London is awash with statues of important-looking men sitting on horses, or what I somewhat childishly enjoy referring to as “pricks on ponies”. No doubt some of them played an important role in building Britain, and indeed rightly or wrongly, some have now been pushed off podia for their historic efforts.
Our shared space is punctuated with reminders of the achievements of men
From commerce to war, our shared space is punctuated with reminders of the achievements of men. When female figures are depicted, more often than not it is as goddesses with classically bland features, diaphanous robes and the odd rogue nipple. Mortal women, particularly those who weren’t royal, rarely get a look-in. It is estimated that only around 3 per cent of statues depict non-royal women, and as such I cheered on learning that one of the most important philosophers of the enlightenment, Mary Wollstonecraft, was finally to be honoured with her own spot in the capital.
Last night, the piece was unveiled. Emerging from a large amorphous, twisting lump of silvered bronze, a tiny, naked female figure stares down and across Newington Green. In a video produced for the online launch artist Maggi Hambling explained: “My sculpture involves this tower of intermingling female forms culminating in the figure of the woman at the top who is challenging and ready to challenge the world.”
It is fair to say however laudable the aim of the piece, the public response has been somewhat mixed, with one twitter wit describing it as akin to a “Pornhub Christmas decoration.” Gaffa tape and a mask have already been added to the piece, notably not detracting from its aesthetic draw.
The piece depicts an expressionless hard-bodied nymph emerging Venus-like from the crest of a metal wave; her most notable feature is a grossly swollen pudendum. Presumably this is an attempt to position Mary Wollstonecraft, or at least some reference to her, as at the peak of the first “wave” of feminism.
The broiling foam on which the piece rests seems to be an allusion to the creation of Venus from the spray of the sea; as a myth which elides the role of the mother, it is somewhat ironic as Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth. Regrettably, the sculpture is neither well executed, researched, nor symbolically interesting.
A genuinely challenging piece might have broken convention and given her some clothes
It is hard not to feel for the Mary on the Green campaign who raised the raised the £143,300 needed to install the piece. They proudly described it as “a combination of female forms which comingle and rise together as if one” representative of an “Everywoman, her own person, ready to confront the world.” Responding to criticism, Bee Rowlatt, a writer who has been instrumental in the campaign, told The Guardian: “Maggie (sic) Hambling is a pioneering artist and we wanted to do something different to putting people on pedestals,” adding “It’s not inviting. It’s challenging. It’s a challenging artwork, and it’s meant to be.”
As with Luciano Garbati’s new seven-foot bronze statue Medusa with the head of Perseus which was lauded by some as the “#MeToo Medusa”, the piece is not challenging. The mould of a conventionally attractive young woman is one with which we are all familiar, as the use of “feminism” to deflect criticism. Supposed “female empowerment” is now routinely used to defend everything from pornography to botox.
Male figures immortalised as statues tend not to be reduced to a naked, ken doll “everyman” stereotype. Had the Wollstonecraft statue have really depicted an “everywoman” then the figure at the top of the piece would be replete with stretch marks, sagging breasts and cellulite. A genuinely challenging piece might have broken convention and given her some clothes.
Mary Wollstonecraft critiqued the sexual politics of her era, and her analysis of reductive and stifling sex stereotypes holds today.
It is an insulting irony that Hambling has chosen to sculpt an archetype of femininity to adorn the piece, Wollstonecraft herself critiqued beauty as a “gilt cage” and “woman’s sceptre.” Indeed, looking at the pioneering women who preceded her she said: “[I]f we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.” It seems fair to state that this piece would not have met with Wollstonecraft’s approval.
The statue is akin to a metal barbie on the crest of an £143,000 turd
Tellingly, the pieces made by Hambling to honour male historical figures afford them the dignity of not having their danglies on show. Her tribute to Benjamin Britten is a four-metre-high scallop, whereas her piece A Conversation with Oscar Wilde shows the face and hands of the great man poking out of a sarcophagus with a cigarette. But here Mary Wollstonecraft is represented by a blank face, stripped of her achievements and made into a “stand-in” for all womankind. There is no obvious reference to the school she founded which is in the same square, nor to the body of her work.
Arguably, a far greater and bitter-sweet tribute to “everywoman” already exists in Whitehall in the form of John Mills’ “Memorial to the Women of World War II.” What is referenced is a void: the empty hanging uniforms of women who took on roles during the conflict, many of which they were barred from before.
Whilst it has been criticised for making women invisible, the sculpture makes the point that women were used when expedient and then pushed back into the role of “helpmeet” when men returned to the workforce. Interestingly given the male sex of the sculptor, the piece can be read as a powerful precursor to the malaise felt by many women in the post war years, what Betty Friedan referred to in The Feminine Mystique as “the problem that has no name.”
Hambling claims that her piece “encourages a visual conversation with the obstacles Wollstonecraft overcame.” But the sculpture makes no such point; one can’t help wondering whether the apparently “feminist” reading was added along with the silver-coloured coating, after the body of the piece was finished. Wollstonecraft was an extraordinary figure, and she deserves more than to see her remarkable achievements reduced to what might most accurately be described as an metal barbie riding the crest of a £143,000 turd.
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