by Sarah Ditum
Tuesday, 10
November 2020

What did Wollstonecraft do to deserve this?

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.

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.

Join the discussion

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

  • 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.

  • 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”.

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