“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.” ― Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
In 2019, after a decade of fundraising, the ‘Mary on the Green‘ campaign announced that it had raised the necessary funds to create the world’s first memorial dedicated to feminist icon, Mary Wollstonecraft. On the 10th November 2020, the much-anticipated statue of this pioneering advocate for women’s rights was unveiled in Newington Green, north London. And wow… to say it’s disappointing would be an understatement.
First and foremost, why is the sculpture naked? I am not opposed to nude sculptures; give me a Rodin any day. But within the context of what Wollstonecraft advocated for, the nude aspect is unnecessary and paradoxical. Throughout history, women have been defined and judged by their looks, their bodies, their appearance and it’s sad that objectification is still being utilised as a selling point.
The artwork has been described by creator Maggi Hambling as a depiction of ‘everywoman’. So essentially it is an idealised image of what a woman ‘should’ look like. Petite, pretty, perfectly defined and unrealistic. What is the point in encouraging movements for body positivity, self-acceptance and diversity if even memorials dedicated to women from the 18th century are depicted through imagery of the ‘ideal body’? In a statement released after the unveiling Hambling said “As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be”. *Insert eye roll emoji x100*.
Which leads me on to my second point: identity. The Artist says the sculpture is a representation ‘for’ Wollstonecraft not ‘of’ her. The lack of Mary Wollstonecraft’s identity in a statue that should be commemorating her is disrespectful to say the least. It’s taken 200 years for a memorial to be dedicated to her and it she isn’t even featured! In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary argues that “…men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment” (pg 10). The irony that her memorial’s focal point is an unidentifiable representation of ‘everywoman’ rather than being a recognisable depiction of a woman who actually lived, is infuriating. The other shortlisted idea, designed by Martin Jennings was to be a life-sized, fully clothed representation of Wollstonecraft, quill in hand, leaning on a pile of books. Though seemingly unoriginal, surely this concept is more appropriate and contextual than what was chosen?
Research shows that ‘90% of statues in London celebrate men… This is set against a population of 51% women‘ (a disappointing but sadly unsurprising fact). I know this is tough but just take a minute to think about how many of them statues of men – the politicians, world leaders, poets, royals, artists, admirals – are depicted naked? Oh, that’s right NONE! Not one. Because the idea that men’s work, and contributions would be celebrated through a nude statue, would never be an option. Can you imagine an unclothed figure of Churchill gracing Parliament Square? Or Charles with his Dick(ens) out in Bloomsbury? Or a Grecian style sculpture of Lord Nelson with his abs and penis out for the world to see in Trafalgar Square? Not a chance (thankfully)! But there’s a reason that people thought it was acceptable for a statue celebrating a pioneering woman. And it’s a little thing I like to call sexism.
Now to my next point, why is the sculpture so small? Heralded as the ‘mother of feminism’, Wollstonecraft is today regarded as one of the founding philosophers whose works have influenced feminism for centuries. Her impact was huge so why is the sculpture the opposite? In my head I was envisioning something that was at least life-sized, much like the one commemorating Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. Compared to sculptures celebrating Nelson Mandela, Isaac Newton and The Duke of Wellington, the teeny-tiny sculpture just doesn’t measure up.
When I found out the sculpture would be designed by a woman artist, I was really excited. When I found out the artist was Maggi Hambling, my excitement quickly dissipated. I’m aware that being controversial is part of Hambling’s appeal and I’m 100% here for women who are outspoken and challenging (I like to think I am one). But I do find it disappointing that artists, who have been outwardly offensive, can still be held in such high regard in the art world. In 2014, whilst speaking to Fine Art students at the University of Suffolk, Hambling stated, (in reference to the film 12 Years a Slave), “In the end I didn’t care about the fucking slaves… anyway I think slaves would be very handy, I wouldn’t mind a few”. After public criticism, Hambling responded by saying “I am very upset that my comments, intended as jokes, were misconstrued as racist”. In the UK, we are inundated with talented, open-minded and creative women artists who could have been commissioned to create this important piece of artwork.
It’s taken 200 years for a memorial of Wollstonecraft to become a reality and she has been reduced to this. As annoyed as I am about it, I’m mostly disappointed. Firstly, for the ‘Mary on the Green’ campaigners, donors and volunteers who fought so hard to get a memorial commissioned. I fully support your good intentions and I am in awe of your commitment, fundraising and fight for better representation – you’re the real stars of this project and I’m sorry that many aren’t as enthused by the end result as you’d hoped. I’m disappointed for Martin Jennings, whose brilliant shortlisted idea was beaten by an abstract, contemporary piece that I feel, absolutely misses the mark. And finally, I’m disappointed for the young women and girls who will see this as one of a handful of women memorialised in London. It sends the message that despite having great ideas and influence, your impact on the world can be defined by a tiny, unidentifiable, naked, tacky silver sculpture.
2020 really is the gift that keeps on giving.