Maggi Hambling CBE

Maggi Hambling is famous for being one of the most controversial living artists. Her public memorial sculptures – of cultural figures such as Oscar Wilde and Benjamin Britten – have continually divided public opinion. Born in 1945, Hambling graduated from the Slade School of Art in 1969 and went on to become the National Gallery’s first artist in residence in 1980. She is also recognisable for her expressive oil portraits and vibrant, untamed brushwork.

‘Hebe and Her Serpent’ (1979) features the Greek goddess of eternal youth, Hebe – daughter of Zeus and Hera and cupbearer to the Olympians. There is no myth linking Hebe to a serpent so the scene in the painting is drawn purely from the imagination of the artist. In Greek mythology serpents are associated with healing and immortality. The connection between women and snakes is also Biblical, recalling Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden. The harmony in the colours and the angle from which we view Hebe’s naked form here makes the goddess herself seem like a snake. Yet the expressive brushstrokes making up her body remind us that she is a painting. Although she reclines like a typical female nude, her expression is defiant; she gazes at the serpent with contempt.

‘Gulf Women Prepare for War’ (1986) depicts a group of women in hijabs, preparing for the Iran-Iraq War, based on a photograph published in The Times. Hambling’s female Muslim soldiers subvert many art historical tropes, challenging traditional depictions of women, such as the female nude. In Hambling’s painting it is the desert that is painted in fleshy pink tones, while the women themselves are visions in black. Rather than seductively locking eyes with the viewer, the women turn away from their voyeurs. Wielding their enormous weapons, they are not passive and submissive, but powerful, active and dangerous.