by Sarah Sheard
'This is an image of the female body.’ Thus began the keynote lecture of a conference on classical art I attended in 2019. The speaker, a man in his mid-50s, was gesturing at a projected image of a nude female body that looked computer-generated, almost like someone had found technical drawings for the Fembots in Austin Powers: she had a tiny waist, svelte legs, and an astonishingly round bust, perhaps to compensate for her lack of labia and pubic hair. ‘The female body,’ I whispered to the woman next to me, who barely suppressed her bemused laughter, ‘famously, there is only one.’
One year later, I watched the unveiling of Maggi Hambling’s sculpture for the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft in London. There it was again, the female body. She was, admittedly, miniature this time, awkwardly suspended atop a spurt of what some commentators sheepishly described as ‘organic matter’: her feet and calves submerged in the spume, her arms by her sides, her head held upright. Her elfin features appeared pensive. Yet the stickily synthetic sheen of the sculpture, rendered in silvered bronze, forced the light to accentuate not her expression, but her anatomy: her breasts, deeply rounded, with areolae picked out in painstaking detail; the subtly defined musculature of her toned stomach; her concave pubic hair.
A few months earlier in 2020, the female body appeared again in a sculpture installed in New York, across from the courthouse where Harvey Weinstein was convicted of various sexual offences. Medusa with the Head of Perseus, a 2008 sculpture by Luciano Garbati, depicts the mythical Medusa clutching the head of Perseus in one hand and a sword in the other. The sculpture was quickly rebranded as #MeToo art: with the roles of decapitator and decapitated duly reversed, Medusa is represented as a survivor and avenger of sexual violence. She is nude, with the same lithe body and flawless bust as the figure on the Wollstonecraft memorial, albeit with a perfectly smooth vulva — as if she has had the ultimate Hollywood treatment.
The nudity of both figures was promptly deplored as gratuitous and objectifying. Journalist Helen Lewis described Hambling’s statue as ‘a Barbie glued to a melted popsicle’, and feminists such as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett resented being forced to wonder if Mary Wollstonecraft, a philosopher and writer, had been a ‘full bush’ kind of gal. Implicit in these discussions is the fear that any woman, regardless of her achievements, would always be reduced to her anatomy. Meanwhile, critic Jerry Saltz condemned Garbati’s Medusa as ‘Playboy magazine-like nudie realism’, her stripped and waxed body sorely incongruous with the supposed repurposing of the work as a dedication to survivors of sexual violence. As the feminist theorist Wagatwe Wanjuki pointed out, the creation of the Medusa by a white, male European artist rendered it a poor commemoration of the Black-founded #MeToo movement. Garbati’s Medusa was originally conceived as a reversal of a Renaissance sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini, one in which Medusa’s body does not appear at all, which makes the rebranding rather cynical.
The criticism levelled against these sculptures ties into an ongoing conversation about the power of statues as symbols of history, heritage, and social values. The spectacular (and literal) no-platforming of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol last summer was, and remains, a cause célèbre. Petitions to remove the statue on the grounds that Colston made at least part of his fortune through the slave trade date back to the 1990s. Similar campaigns, such as Rhodes Must Fall which began in 2015, sparked and sustained a conversation about the material traces of Britain’s colonial and imperial legacies. It was in 2020, however, that discourse boiled over into direct action. Colston’s statue was dumped in the Bristol Harbour by demonstrators. The statue-topplers and their supporters rejected the statue as a racist symbol because it glorified a man who profited from the enslavement and exploitation of Black people; others decried the statue’s unceremonious removal as the rewriting of British history and identity. Since Colston, the government has proposed special legislation to protect historical statues from roving mobs of historically informed hooligans.
But the commissioning of new statues rather than the conservation of pre-existing ones makes the question of what exactly public art should commemorate much more direct. Each new statue presents us with the opportunity (and the challenge) to identify the values and individuals we believe to be worthy of public commemoration. New works also offer the chance to address the woeful underrepresentation of named historical women within public statuary: a sculpture of the palaeontologist Mary Anning has recently been announced, while images of Mary Seacole and Millicent Fawcett were installed in London in 2016 and 2018. The latter sculptures represent the women as individuals in their element. Fawcett holds aloft her protest banner while Seacole strides forward as if patrolling a hospital ward; the bodies of both women appear historically accurate in build and dress, but the sculptures clearly commemorate their contributions to society rather than their corporeality. In contrast, the gym-bunny physique of Hambling’s figure is, by virtue of its nudity, its only defining feature.
Hambling has repeatedly defended her sculpture and the nude figure as being for, and not of, Wollstonecraft: her argument is that an image of Wollstonecraft in bonnet and skirt would be ‘limiting’ and not sufficiently ‘now’, whereas the female body represented is ‘everywoman’. Yet in the very same interview, Hambling describes this ‘everywoman’ as being ‘more or less the shape we’d all like to be’: not so much “everywoman” as “ideal woman” — not an abstract form, but an aspirational one. The pretence that Hambling’s lithe figure represents all women and womanhood is patently naïve, but it is no doubt familiar to those of us struggling to live under (and up to) the impossible standards of Western beauty. To think of Hambling’s figure as ‘everywoman’ made me think of the infamous advert for weight-loss supplements that blared ‘ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?’ next to the looming figure of a bikini-clad model: her thin, white, busty body was wildly unattainable, but presented as the expectation of every woman regardless of her race, weight, and medical history. Hambling presents her ‘everywoman’ as timeless and ahistorical, but her admission that the body is aspirational betrays its cultural and historical specificity. The female body represented is a static ideal not because it is outside of history, but because it is firmly embedded within it. It is the product of the continual reproduction and exaltation of the ‘classical’ aesthetic within the Western visual canon, in which female beauty is white, slim, and preferably nude.
The Wollstonecraftian maiden and Garbati’s Medusa cannot help but speak to the first representation of a nude female body in ancient Greco-Roman art: Praxiteles’ Knidian Aphrodite, which was sculpted in fourth- century BC Athens. An apocryphal story surrounding the creation of the statue charges the binary between clothed and nude: Praxiteles apparently created two sculptures of the goddess, one clothed (as was normative for contemporary representations of women) and one nude. The latter showed the goddess as if preparing for her bath, her discarded clothing and water-jug justifying the representation of her nude body. The position of her hand over her mons pubis created a constructive ambiguity: is she modestly covering herself, or coyly drawing the viewer’s eye to her sex? The jury is still out on the matter and has been for several centuries. Although Praxiteles’ sculpture is lost, the Knidia’s iconography and shapely body survived through the multiple iterations of the statue created by later Hellenistic and Roman artists. In first to second century AD Rome, for instance, even statues of real, named wives and mothers took the Knidian body out on loan, as it were. One such statue, which can be traced back to the Tomb of the Manilii in Rome, portrays a nude standing woman who has shifted her weight onto her right foot and aligned her left hand with her vulva. Her smooth and fleshy form, pert breasts, and swelling hips contrast with her mature, severe facial features, pronounced nasolabial folds and wrinkles. The woman has not represented her own mature, middle-aged body, but quite obviously borrowed the Knidia’s. The woman’s ‘real’ body — which could not be represented nude according to contemporary social mores — has been deferred in favour of the nude ideal. In the context of the Manilii tomb, the matron has swapped out her aged body for the Venus body to emphasise that she was desirable and fertile in life, while retaining her modesty in death.
Even in the case of clothed statues of named Roman women, deferral was still the name of the game. An honorific statue type, often displayed in public spaces such as the forum and the theatre — unflatteringly nicknamed by modern scholars as the ‘Large Herculaneum Woman’ — portrays a standing woman swathed in layers of drapery, usually holding one arm across her body in a defensive position. The head was often swapped in and out for a portrait image of the honoured woman, but the body remained the same: its power lay in the fact that it was a stock body, generic and replicated. The ‘Large Herculaneum Woman’ constructed and perpetuated a visual language denoting praiseworthy women and their achievements, partly by revealing nothing about the woman’s own individual corporeality and instead deferring to a collective ideal.
The criticism of Hambling and Garbati as making unconventional choices to represent women as nude in apparently inappropriate contexts seems to overlook the domineering endurance of nudity in sculpture. Hambling and Garbati are not radically choosing to represent the nude female body; rather, they are simply continuing a visual tradition, one that appears unable to negotiate individual feminine corporealities and instead defers it in favour of an ideal. As Hambling herself said, the Wollstonecraft figure is ‘the shape we’d all like to be’. While a statue of Wollstonecraft in her skirts would look dowdy, the nude female body — as long as it remains classical, white, and slim — will always be in fashion.
It is the only female body, as dictated by the classical tradition, that is represented within the medium of public sculpture. Even attempts by contemporary artists to break the mould sometimes threaten to reify and reinforce it: Marc Quinn’s 2005 sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant, although groundbreaking in its representation of the eponymous disabled artist, has been repeatedly compared to the Venus de Milo. The difficulty of representing female and feminine figures in all their diversity is necessarily complicated when the chosen medium has, historically, only ever exalted one female body. Without acknowledging and understanding the history and limitations of public sculpture as a medium, any attempt to represent bodies that diverge from the norm will simply look “other”, wrong, out of place: the exclusion of any and all bodies that are not white, cis and normative from visual culture will be further reinforced.
It seems, then, that we as viewers have much more homework to do than first anticipated: not only to decide which individuals, ideas, and events are deserving of visual commemoration in the public sphere but to hash out new ways of representing them beyond the confines of classicising naturalism. Ironically, Hambling’s initial proposal did just that. In contrast to the hyper-realistic nipples and pubic hair of the final product, the proposal drawings show a figure still borne aloft on an unidentified spume but with only the gentle swell of modest breasts as a corporeal marker. Her form is more gently and softly rounded, almost as if she is yet unfinished, a working clay model for a future sculpture. In some ways, this is a much more fitting and relatable symbol of Wollstonecraft’s dedication to the processes of progress. Another means to escape the classicising trap could be jettisoning anthropomorphism itself: fully committing to Hambling’s conceit of a sculpture for Wollstonecraft by commemorating individuals and their achievements in abstract forms.
Even then, however, I suspect it will be difficult to make art that steps beyond the female body. A sad caveat is a recent sculpture by Cathy de Monchaux, installed at my alma mater, Newnham College, Cambridge. Beyond Thinking runs along the height of the college’s entrance and shows a set of miniature female figures, left rounded with only minimal indications of breasts and clothing, couched in the spines of books whose veined pages have fallen open. To me, the female figures were ambiguous and subtly varied enough to encompass the spectrum of womanhood I had encountered at Newnham; the intricate cobwebs across the pages made me think of the vines wrapped around the college’s buildings, or even the firing synapses of a brain engaged in thought. To the press, and the wider world, however, the work resembled a ‘two-storey vulva’. Dismayed, de Monchaux clarified that the sculpture was ‘a positive statement about women that wasn’t about sex’, but to no avail: femininity has been represented through anatomy for so long that the two seem inextricable. The nickname, ‘vulva sculpture’, stuck. Each time I walk past the relief, I see it as a reminder: the female body is almost inevitable, omnipresent, no matter how hard we try to escape her.
SARAH SHEARD is a PhD candidate at Peterhouse, Cambridge, who spends all day thinking about all kinds of female bodies, both ancient and modern.
Art by Ellena Murray