Mary Wollstonecraft: The Mother of Feminism and Her Naked Statue
This year has not been a great one for statues and sculptures, with controversy sparking the removal and tearing down of many earlier this year during Black Lives Matter protests.
Similarly, other statues have been condemned for the ways in which certain people have been represented. Luciano Garbati’s ‘Medusa’ in particular has been slated for the depiction of a nude Medusa carrying the head of the Greek hero Perseus in response to the #MeToo movement. Needless to say, many women weren’t too thrilled by the insistence on nudity.
The most recent addition to the line-up of controversial craftsmanship is Maggi Hambling’s sculpture dedicated to the 18th century feminist and radical, Mary Wollstonecraft. Making its debut in Newington Green, Islington earlier this month, it has only seemed to garner criticism and disappointment from its viewers.
The sculpture was part of a campaign called “Mary on the Green”, led by writer and journalist Bee Rowlatt. The purpose of the campaign was to bring more attention to Mary Wollstonecraft’s work and activism, using the sculpture to highlight not only her role in the development of modern feminism but also the lack of representation of women in UK public monuments.
The design for the sculpture was selected in May 2018, with Hambling’s design remaining in the public domain for viewing since then.
Hambling has previously created sculptures for public spaces, including ‘A Conversation with Oscar Wilde’ in 1998 and ‘Scallop’ (dedicated to Benjamin Britten) in 2003. Both works are known for taking an experimental approach to the public monument, inspiring criticism and controversy amongst the public.
‘A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft’ appears to be no different. As you can see from the picture, the silver sculpture is made up of a swirling abstract form with a small naked woman emerging from the top. On the base of the sculpture is a quote from Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”
It’s not quite the memorial piece that you had in mind, is it?
But Who Was Mary Wollstonecraft?
While being responsible for laying down some of the groundwork for modern feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft isn’t very widely known amongst the general public. Her legacy is said to have been largely buried by male writers and academics.
Despite not receiving a formal education, Wollstonecraft was determined to educate herself and other girls throughout her lifetime. At the age of 25, she opened a girls’ boarding school to better educate young women (the location of which was near the site of the current statue).
Wollstonecraft was also well-known amongst other radicals and critical thinkers of the day, running in the same social circles as the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Joseph Priestly.
However, what Wollstonecraft was most well-know for was her written work, more specifically her book titled ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, which set out a social order where women and men were of equal standing. In much of her writing, Wollstonecraft set out to emphasise the fact that women were not inferior to men, but rather were limited by the expectations and constraints of the society they lived in – the lack of education available to women was a key argument in demonstrating this.
Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to her second child in 1797, at the age of 38. Her daughter, Mary Shelley, would continue her legacy by becoming one of the most well-known authors in modern history.
Why People Hate the Statue
Most criticisms seem to centre around the same few points: likeness, nudity, and the concept of the everywoman.
Rather than follow the tradition of creating a sculpture in the likeness of the person being honoured, Hambling instead chose to create a visualisation of Wollstonecraft’s work and ideas. As such, the sculpture is meant to represent a strong female figure (or as Hambling indicates, an ‘everywoman’) rising from a mass of chaotic forms, standing proud and staring hard into the face of adversity.
Nevertheless, this was one of the first aspects of the artwork which sparked criticism, as many continued to take the naked figure at the top of the sculpture to be Wollstonecraft – and a very naked Wollstonecraft at that.
To reiterate, it is NOT meant to be a likeness of Mary. No one was trying to make a naked sculpture of a woman from over two hundred years ago.
But regardless of whether people recognised the sculpture to be a direct representation of Wollstonecraft or not, many saw the sculpture as an offensive representation of women that focused on the use of the female body as an object for entertainment and viewing pleasure. This interpretation has been connected to the tradition of how the female body has been objectified throughout history for the pleasure of male viewers.
Journalist Mona Eltahawy built upon this debate on Twitter, writing:
In her article for The Guardian, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett also expressed dissatisfaction with Hambling’s creation:
The issue of the nude body coincides with another point of debate with the sculpture; that of the ‘everywoman’. A description of the sculpture on the Mary on the Green website emphasises the fact that the figure is not Wollstonecraft, but rather “an everywoman, [who] emerges out of organic matter, almost like a birth.”
According to the Collins and Oxford dictionaries, an ‘everywoman’ refers to women in general, but more specifically means “an ordinary or typical woman”. Now while this can refer to the experience and character of women, it can also loosely be interpreted in terms of physical appearance.
Consequently, many took issue with the fact that the “perky, slender, sleek as a Gillette Venus model” nude figure at the top of the sculpture was meant to represent every woman.
Many were quick to point out that the depiction of a thinner model explicitly undermines the campaign’s aim of representing every woman.
Indeed, why try to represent all women with a slim naked woman? Especially when mainstream media is trying to diversify their means of representation and address criticisms of this stereotype?
In her article for The Telegraph, Laura Freeman likened the sculpture to a Barbie doll emerging from a birthday cake, using the stereotypical aspects of female beauty to try and underscore the triumphs of women. When put like this, Hambling’s design does come across as somewhat superficial – or at least only partially thought through.
Cosslett’s article reiterates this sentiment, stating how the sculpture promotes:
By referencing a visual language created by male artists (i.e. tits out = ideal beauty), Hambling seems to have unwittingly fallen into the trap of facilitating the male gaze. No matter how many pubic hairs she attaches to her sculpture, the male-dominated conventions of the nude are still apparent in Hambling’s work.
The Nude in Art: The Male Gaze vs Feminism
Many famous paintings and sculptures depicting nude women stem from a narrative created by men for male viewing. Women, despite being the subject matter, were not involved in the conversation created by the artwork.
Unlike modern day art-viewing, it was often considered too scandalous for women to view certain artworks. While mostly prevalent in American traditions of viewing, there are also instances in Europe where men and women were encouraged to view artworks separately or in private. As such, subjects such as the female nude became dominated by male discussion. The female nude could be written off as ideal, suggestive, or vulgar by men and men alone.
An example of persevering male narratives concerning the depiction of women is that of Venus. As the Roman goddess of love and beauty, most artistic depictions of Venus have been used to highlight what the ideal woman might look like at the time.
Despite having roots in Classicism, the tradition of the female nude is still upheld today in both training and product. Many male artists have jumped at the chance to create their own Venus, projecting onto her nude body all the beauty and femininity they wanted their ideal woman to have.
Whether slender, petite, curvaceous or tall, the image of nude woman has been used as an objective measure for female and artistic beauty – whether or not most women agree.
Throughout history women have had much fewer opportunities to both train and be recognised as great artists. While you could probably name several male artists without thinking too hard, it should not surprise you that many people find it harder to list female artists – even more so female artists who worked before the 20th century.
Nevertheless, many female artists in recent decades have used their work to highlight criticisms and reclaim the female body, either by subverting the traditional narrative of the nude or covering it up entirely.
Maggi Hambling’s dedication to Mary Wollstonecraft may be seen to fall into the former category, as she highlights her ideas for the sculpture below:
Now while her sculpture has been shown to accidentally highlight the faults of trying to create an everywoman, her narrative of the sculpture sounds more like she was trying to focus on the abstract concept of the everywoman as opposed to simply a figurative representation. However, by using a nude model which plays to conventional beauty ideals, Hambling arguably subverts the image of freedom and instead perpetuates a visual language associated with the male gaze.
Nude Yes or Nude No?
While Hambling’s design won’t be everyone’s favourite, it has definitely caught the public’s attention more than any other stuffy statue might do.
The Mary on the Green website emphasises that the purpose of the sculpture was not only to celebrate Wollstonecraft’s life and work, but to also diversify London’s monuments. Hambling’s sculpture arguably ticks the boxes on this front, presenting an artwork with the intention of celebrating women and differentiating them from men with the very image they had objectified for hundreds of years.
It is an artwork for women by a woman (and chosen by a board of women), and while many have argued that it facilitates the male gaze, the main voice that has been heard throughout the whole debate has been that of women.
An alternative design for the Wollstonecraft monument, which did feature a likeness of Wollstonecraft in a traditional style, was submitted for the campaign. However, Hambling’s design was chosen largely because it deviated from this specific artistic convention – one which was rigidly engrained in male craftsmanship and design. Rather than look the same as traditional male statues, the committee responsible for choosing the statue wanted something that turned the current trend on its head – a sentiment which they believed mirrored the very woman it would commemorate.
Hambling, despite her controversial use of the nude, can be seen to go beyond the ‘Victorian traditions’ Rowlatt emphasises. By creating something that people would view as inflammatory or controversial, surely the artist has achieved the brief of making sure that Wollstonecraft would continue to be remembered in the public sphere?
And what better way to be remembered than through debate?
The online battles that have taken place since the unveiling of the statue have arguably caused more people in the general public than ever before to look up Mary Wollstonecraft and her work. Ironically, the worries that Wollstonecraft will be erased from history have somewhat been eased.
I certainly didn’t know who Mary Wollstoncraft was before, but I definitely do now- and I can’t say that I’m upset by this outcome of Hambling’s sculpture.
What do you think of the sculpture? Leave a comment below!
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