[Written by Alice Millar Thompson (she/her)]
“As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be”
This troubling statement by Maggi Hambling, the artist behind the controversial sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green serves to widen the gulf between its inspiration and its execution. It undermines the feminist principles of the woman it is purported to commemorate. Unveiled on the 10th of November 2020, following a decade of fundraising and anticipation, the sculpture has become the source of much debate, particularly as it does not bear the likeness of Wollstonecraft. Instead, it comprises an idealised female figure emerging from what has been interpreted variously: a mass of nondescript organic tissue, a volcanic eruption, or the waves of a tempestuous ocean. Due to the nudity of the figure, it has been viewed as the most recent monument of the deeply ingrained objectification of the female form in art, instead of it being a symbol of empowerment and liberation.
While the presumptive and superficial nature of Hambling’s statement is troubling in itself, especially unnerving is its paradoxically regressive implication of a standard for feminine beauty. It stands in stark contrast to one of the best-known assertions from Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’: “Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison”. The emphasis placed on physicality in the sculpture is therefore misrepresentative of Wollstonecraft’s ideals to such an extent that it brings into question the sense of duty an artist may feel toward their subject and the public.
The outrage inspired by this particular sculpture is also due to its occupation of a public space. While galleries may be understood as spaces in which artists are free to engage in varied dialogues through transient exhibitions, public statues are held to a higher standard. They carry a sense of permanence; they are generally perceived as signifiers of the dominant beliefs held within a society. As the recent outcry against long-standing monuments of men complicit in racism (Edward Colston and his involvement in the slave trade being one notable example) has exemplified, public statues have the capacity to instil an atmosphere of oppression even in a contemporary setting. The events of the summer appear to have set a precedent for public response to statues deemed offensive. And shortly after the unveiling of Wollstonecraft’s sculpture, protestors covered the miniaturised nude with a t-shirt and placed cardboard placards expressing their dismay.
Also worth noting is the distortion of Wollstonecraft’s ideas through Hambling’s interpretation, which seeks to ‘modernise’ the inherently historical endeavour of commemoration. Arguments in favour of the sculpture – suggesting that the figure depicted is bound by neither time nor place – are valid but flawed, as the attempt to present an ‘everywoman’ figure homogenises the female body. The ideology that Wollstonecraft pioneered may be said to transcend individuals. The innumerable contributions of individual women throughout history have received little formal recognition, while bronze renderings of prominent men have dominated public spaces throughout the UK. Rather than providing the likeness of a prominent woman to stand amongst them, Hambling presents yet another nameless female form, which maintains the existing dynamic, while failing to directly affect change in terms of representation.
Following the addition of politician and suffragist Millicent Fawcett to the statues of Parliament Square, the prospect of immortalising the woman often referred to as “the mother of feminism” was considered a significant step toward equality of representation. It has been suggested that the figure is intended to be defiant. However, the diminished scale and literal objectification of the sculpted body which is inherent to the diminutive and sexualising mode of presenting the female form have resulted in critics dubbing it a ‘Barbie doll’. Moreover, attention has also been drawn to the inequality of representation in public art as eminent male figures are almost never represented nude. In fact, a recent instance in which nudity was employed to subvert the authority of an individual was seen in the temporary installation of satirical Donald Trump statues throughout the US in 2016. Aspects of Hambling’s conceptual ambition are admirable, and some have viewed the piece more positively – a welcome break from a staid tradition of representational public statues. Nonetheless, the use of blatantly hyper-sexualising abstraction in commemorative public art is far from ground-breaking, as previous executions have honoured individuals and groups in an apposite and respectful manner.
Despite the disappointment felt by many of those familiar with Wollstonecraft’s work, supporters of the sculpture have identified that the controversy surrounding its installation has introduced Wollstonecraft to many who were unaware of her significant role in the emergence of modern feminism. The largely negative response to the sculpture is said to have instigated an influx of donations toward the planned installation of Virginia Woolf’s statue, seated on a bench by the Thames, marking a further progression. Consequently, a greater public awareness of gender inequalities may be born from this initially disastrous misstep, as well as an increase in the level of engagement with the political aspects of the environment we inhabit.