by Sarah Ditum
Tuesday, 10
November 2020
Reaction
17:27

What did Wollstonecraft do to deserve this?

Maggi Hambling's statue was not worth the 200-year wait
by Sarah Ditum
A gym-bodied piece of symbolism balanced on a silver plume

Statues are an index of what we consider important enough to fix in brass or stone, so it’s hardly surprising that women rarely make the cut. When Caroline Criado Perez broke down the numbers on the UK’s 925 public statues, back in 2016, she found that men outnumber women as subjects by about 2.5 to one, and nearly half the female figures are allegorical. An awful lot of them are naked.

Restrict the count to historical women, exclude the royal tributes (most of them to Queen Victoria), and you end up with a grand total of 25: 25 women declared worthy of the figurative treatment on the basis of their own works. Gosh.


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Since then, those numbers have inched up slightly. First, there was the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square — for which Criado Perez campaigned. And today, the unveiling of what is supposedly a tribute to the proto-feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. I say “supposedly” because, what has actually emerged is one of the most derided pieces of public art in some time.

Maggi Hambling’s work, explains The Guardian, “shows a silvery naked everywoman figure emerging free and defiantly from a swirling mingle of female forms”. I have so many questions, the first of which is: how can a “mingle of female forms” look so, well, phallic? The absurdly tiny nude (who is not a representation of Mary Wollstonecraft, so no need to wonder whether these perky tits are true to the writer’s historical rack) sits on top of a spume-like column which is undeniably a bit jizz-ish.

In what way is this a meaningful tribute to Wollstonecraft’s work? Why does “a mingle of female forms” become an “everywoman”, since they both just seem to be ways of showing femaleness as an undifferentiated mass? Couldn’t it have looked a bit less silly? The art is displeasing; the politics are worse. Wollstonecraft’s work inveighed against the “arbitrary power of beauty” and her culture’s insistent deformation of women into “artificial, weak characters”: what’s more artificial than a gym-bodied piece of symbolism balanced on a silver plume?

I would not argue against this statue’s existence; instead, I hope for a partner piece to redeem it. Imagine: a pudenda-esque form supporting a dinky allegorical man with perfect silver cock and balls, to honour Wollstonecraft’s fellow philosopher and husband William Godwin. It would be an absurd and revolting way to commemorate his intellectual labours, but at least you could call it equality.

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Andrew McIntosh
Andrew McIntosh
2 years ago

I’ve long thought the world needs less, not more public art. These days the game seems to be get attention, and nothing else. And there just seems to be so much of it these days. Statues, murals, “installations” – I wish they’d give it a rest.

Mary Wollenstonecraft deserves to be remembered, but if her legacy has been intact so far, before any statue to her memory, it probably doesn’t need such commemoration. People love their symbolism, though.

As for the statue in question – it just looks bad and makes no sense, to me. How would anyone know it’s associated with Wollenstonecraft if they weren’t told? Art that requires explanation is all well and good but shouldn’t public art, at least, be obvious? Something anyone can look at and and least go, “well, that’s a statue of someone, must have been important then”, and if they have to, read the plaque to go, “okay, Mary Wollenstonecraft, that’s who this is”.

This thing, though – you’d be staring at it for a while without coming to any conclusion one way or the other, and if you read the plaque you’d go, “yea? This is a tribute to Mary Wollenstonecraft? What, is that her on the top there? Did she always get about in the nuddy? Why is she so small? What’s this meant to be that she’s on top of anyway? Looks like spew or something”.

A Hogen
A Hogen
2 years ago

It’s as if nobody involved asked a very simple question, namely: “What would Mary Wollstonecraft think of this?”

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
2 years ago

The writer of the piece seems to fall into the same attention seeking over egging mode as the artist. I heard the artist on the Today program (not having seen a picture of the sculpture) my reaction was I confess very bad. Yet another pile of junk that needs breathless explanations to explain what it means. Having seen the result, as an artist I feel my reaction justified and at the same time hang my head and weep for all the outstanding artists who could produce infinitely better.
My view is very old fashioned. That is if a viewer of art has to ask what it means or what is it then the piece has done nothing to move the viewer. My example would be years ago I exhibited my work for exhibitions. Always I was asked for some explanation of my feelings , motivations etc. I refused, My painting stands on it’s own good or bad. They sold despite the galleries sniffy attitude. I gave up exhibiting.
I say when asked what do I paint. ‘I paint heads, or faces, or actually portraits’. What is the critical issue – ‘a likeness’ they sell, so something must be right. The most I add to any picture could in the case of a rare landscape is the location. I do not add a name to a portrait because the person who bought knows who they are.
Excuse my rant but I cringe at many works that are hyped beyond belief by art experts. ‘Experts’ now do not get me going. See it enjoy or move on. It’s your choice not some cracked up experts.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Gerry Fruin

I agree. Like most of the stuff in Tate Modern!

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Smith

My friend made a very perceptive comment about Tate Modern – he said he believed more good art came out of Bankside than went back in.

Siân Webster
Siân Webster
2 years ago

It doesn’t do anything for me – especially the silver finish. I’d rather have a good old-fashioned stone statue of Mary Wollstonecraft in her clothes.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  Siân Webster

I agree completely with this suggestion, but am now slightly concerned about which ‘thought sins” I (being male) may be judged to be guilty of … 🤔

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

I’m a big fan of Maggi Hambling, and love the scallop on Aldeburgh beach, but this is awful. As, to be honest, is her Oscar Wilde statue/memorial near Trafalgar Square (he appears to be struggling to get out of the bath or a coffin). I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy of Maggi’s representation of Mary Wollstonecraft’s boobs, Sarah seems to know. On her more general point about statues to women, she should go to any Catholic country, where she’ll find hundreds of dignified (and clothed) statues of another, greater Mary.

George Wheeler
George Wheeler
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Why greater?

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  George Wheeler

Well, whether you believe it or not, giving birth to the son of God is a greater claim to fame than living in Stoke Newington and writing a book about women

Paul Blakemore
Paul Blakemore
2 years ago

What a wasted opportunity. What a fugly statue. This is one monument I would be happy to see toppled.

JP Edwards
JP Edwards
2 years ago

Crotch area seems to have something akin to an odd looking ball bag!

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Edwards

Yes, very strange. I found a bigger picture and it seems to be a protruding ‘lady garden’!

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

There should not be a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft, surely her life and experiences are indicative of what a disaster her theories were.
It seems to be a statue specifically for feminists, so maybe they deserve this but the public don’t.
I have a lot of respect for Maggie Hambling though, she’s a great artist with a wicked sense of humour.

It would be good to have a statue celebrating the millions of silent women who loved and worked alongside their husbands, fathers and brothers throughout history, caring for their families, running their homes and businesses, ensuring the next generation was as strong and decent as they could make them.
But No, instead we’re supposed to idolise a distinctly odd intellectual who’s ideas were born out of her own personal frustrations. Forget it.

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Some very good points, Claire, particularly about the unsung heroines you mention.

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
2 years ago

And you may as well mention the unsung heros – all forgotten, no statues to them. The simple fact is that at the top of virtually every greasy pole you find a man. Some good, some not so good. But below them are millions and millions of men and women.

Assuming the population of the world is currently 7bn and there are an equal number of men and women, and assuming 10,000 of them will get a statue somewhere. If they are all men, then 3,500,000,000 women will not get a statue and 3,499,990,000 men won’t get one either … including me. It’s not so unfair really.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
2 years ago

Maggi Hambling wishes to be the female Francis Bacon. Fortunately god in his wisdom did not invest her with either the talent or the self-awareness.

Amanda Kay
Amanda Kay
2 years ago

My immediate reaction was that this ‘everywoman’, created ‘for Mary Wollstonecraft’ not ‘of Mary Wollstonecraft’ looks completely insignificant, perched as she is as a minute figure atop a mass of seeming nothingness. Perhaps that’s the subliminal message?

Whatever it is, I should imagine that the subject of its attention would be horrified that she was being offered the female form in this way, given her lifelong striving to bring some parity between the sexes. There certainly isn’t parity between the statues. And I wonder how long it will be before a revisionist will find some fault in MW’s writings/attitudes/ethics/philosophical ethos and the thing will be pulled down anyway.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
2 years ago

Anonymous naked lady on top of something. Recalls the Monty Python sketch about The Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things (view on YouTube).

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
2 years ago

What is arbitrary about the power of beauty?

If you ever watch television, you should notice that beautiful women and handsome (beautiful) men are in the majority.

There is certainly power in attractiveness, like it or lump it!

Neil Papadeli
Neil Papadeli
2 years ago

I’m confused. Statue of naked woman displaying power and confidence is derided because…? Aesthetically, it doesn’t do much for me (and surely bigger would have been better?), but it’s definitely thought provoking when seen with the quote “…power over themselves…” The irony of seeing it covered up by those who don’t like it is powerful and revealing.
Stick to your guns Maggi!

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
2 years ago
Reply to  Neil Papadeli

“Displaying power and confidence”? How, exactly? Someone has described it as a Barbie doll atop a kebab, which is rather more apt. Above all, it’s just ugly.

ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

‘Art is in the eye of the beholder’ Art has long been the forum for challenging the status quo. It is the Artist creative interpretation, which I feel people should respect even if some still wish to be stuck in the past with convention.
The interview on BBC News Night about this was very good for a change.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
2 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

Surprised to hear that anything on Newsnight was very good. Even more surprised to hear from anyone who actually still watches it

bob alob
bob alob
2 years ago

Not great but at least a little better than the ice cream on the 4th plinth in Trafalgar square.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  bob alob

Which has the virtue of being temporary

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
2 years ago

Ugh , first line in and already we have typical female bitching.

Maybe women should, oh I don’t know – actually do something worthy of commemoration rather than simply say, “I’m sad, find some bloke to make a statue of US (by which I mean ME) because women (I’m) special too!”

Here Sarah Ditum, stop being a “a feminist columnist, critic and feature writer” and actually DO SOMETHING worth being remembered for.

carolstaines8
carolstaines8
2 years ago

This piece of work says more about what goes on in Maggie Hambling’s mind than what Mary Wollstonecraft thought.