The recent unveiling of a sculpture to women’s rights campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) has led to a wave of criticism.
On a black plinth stands a vertical silver-colour metal sculpture that includes a nude female figure. The piece does not describe the features of Wollstonecraft; instead it references the struggle to have women recognised as legally and morally equal to men by placing the female statuette atop a swirling wave of semi-abstract forms that contain elements of women’s bodies. It is situated on Newington Green, London and was unveiled this week.
The artist who made the sculpture (titled For Mary Wollstonecraft) is Maggi Hambling CBE, one Britain’s best-known figurative artists. She has undertaken public sculpture commissions before, including sculptures commemorating Benjamin Britten (on the beach at Aldeburgh) and the reclining figure of Oscar Wilde outside Charing Cross station. She has been a figure painter for over forty years and received worldwide recognition.
Nudity is a staple of feminist art
The most prominent critics of her sculpture are women – or at least the people journalists have asked for comment are women. Most of the negative comments focus on the nudity, claiming that it embodies social double standards for men and women. One female novelist commented that, “You don’t see a lot of statues commemorating male political figures without their pants on,” rather overlooking Canova’s nude Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1802-6), housed in Apsley House. She might also have forgotten Jacques-Louis David’s martyred Marat, lying in his bath. (Admittedly, a painting rather than a statue.) Political figures are not generally shown nude but Picasso’s initial ideas to commemorate Stalin was as a heroic nude and Rodin created the first version his famous Balzac statue as a nude.
Other attacks on the memorial came from feminist campaigners, including Caroline Criado Perez, who wrote “This feels disrespectful to Wollstonecraft herself.”. Criado Perez advocated for the recently erected statue of Millicent Fawcett. The Fawcett and Wollstonecraft commissions were the result of an attempt to reshape culture according to quotas – a grim prospect for anyone who believes that subjects and commemorations should both be determined by merit rather than statistical targets.
The motivation for erection of these statues is political, thus it is expected by activists that resultant sculptures amplify the ascendancy of feminism and scorn traditional gender roles. The Fawcett statue – utterly cheerless, leaden and without any redeeming qualities as art – conforms. Hambling’s sculpture does not.
This controversy is not a debate about aesthetics; it is an attempt by activists to determine what is proper for public art. The truth is that if the criticisms of For Mary Wollstonecraft were aesthetic then they would pass below the radar – in fact, they would never even make the newspapers or websites. What really provokes ire is the fact Hambling’s sculpture does not function as a political tool.
One of the core practices of feminist artists has been to depict themselves and other women in the nude. Feminists have cited nude figures of Sheela-na-gig and prehistoric Earth mothers as examples of primeval matriarchies. From Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann to Catherine Opie, nudity is a staple of feminist art.
A central tenet of feminism is to challenge the supposed “male gaze” by appropriating the female body as a subject for the female artist. Women artists depicting the female nude is something of a staple in art but recently it has hit a wave of sex-negative feminism. Women artists are now scrutinised closely by feminist gatekeepers who check their sisterhood credentials. Perceived disloyalty to the cause results in excommunication.
If we allow internet headlines to extend cancel culture into public art then we set a terrible precedent
In response to criticism, Hambling has pointed out that it is a tribute to Wollstonecraft rather than an image of her. It is a generalised evocation rather than a literal portrait. If anyone has earned the right to exercise the liberty of self-expression in the form of the female nude, it is Hambling. She established herself as a painter of the figure when Pop art, Minimalism and Photorealism were dominant trends in art. Her resistance to fashion gives her commitment to deriving art from the human form a degree of integrity that her critics overlook.
This criticism is an extension of the intolerance of the BLM/anti-colonialism activism that has left lasting scars on our public spaces. If we allow internet headlines – designed to detain readers momentarily before slipping into rightful oblivion – to extend cancel culture into public art and the fabric of our culture then we set a terrible precedent.
We would see the insatiability of social media endlessly consume targets nominated by professional malcontents, cynical grifters and lazy journalists. Several thousand virtue-signallers on Twitter, keen for their fix of righteousness, would turn our heritage into a spectacle of daily destruction and humiliation, incentivised by micro-hits of dopamine. It would leave commissioning bodies and artists slavish followers of political fashion – which is exactly what lobbyists intend.
Feminists have a choice: enforce collectivist loyalty through fierce policing or allow women the opportunity to be apolitical and even dissent.
Hambling is like Wollstonecraft – a strong-minded, independent woman who has taken considerable public criticism over many years. Whether or not Hambling’s statue is good, feminists should perhaps reflect on her character and achievements and recognise the price she has paid to be exactly what they claim to esteem: a bloody-minded woman with serious ideas.
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