sighted woman can also view the secret text. Saville portrayed her figures not as Madonnas but as harried humans. She often garners comparisons with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud for her unglorified depictions of flesh. Her angry brush-strokes discomfit the viewer. Additionally in Gagosian Art Magazine, December 2020 Jenny Saville discusses Rembrandt’s self-portraits and their unflinching gaze, not pandering to an ideal.

 In Jenny Saville Landscape of the Body, John Gray claims: ‘Jenny Saville has spent a good deal of time with people involved in cosmetic surgery and sex change operations… reflected in her paintings. From one angle her portraits of people in various phases of reconstruction can be seen as showing them engaged in a project of self-realisation.’ The effect of Saville’s work is to tear apart the image. In ‘Reflective Flesh’ the artist has created a nude at once aggressively sexual and physical. The multiple reactions both add to the sexual impact, yet at the same time to fracture it, splinter it. David Slyvestor’s Saville essay Areas of Flesh , declares: women who have got very large breasts pull them up to have a look at the rest of their body. So it’s the idea of self realisation and self examination in her paintings rather than just the male gaze. They are not performing to an admirer but as a self reflection. Because women have been so involved in being the subject-object, it’s quite important to take that on board and not just be the person looking and examining. 

 It’s fitting Saville should conclude:

“I don’t like working in a life-class, there’s no recognition from the model, he or she is indifferent, I don’t get anything from it…. Beauty is always associated with the male fantasy of what the female body is, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with beauty. It’s just that what women think is beautiful is very different. And there can be a beauty in individualism . if there is a wart or a scar, this can be beautiful, in a sense, when you paint it. It’s part of your identity. Individual things are seeping out, leaking out.” In Ways of Seeing Berger argues “ the male onlooker is snared: enticed to gaze on female beauty, the woman used as a conduit to elicit male desire, to sell something of herself: we do not see the woman as human but an object to perform a service to sell a product or gratify a man’s gaze.” In Jenny Saville’s work there’s a more naturalistic representation of women, with strength and fragility but physical flaws too and not media air-brushed image: male artists and photographers depicting the ‘perfect’ woman, young, slim, flawless without a mind of her own.

So just how nude or naked though is the Hambling, fashioned by a woman but of a sexually alluring one? Or back in 1863 that woman sat amongst casually gazing men – themselves fully clothed – in the Manet? Her nakedness is striking, subversive, playful, intoxicating and still on display. As Graves writes: ‘The naked, therefore, who compete/Against the nude may know defeat’. It’s not a battle of words, but for bodies.


  1.  Robert Graves The Complete Poems ed. Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward Penguin 2003
  2. John Berger Ways of Seeing’ Penguin 1972 p. 54
  3. Have I Got New For You, November 13th 2020
  4. Islington Gazette November 17th 2020
  5. Mary Wolstencraft A Vindication of the Rights of Woman 1792 Verso edition ed. Sheila Rowbotham 2019. p. 134
  6.  Newington Green Meeting House ‘Picturing Mary Wolstencraft December 2020
  7. Jenny Saville Rizzoli New York 2005


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