Naked, nubile, covered in silver and standing on top of what one writer described as “a spume-like column which is undeniably a bit jizz-ish,” the mother of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, has at last been honoured with a statue.
The monument’s unveiling was met with a torrent criticism, with many pointing out that you never see a statue of a great man with his clothes off.
Except you do (there’s one of Wollstonecraft’s son-in-law in P B Shelley in Oxford). And that’s not what this statue shows anyway. Maggi Hambling’s effort is not a portrait of Wollstonecraft herself rudely stripped bare, it represents her ideas and her legacy. As the inscription on the base makes clear it’s ‘for Mary Wollstonecraft’, not ‘of’ Mary Wollstonecraft. The nude figure is meant to be an ‘everywoman’.
Whatever you think of the merits of this particular sculpture, it’s an interesting approach to the challenge of portraying someone who is long dead. In the Face of Britain Simon Schama characterises portraiture as a “the struggle to magic from the triangular collision of wills between sitter, artist and public the palpable presence of a remarkable Briton”. But when the ‘sitter’ is a historic figure, you end up with a duel between the artist’s interpretation of their subject and the public’s desire to see their values and ideals – both cultural and artistic – reflected in her.
In this case it’s an uneven fight, and Hambling’s vision has come out the loser. This is, in part, because statues are a sore point for women. Campaigner and author Caroline Criado Perez analysed Britain’s public statues in 2016 and found that male subjects outnumber women by 2.5 to 1. If you exclude royal women and allegorical figures, she found, you end up with just 25 statues of real women significant enough to be set in stone. Criado Perez has argued powerfully that a major driver of inequality is the fact that the world sees the default human as a man, and that greater visibility for women – whether that be in positions of power or represented in art – can help rebalance the scales.
She successfully campaigned for a statue of a woman in Parliament Square. The result was Gillian Wearing’s tribute to Millicent Fawcett, unveiled in 2018 to mark the centenary of women getting the vote. It’s a striking statue in its way, with Fawcett looking resolutely at the Houses of Parliament and holding up a banner that says “Courage calls to courage everywhere”.
But as a portrait it’s less successful that some of Wearing’s other work. The format is borrowed from Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say, the photo series that made her famous. She stood on a busy street in south London, asked passers by to write down what was on their mind, and then she photographed them. Famous images from the series include a black policeman holding up a sign saying simply: ‘HELP!’ and a man in a suit with a blank expression and a sign saying “I’m desperate“.
They make fascinating portraits because of the disconnect between how the subjects present themselves to the camera and the intimate thoughts they reveal in words. You feel you’re sharing a secret. With Fawcett there’s no ambiguity, she’s holding up a political slogan, not a private reflection.
What this statue really captures is an idea, not a person. By comparison the statue of Churchill just across from Fawcett is instantly, undeniably the man himself. In some ways the artist, Ivor Roberts-Jones had an easier job. Churchill’s statue was put up just eight years after his death. The stooped frame and bulldog face – so familiar from photographs and video footage – are coterminous in every British person’s imagination with the fortitude, humour and defiance he represents. Churchill’s physical presence and his ideas are indissoluble.
Faced with a subject about whose physical presence we have far fewer pre-conceptions, Wearing was left with just the ideas – and she wrote them on a banner.
The limitations of trying to re-create in sculpture the “palpable presence” of someone who’s been dead for hundreds of years is neatly illustrated by the alternative Wollstonecraft statue that was rejected in favour of Hambling’s. It’s a stodgy, porridgey thing with Wollstonecraft holding a pen and standing next to a pile of books, done in a similar broadly realist style to the Fawcett statue. It could be any woman from the 18th Century who happened to hold pens and like books.
Putting up more statues of women is a worthy goal but it would be a shame if they were all like this. We got an insight into what that would look like when people on Twitter who were upset by the Wollstonecraft statue started sharing pictures of female statues they felt met the required standard. Almost all were in the same clumpy mode, at times verging on the Soviet.
If political ideology is always allowed to win in the tug of war with an artist’s individual creativity, you end up with an orthodoxy just as bland and intolerant of difference as the male-dominated public realm we had before. On the other hand, if you give an artist like Hambling freedom to interpret a subject for herself you might not like what you get – but engaging with art, like any intellectual activity, shouldn’t be completely unchallenging.
I can see why some feminists are offended by the inclusion of a nude figure in a tribute to a person who fought to emancipate women from their sexuality – writing in A Vindication of the Right of Women, “Taught from their 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”. But I think there’s a degree of art historical illiteracy in these arguments.
For as long as there have been statues, the idealised naked male form has been used to encapsulate heroic, civic values. Take the Parthenon marbles in the British museum: whether they’re fighting centaurs or lounging about drinking, the men are pretty much always naked while the women are clothed. This was not meant as a feminist statement in the 5th century BC – in patriarchal, homoerotic, Ancient Greece.
Perhaps the apotheosis of the idealised male nude is Michaelangelo’s David. This colossal figure was originally intended to adorn the cathedral of Florence, but when it was completed in 1504 it so perfectly captured the triumphant spirit of the republic – then at its zenith – that it was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence’s equivalent of Parliament Square.
Statues say something about the society that puts them up, and for centuries male bodies have been put on pedestals to demonstrate their culture’s virility, power, spiritual purity, whatever you like. Female nudity on the other hand usually connotes vulnerability or sexual desirability – which, when filtered through a lascivious male gaze, is essentially the same thing. For example in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, a female rape victim is turning herself into a tree to escape her attacker – she is literally petrified.
Hambling is turning this tradition on its head: you can see echoes of Bernini’s writhing female flesh in the silver pedestal and David’s unabashed, muscular – and political – nakedness in the figure that tops it. Perhaps it’s a slightly tone-deaf evocation of Wollstonecraft’s ideas about women raising themselves above sexual objectivity and being the intellectual equal of men, but I think it’s clear that’s what the artist is trying to convey.
Feminists are passionate about how women are depicted because women’s bodies are contested terrain. So it’s understandable that this statue has upset people who do not think it represents their struggle, and the heroine who embodies it, in the way they would like. But that’s not quite how art works.
Political ideology shouldn’t trump an individual artist’s imagination: that’s a fast track to censorship. Instead of traducing Hambling and the campaigners who fought for ten years to get this work commissioned, lets have more statues for women, of women and by women.
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