Mary Wollstonecraft and Maggi Hambling – What is all the commotion?

Sometimes, there are pieces of art which just miss the mark so drastically, that they are not seen in the intention the artist meant. This came to mind yesterday while I was watching the news. We know that there are many artists that are misunderstood, which I think is fine if they are creating pieces which are not commissions, but when they are creating from public funding, it is a very fine line that they tread.

Maggi Hambling is certainly feeling this after the unveiling of her most recent sculpture which has been created in honour of Mary Wollstonecraft.

If you aren’t sure who Mary Wollstonecraft is, she has been dubbed as “the mother of feminism”. Born in 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Wollstonecraft’s family were initially comfortably off, but her father squandered their money and eventually used the money which was put aside for his children, leaving them near destitute. Her father was a violent man, who would drunken beat her mother, and Wollstonecraft took to sleeping outside of her mother’s bedroom door to protect her. In 1784, there was a defining moment for Wollstonecraft, who assisted her sister, who was suffering depression to leave her husband and infant. Wollstonecraft made all the arrangements for her sister, so that she could leave with ease, although this did condemn her sister of a life of hard work and poverty as she wouldn’t have been permitted to marry again. This is a turning point which indicates that Wollstonecraft was happy to challenge the social norms.

Wollstonecraft had many more defining moments, which you can easily read about on Wikipedia, but she wrote a book called “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792. In this book she detailed how women are not lesser beings to men, the only thing they suffer from is a lack of education. She argues that men and women are equals and should be treated as such in a social order built on the foundations of reason.

During her life, she put her theories to the test, by having sexual relations while not married, with George Imlay becoming an unmarried mother during the reign of terror in France. She later married William Godwin, and gave birth to her second daughter – Mary Shelley.

Wollstonecraft died 11 days after giving birth to Mary, as the placenta had broken away during the birth and she became infected with Childbed fever, a common and usually fatal ailment of the time. Wollstonecraft was 38 when she died, but she left a huge legacy for her two daughters to be bought up by, and set a path for women everywhere to strive for equality.

Over the years, feminism has become somewhat confused, and today, most women would not consider themselves a feminist, due to the negative connotations that come with the term. This is something that has been tainted by the extremists – which present feminism as man hating, bra burning activist who perhaps have lost their way of seeking equality, and make it more of an agenda to eradicate the patriarchy completely, rather than Wollstonecraft’s original thoughts of a society built on reason. This could potentially be why Maggi Hambling has misread the room and presented the world with a statue that has raised more than an eyebrow.

On Tuesday, 10th November 2020, Hambling’s sculpture was unveiled in Newington Green, North London. This was a long awaited event after a decade of campaigning to honour the woman who was forward in her social thinking.

The sculpture, shows a naked woman emerging from what has been described as a swirling organic matter which is supposed to represent elements of female forms. The woman, has short hair, and a toned, almost masculine physique. On the plinth it is inscribed with “For Mary Wollstonecraft 1759 – 1797” and one of her most famous quotes: –

“I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves”.

The piece has been sculpted from bronze and granite, and stands out in the park where it has been situated, but you would be forgiven for initially missing the women on top of the sculpture as she is so small in comparison to the rest of the sculpture.

The statue quickly gained criticism, for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones was the objectification of the woman, and how this looked nothing like Mary Wollstonecraft.

Hambling has explained that this statue has been made to represent every woman and not to be a depiction of Wollstonecraft. She is emerging from the organic matter, to represent that she remembers who has come before her, and the struggles they have suffered.

Now…this is all very nice, but what Hambling has really missed the mark on, is A) not everyone understands feminism and B) she has taken a political figure and reduced her to a nude, idealistic form.

When asked about the figure on the woman in the statue, Hambling responded saying that this was the figure that most women strive for… Urgh! First pothole hit. This has opened, what could have been a real achievement for feminism, to a world of criticism. By presenting this well toned female form, it simply doesn’t represent every woman, and more supports the image of women that we see in magazine, of having to be thin and perfectly presented. Where are the love handles? The stretch marks from having children? The differently sized breasts? It is all far too perfect to be a true representation of anyone, let alone women like me who have lumps and bumps and bits I am not so proud of.

There is also the sheer fact of presenting a sculpture for a feminist, as a naked women which seems to go against the whole principle of what it is for. People on twitter openly questioned the need for the naked statue, pointing out that you didn’t see male political figures naked in their representations (can you imagine, Churchill, naked?? It would simply never happen as it would be deemed disrespectful). This has started a wave of photos from around the world of sculptures of political female statues, where they have not been shown in their birthday suits, and their professional points have been depicted just fine. This then makes this statue, which has been long awaited, feel absurd in the face of what Wollstonecraft wants in just being equal with men. Surely the equality here would have been to represent her as other political figures have been represented, putting her on an even platform. Hambling has said to this that clothes would have restricted the women in the sculpture as she needs to be in the now.

What struck me, as I watched the section on the news about the statue, was how angry the person got who was being interviewed on what the statue was about, and it made me wonder if everyone sees the art work as misguided, how much do you argue the case that it isn’t, or do you just have to accept, you haven’t done a great thing? By now, if you are an avid reader of this site, you will know that I regularly say that the meaning of art can only really be determined by the person viewing it at that time. It doesn’t matter about the artist’s intentions, as an audience will alway see their own meaning. Therefore if a mass audience is telling you that this feels like it is going against the very nature of what the person stood for… at what point should you admit that perhaps you didn’t convey your vision to the best of your ability? The backlash has continued since the unveiling, some deciding to cover the statues modesty with a T-shirt with the definition of “woman” on it.

Hambling is mostly know as a painter, and for her sculpture called “A conversation with Oscar Wilde” which can be seen in London between Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross, and her take on the world through her art is somewhat abstract. You can see more of her work here, but this does push out the question of why was this artist chosen for this prolific personality, when so many would have an interest in the celebration of her wisdom in today’s society.

Personally, I feel that this is an oversight by an artist who thinks that everyone who views her work will see and feel her intentions in the piece. I do however, also feel that a statue of Wollstonecraft, would have been much more respectful and in keeping with understanding what she went through to practice what she preached.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie 1797

To see the statue and give you an indication on sizes, you can view this video, showing you just how small the woman on top is, in comparison to the rest of the piece.

What do you think of Hambling’s statue for Wollstonecraft? Do you think it is a triumph or a flop? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?

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