Maggi Hambling’s sculpture in commemoration of Mary Wollstonecraft has sparked controversy for its depiction of the female form. The Newington Green sculpture, a decade of fundraising in the making, has been described by critics as insulting to the legacy of this coveted figure. Rather than depicting Wollstonecraft herself in full dress (as had been suggested by competing artist Martin Jennings) the sculpture centres around a nude female, supposedly representing the feminist liberation Wollstonecraft pioneered. Is there indeed something unnecessarily provocative about this statue which denigrates the profundity of her appeals? Or rather, does this backlash expose a society continually intolerant to the expression of the female form?
Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is widely heralded as a key founder of feminist philosophy. Her famous proclamation that ‘I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves’ is inscribed on the statue, epitomising her vision of female empowerment. Her 1792 work A Vindication of the Rights of Women was radical in its call for the education of women at a time when most were bound to domestic duty. Given that 90% of the capital’s statues commemorate men, it seems only fair that such a remarkable figure be celebrated in this way.
Many have expressed discontent that Wollstonecraft’s overdue recognition has come at such a price. Successful men are rarely depicted through nudity. Drawing on this comparison, writer Caitlin Moran considered the likelihood of Winston Churchill being memorialised in this way. Would Wollstonecraft herself have approved of the sculpture, or is Hambling simply appealing to the feminist polemic, creating controversy to generate attention?
And yet, there is something undeniably fitting about this image. Wollstonecraft has become embroiled in a scandal which mirrors that of her own day. Her personal life was subject to what we might now call a ‘trial by media’. For example, the elopement of her daughter Mary (author of Frankenstein) with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was attributed to the spectre of her late mother’s libertarianism. In this sense, the conversation created by Hambling’s sculpture is apt in the way it echoes the discursive nature of Wollstonecraft’s own intellectual circle. What is more, there is something almost classical about the sculpture, it is beautiful. Would protesters be satisfied had Hambling made the woman obese and wrinkled? Why must the female body, when fit or conventionally attractive, be denigrated as anti-feminist or even pornographic?
Hambling herself maintains critics of the statue have ‘missed the point’. The figure is not intended to represent Wollstonecraft directly, but rather the freedom of feminist thought. She says, ‘I hope the piece will act as a metaphor for the challenges women continue to face as we confront the world’.
Despite the controversy, there is something powerful in Hambling’s interpretation. To depict Wollstonecraft as she literally appeared would have been straightforward in a way totally uncharacteristic of her own philosophy. Rather than the classically sombre 18th century female, the sculpture captures Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary spirit. To present her as she was at the time would be to depict her as she was, unliberated. Using the nude female form, Hambling perhaps liberates her from the limitations of the era, crowning this remarkable woman in posthumous victory. In a society in which a statue of a literal slave-trader has only just been publicly condemned, engaging artwork about unappreciated historical figures should be celebrated. Rather than being caught in the prism of antiquity, the same progressive narrative should apply to these issues as we celebrate the contributions of this feminist icon.
Image courtesy of the Mary on the Green Website